The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010

The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010

The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010

The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010


Some blame the violence and unrest in the Muslim world on Islam itself, arguing that the religion and its history is inherently bloody. Others blame the United States, arguing that American attempts to spread democracy by force have destabilized the region, and that these efforts are somehow radical or unique. Challenging these views, The Clash of Ideas in World Politics reveals how the Muslim world is in the throes of an ideological struggle that extends far beyond the Middle East, and how struggles like it have been a recurring feature of international relations since the dawn of the modern European state.

John Owen examines more than two hundred cases of forcible regime promotion over the past five centuries, offering the first systematic study of this common state practice. He looks at conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism between 1520 and the 1680s; republicanism and monarchy between 1770 and 1850; and communism, fascism, and liberal democracy from 1917 until the late 1980s. He shows how regime promotion can follow regime unrest in the eventual target state or a war involving a great power, and how this can provoke elites across states to polarize according to ideology. Owen traces how conflicts arise and ultimately fade as one ideology wins favor with more elites in more countries, and he demonstrates how the struggle between secularism and Islamism in Muslim countries today reflects broader transnational trends in world history.


We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion:
The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on
the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace
in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.

—George W. Bush, January 2005

“REGIME CHANGE”: THE UNGAINLY PHRASE was once a technical neologism used by social scientists to signify the alteration of a country’s fundamental political institutions. Now, around the world, it is a political term, and a polarizing one. For the verb “change” has come to imply the coercion of outside powers. Regime change requires a regime changer, and in Afghanistan and Iraq the changer-in-chief has been the United States.

America’s costly efforts to democratize these countries have continued under the presidency of Barack Obama, but President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address remains the most striking effort to frame and justify America as regime changer. Bush’s critics, of course, were not impressed by the speech. The Iraq regime change in particular was not going well and seemed destined to end badly. The critics were legion, but they were not united. Some, the realists, thought Bush’s policy of promoting democracy by force to be radical and moralistic, innocent of the essential nature of international relations, bound to bring on disaster. It can never be the case that America’s “deepest beliefs” and “vital interests” are the same. A fundamental realist tenet is that states must always trade off some measure of their values for the sake of the national interest. Bush was departing dangerously from established prudent statecraft. He not only talked in idealistic language, he believed and acted upon it.

Setting aside, for the moment, the merits of these U.S-led wars—and there is much to criticize about each—are the realists correct? Are these wars really so extraordinary? Do states only rarely use force to try replace other states’ domestic regimes? Figure 1.1 suggests otherwise.

The figure depicts the frequency by decade of uses of force by one state to alter or preserve the domestic regime of another state over the past . . .

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