Aftershocks: Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century

Aftershocks: Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century

by Seva Gunitsky

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Over the past century, democracy spread around the world in turbulent bursts of change, sweeping across national borders in dramatic cascades of revolution and reform. Aftershocks offers a new global-oriented explanation for this wavelike spread and retreat—not only of democracy but also of its twentieth-century rivals, fascism and communism.

Seva Gunitsky argues that waves of regime change are driven by the aftermath of cataclysmic disruptions to the international system. These hegemonic shocks, marked by the sudden rise and fall of great powers, have been essential and often-neglected drivers of domestic transformations. Though rare and fleeting, they not only repeatedly alter the global hierarchy of powerful states but also create unique and powerful opportunities for sweeping national reforms—by triggering military impositions, swiftly changing the incentives of domestic actors, or transforming the basis of political legitimacy itself. As a result, the evolution of modern regimes cannot be fully understood without examining the consequences of clashes between great powers, which repeatedly—and often unsuccessfully—sought to cajole, inspire, and intimidate other states into joining their camps.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172347
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/28/2017
Series: Princeton Studies in International History and Politics , #154
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Seva Gunitsky is assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

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Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century

By Seva Gunitsky


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8532-9




The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.


The twentieth century was shocking in its volatility. It witnessed the greatest creation of wealth in human history, and the subjugation of millions into unimaginable misery. According to the calculations of some economists, if we take life in the bleak sixteenth century as the baseline level of 100, during the twentieth century the Earth's average standard of living rose from 700 to 6,500 — the sharpest increase ever recorded, by far. During the very same period, the number of people who perished from war, genocide, and other forms of politically organized carnage totaled between 160 and 200 million people — making it the bloodiest chapter on record. The paradoxical, Janus-faced nature of modern life has been defined by peace and bloodshed, abundance and famine, progress and barbarity all coexisting within the same brief span of civilized existence.

It is only appropriate, then, that the evolution of domestic institutions in the twentieth century has also been exceptionally volatile. Since the end of World War I, the expansion of democracy around the world has been driven by democratic waves — turbulent bursts of regime change that quickly sweep across national borders (see figure 1.1). Moments of dramatic upheaval, not steady and gradual change, have been the hallmark of democratic evolution. Nor is this pattern of fits and starts limited to democracy: both fascism in the late interwar period and communism after World War II expanded through abrupt cross-border surges that quickly transformed the global institutional landscape (see figure 1.2).

Why does democratization occur in waves that cluster in space and time? And what does the looming persistence of these institutional waves, both democratic and nondemocratic, tell us about the nature of domestic reforms in the twentieth century? After all, a number of powerful theories have been put forward to explain the causes of democratization. Many of these, however, focus on some element of the country's internal environment that can help or hinder reforms — economic development, class relations, or civil society, to name just a few. These domestic explanations cannot tell us much about waves of regime change, which by definition defy and transcend national influences. Understanding the sources of these waves requires stepping outside the state and focusing on the international system as a whole.

In this book I offer an explanation for the timing, intensity, and content of regime waves during the twentieth century. My central argument is that abrupt hegemonic shocks — moments of sudden rise and decline of great powers — act as powerful catalysts for cross-border bursts of domestic reform. These intense geopolitical disruptions not only alter the global hierarchy of leading states but also shape the wave-like spread and retreat of democracy and its rivals. As a result, the volatile evolution of domestic regimes during the twentieth century has been closely linked to sudden tectonic shifts in the structure of global power.

The relationship between the international and the domestic is often obscured by the vivid particularities of local transformations — the despised tyrant, the crowds in public squares, the seemingly unique social forces and historical contingencies that shape each country's institutional trajectory. But as I show throughout the book, the aftermath of hegemonic shocks creates powerful incentives for domestic reform even in countries that have little to do with the great powers themselves. The case studies, focusing on the four hegemonic shocks of the twentieth century, explore periods of domestic change that were deeply embedded in larger international shifts and in fact could not have occurred without them. While rare and fleeting, hegemonic shocks have left a lasting footprint on the path of modern institutional development.

Though each regime wave was unique, its broad contours were shaped by predictable material and social changes in the global order forged by the hegemonic transition. Namely, there are three recurring mechanisms that connect shocks to waves — hegemonic coercion, inducement, and emulation.

First, hegemonic shocks produce windows of opportunity for regime imposition by temporarily lowering the costs and raising the legitimacy of foreign occupations. The communist wave in Eastern Europe, for example, was made possible by the Soviet Union's victory in the Second World War and its postwar ascent to superpower status. In fact, great powers act very differently in the immediate wake of hegemonic shocks — they become much more likely to intervene in other states, and when they do so they are much more likely to impose their own regime than in periods of "normal" politics. The outcomes of foreign interventions are therefore contingent on the effects of hegemonic shocks in a way that studies of regime imposition have not yet fully appreciated.

