Blogs > Liberty and Power > IRAQ'S MEJI RESTORATION?

Dec 31, 2003 3:14 pm


Over at Cliopatria, Jonathan Dresner draws a hopeful comparison between Japanese modernization in the nineteenth century and the current nation and democracy building effort in Iraq.

Although Professor Dresner knows far more than I do about East Asia history, I am dubious about the usefulness of this comparison. Japan had tremendous advantages over Iraq in the nation building process.

Most importantly, it had the starting point of an ethnically/culturally homogeneous society. Despite internal clan and political divisions, the Japanese people had a strong and centuries-long common sense of nationhood. Iraq, by contrast, is a multi-ethnic/multi-religious artificial entity which was cobbled together in the twentieth century by the British. It is Bosnia writ large and, like Bosnia, probably cannot survive on its own as a unified democracy.

Although it too is a long shot, partition probably represents the best hope for freedom and peace in Iraq. Unfortunately, the U.S. state department can always be depended on to oppose such a solution (much as it did in the 1990s for Bosnia). The bloody demonstrations yesterday in Kirkuk between Turkmen, Sunnis, and Kurds do not bode well for those who wish to “build” a unified and democratic Iraq.

Finally, despite Commodore Perry and other foreign pressure, Japanese modernization was ultimately an indigenous process. Thus far, Iraqi modernization/democratization is a foreign imposed affair. As a result, Iraqi modernizers and democratizers, in contrast to the Japanese in the Meji period, are more likely to be tainted among their own people as lackeys of foreign imperialists.

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Jonathan Dresner - 12/31/2003

Prof. Beito,

You're right about the historical differences with Iraq, but I actually wasn't comparing Iraq to Japan, but rather comparing the entire Arab world to pre-Meiji Japan. I've long been an advocate of some kind of federal system in Iraq that recognizes real autonomy for the major groups while protecting minority rights ( I'm actually more nervous than hopeful....

I'm not entirely sure that describing Japanese modernization as "indigenous" quite captures the dynamic, either. Yes, Japanese were in charge. But they were borrowing technology from outside, importing foreign experts until their own people could come back from study overseas, and the whole exercise was driven by the fear that Japan might be colonized in the manner of China, India or Africa.

And we can debate forever the question of Japan's pre-modern national identity: I think it was very weak, but the elements which eventually became a strong nationalism were mostly present.