Second, hegemonic shocks enable rising great powers to quickly expand their networks of trade and patronage, exogenously shifting the institutional preferences of many domestic actors and coalitions at once. In this way, rising powers are able to shape the regimes of other states by swiftly altering the incentives and opportunities for the adoption of particular domestic institutions. Inducement therefore operates through a variety of measures that allow great powers to alter the costs and benefits of institutional reforms. Such inducements can be quite direct, taking the form of sanctions and foreign aid, technical assistance, military exchanges, or diplomatic support. Others are more subtle, operating through the rules of new international institutions created by hegemons, through policies that indirectly empower particular domestic groups, or even through cultural propaganda campaigns. While hegemons continuously seek ways to shape the incentives of weaker peers, their ability to do so rises dramatically after hegemonic transitions in which they emerge triumphant. By contrast, countries that suffer a sudden decline will be diminished in their capacity to exercise influence beyond their borders. The Soviet collapse, for example, disrupted patronage networks throughout Africa in the early 1990s, undermining the basis of stable rule for many of the continent's despots.

Third, hegemonic shocks inspire emulation by credibly revealing hidden information about relative regime effectiveness to foreign audiences. By producing clear losers and winners, shocks legitimize certain regimes and make them more attractive to would-be imitators. Material success, in these cases, often creates its own legitimacy: regimes become morally appealing simply by virtue of their triumph in a tense struggle. By contrast, hegemons whose fortunes suddenly decline will find their regimes discredited and abandoned by former followers or sympathizers. Success is contagious, in other words, but only failure demands inoculation.

The interaction of coercion, inducement, and emulation produces powerful waves of regime change in the wake of hegemonic shocks (see figure 1.3). And since hegemonic competition is a game of relative gains and losses, the rise in the status of one great power is necessarily accompanied by the decline of another. In the wake of shocks, rising hegemons are able to impose their regimes on others through brute force, to influence the institutional choices of these states more indirectly through patronage and trade, or to simply sit back and watch the imitators climb onto the bandwagon. The declining hegemons, meanwhile, face an equally powerful but countervailing set of forces: their capacity to coerce erodes, their ability to influence others through various levers of economic and political inducement declines, and the legitimacy of their regime as a model for emulation evaporates, revealed to be inadequate under duress.

But explaining the sources of waves does not tell us the full story. As figure 1.1 shows, every democratic cascade has also been defined by some degree of failure after an initial burst of success. This failure can be total, as in the short-lived wave after World War I, or partial but persistent, as in the African wave following the Soviet collapse. If my first question engages the causes of waves, the second focuses on the sources of reversals that follow democratic waves. Why do democratic transitions associated with waves so often roll back, leading to failed regime consolidation and autocratic reassertion? Put simply, why do the waves crest and collapse?

The two questions are in fact linked. The democratic failures that follow waves stem from the very same forces that create waves in the first place. Hegemonic shocks create extremely powerful but temporary incentives for democratization. In the short term, a wide variety of states experience immense pressures to democratize, and these pressures can override the domestic constraints that hinder reforms in times of normal politics. Countries with strained class relations, ethnic tensions, low levels of economic development, and no history of democracy suddenly find themselves swept up in the euphoric momentum of the democratic wave. This can help explain the puzzling finding that while democratic consolidations require a few well-established prerequisites, democratic transitions can occur at all levels of development.

In their initial intensity, hegemonic shocks create episodes of "democratic overstretch" — the regime version of a stock market bubble, in which systemic pressures create an artificially inflated number of transitions. The strong but vaporous pressures that allow the wave to spread also ensure that at least some of these transitions take place in countries that lack domestic conditions needed to sustain and consolidate democracy. As the pressures of the shock pass and the difficult process of democratic consolidation moves forward, domestic constraints reassert themselves and contribute to failed consolidation. Democratization that takes place during a wave is therefore systematically more fragile than democratization driven purely by domestic forces.

* * *

While shocks enable rising powers to build new global orders, this process rarely attains the clear-eyed neatness of purpose implied in the term. The "building" of orders is rarely strategic or even conscious; it is often unintentional, half-blind, and halting, swayed by chance and circumstance, and shaped by amorphous and misinformed interests. Even Dean Acheson, an architect of the century's most sustained and purposive effort to build a new global order, confessed in his memoir: "The significance of events was shrouded in ambiguity. We groped after interpretations of them, sometimes reversed lines of action based on earlier views, and hesitated long before grasping what now seems obvious."

The construction of global orders is thus rarely an orderly process. Great powers do not always set out to transform domestic regimes, and when they do so their efforts may face failures and unintended consequences. Moreover, it is not always the active exercise of hegemonic power that shapes regime choices after shocks, but the mere existence of the hegemon itself. By the virtue of their recent success, rising hegemons not only alter the cost-benefit calculus of national reforms but also force a deep normative reevaluation of which domestic institutions are considered discredited or desired, laudable or repulsive, legitimate or obsolete. As John F. Kennedy noted, "Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant." Hegemonic power can indeed coerce and intimidate, but it can also cajole, inspire, and repel — sometimes without the hegemon's desire or even awareness.

The effects of hegemonic transitions therefore cannot be reduced to the foreign policies of great powers. Hence the emphasis, in this book, on hegemonic shocks as a structural source of regime change, rather than only on great-power strategies as such. Of course, emphasizing large-scale structural determinants of political change involves inevitable trade-offs. History — as historians are quick to point out — unfolds through people rather than structures. Structures don't wage wars, raze cities, or protest in the streets. The people who do so, however, act in ways that are always and everywhere constrained — by their position in society, by their access to material resources, by their inclusion or exclusion from social groups, and by their underlying (and often unacknowledged) beliefs and assumptions. As Kenneth Waltz argues, structures do not mechanistically determine outcomes but can act as powerful constraints on individual action. By increasing the salience of systemic pressures, hegemonic shocks raise the general probability of regime transitions. Yet the outcomes of individual transitions are still contingent on the domestic circumstances within each country. Except in very rare cases, states are not merely passive conduits of external influence. Systemic forces are inevitably mediated through domestic conditions and filtered through local opportunities. At the same time, there are moments when systemic pressures have important and long-lasting effects on the evolution of domestic regimes, and such moments are the focus of this book. My goal here, therefore, is not to downplay the importance of domestic influences but to examine how they interact with the crucial and often-ignored consequences of hegemonic shocks.

Not all regime waves are caused by hegemonic transitions. The Arab Spring of 2011, for example, was largely disconnected from any broader shifts in the global distribution of power. These kinds of waves, as I discuss in the next chapter, are driven by horizontal cross-border linkages rather than vertical impulses, and thus fall outside the scope of the argument. The twentieth century, however, was dominated by waves that were forged by great power transitions. In fact, every hegemonic shock of the twentieth century produced a wave of domestic reforms. (Shocks are therefore a sufficient but not necessary condition for waves.) In the democratic waves that followed World War I and the Soviet collapse, the fascist wave of the 1930s, or the twin waves toward democracy and communism after World War II — in each case, shifts in the distribution of hegemonic power produced bursts of reform that affected manycountries around the world. Theories of democracy, therefore, cannot dismiss such intrusions into domestic politics as mere anomalies, since they constitute an important and recurring element of modern regime evolution more generally. How democracy spreads can tell us a lot about the nature of democracy itself.

I begin by defining hegemonic shocks, then examine each of the three mechanisms that link shocks to regime waves, and conclude by briefly discussing how the interaction of these forces produces cascades of domestic change.

Defining Hegemonic Shocks

The word hegemon is used ambiguously in international politics, referring to either a single paramount state or one of several great powers. In this book I adopt the latter definition of a hegemon as a state that comprises a pole in the international system. I define a hegemonic shock as a sudden shift in the distribution of relative power among the leading states in the international system. The term builds on the concept of "hegemonic war" to include non-military shocks like global economic crises or imperial collapses — any period in which the power of one hegemon rises or declines significantly against the others. By producing clear winners and losers, shocks clarify the global distribution of power and allow opportunities for the creation of new international orders. In doing so, they become the graveyards and incubators of competing domestic regimes.

Selecting cases of hegemonic shocks requires an index of hegemonic volatility. This was defined as the average annual change in relative power among hegemonic states, using the Composite Index of National Capabilities (CINC) (see figure 1.4). This index captures hegemonic shocks by tracking how quickly the distribution of relative power among major states changes over time.


Excerpted from Aftershocks by Seva Gunitsky. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface and Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction: A Century of Shocks and Waves 1

2 From Crests to Collapses: The Sources of Failure in Democratic Waves 33

3 The Alchemy of War 60

4 A Low Dishonest Decade 101

5 Two Ways of Life 152

6 The Winds from the East 198

7 Conclusion: Beyond the Great Plateau 231

Appendix 1: Regime Classifications, 1900–2000 245

Appendix 2: Regime Impositions 247

Bibliography 253

Index 279

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From the Publisher

"Ambitious and lucid, Aftershocks offers an alternative way to view twentieth-century global history, and is a book that belongs in the company of works by Gilpin and Ikenberry. In our own time of global power shifts, Gunitsky's fundamental claim—that hegemonic transitions explain the spread and contraction of democracy across entire regions—is vitally important and impossible to ignore."—John M. Owen IV, University of Virginia

"By delving into how international dynamics shape the spread of democracy and autocracy over time, Gunitsky presents a much-needed theoretical and empirical synthesis for anyone interested in international relations and domestic politics. As the world faces changing global powers and declining support for democracy, Gunitsky's book is essential reading with significant practical implications."—Susan D. Hyde, University of California, Berkeley

"Aftershocks examines the role of international factors in shaping the rise and fall of regime types. Contending that a regime cannot be understood in purely domestic terms, Gunitsky explores the nature of global influences and how they work. This book has a big historical sweep and is filled with well-chosen examples."—Peter Gourevitch, University of California, San Diego

"Aftershocks makes a strong and creative theoretical argument while providing a wide variety of convincing evidence. This is a really great book."—Jon Pevehouse, University of Wisconsin–Madison

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