Muddy Boots & Smart Suits: Researching Asia-Pacific Affairs


Editor(s): Nicholas Farrelly, Amy King, Michael Wesley and Hugh White

ISBN: 9789814459785

Publisher: ISEAS Publishing

Year: 2017

Price: $19.93

Reviewed by Dr. Moritz Pöllath, History Department, Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany

Muddy Boots and Smart Suits sets out to challenge the “continuing ethnocentrism of Western academic and policy communities” (p. 3) with regard to academics viewed as  Pacific specialists in comparison to scholars who focus on European and American affairs and as a consequence often are thought of as generalists in world history or security studies. In view of the indisputable economic, political and military weight of the Asian-Pacific region in the 21st century, Michael Wesley’s critique is aptly made. Seen from a German and European perspective, his criticism of Eurocentrism or Western disregard for Asia-Pacific Affairs reflects the European negligence and lack of awareness of the Pacific region, whereas the U.S. under President Obama und Secretary of State Clinton paid heed to the transformative forces of the outgoing 20th and early 21th century. As a consequence the collection of essays by scholars and researchers of the Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University (ANU) offers not only a window into the state of the field but a thought-provoking understanding of the history and current politics of the Asia-Pacific region.

Nicholas Farrelly`s discussion of Huntingon and Young`s ideas on the blurring and interaction at the borders of cultures (p. 33-34) and its consequences for the nation state in the 21st century is not only relevant for the Asian context but can be observed on a global level. Studying the forces outside, above and inside the nation state in Asia-Pacific Affairs will lead the field to further findings on the changing meaning of space in the fields of History and Political Science. With foresight Farrelly delves briefly into the online realm and internet hyperreality based on the example of Malaysia’s 2013 General Election where a contest over virtual space and a facebook storm shaped the policital discussions – something he also observed in Myanmar in 2015 (p.38). The framework of the edited volume might not have allowed for a more broad explanation of these events, but with the successful Russian intelligence operation together with facebook and Cambdrige Analytica influencing the US Elections in 2016, readers once again are shown the importance of insights researched and discovered by scholars of Asian-Pacific affairs.

Of particular interest to the reviewer is Joan Beaumont`s article “History, Conflict, and Contexts: Remembering World War II in Asia. Aware of the memory “boom” in popular history books and the academic field, the well renowned historian of war and international relations in Asia and the Pacific sets out to explore how “conflicts transformed the cultural imaginations of the people and societies in the region” and how war memories have been used “by various substate agents to justify their claims to greater recognition or compensation for past grievances and injustices” (p. 96).

With historical acumen Beaumont dissects the memory wars in Asia which have long been overshadowed by the binary confrontation between Japan and the United States during World War II. This narrative has left out the experiences of Asian and Pacific people and relegated Asia to “little more than battlefields for the major powers” (p.96). Beaumont reminds the reader that no single Asian memory exists of World War II. For scholars she hints at a research deficit: general models and theories of memory have their origin in Western thought. She uses the term collective memory which can be traced back to Maurice Halbwachs‘ On collective memory and is more than well versed in German research on narrativity and memory, as shown by her reflection of Jan-Werner Müller Memory and Power in Post-War Europe. Studies in the Presence of the Past. Especially insightful are her comparisons between German memory politics as probable ways for Asian politics.

As a scholar, both her take on the specific memories in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, which share an overall amnesia regarding World War II, as well as that on Malaysia and Singapore, which are using the war to construct national identities, are impressive. Beaumont`s short overview is rich with detailed knowledge on one hand and succeeds in connecting these national memory politics to the global memory boom. Although the West constituted the origin of the war memory movement which then spread globally, research in this field strongly and logically favors national needs. For the international relations scholar the section of “memorial diplomacy” (p. 101-105) is a worthwhile and enlightening assessment of the Western use of commemoration days to pursue diplomatic ends. While Germany and France have used their memory to find reconciliation and cooperation and to shape a new European and more peaceful narrative, in Asia the outcome of the memory wars remains open. With her keen insight into the history and culture of the Asian-Pacific, Beaumont discusses the possibilities whether the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese will remain in a form of “victimhood nationalism” or construct new and different narratives. For the European, especially German reader, her analysis of Asian affairs will provide useful observations on current demands in Poland and Greece in 2019 claiming further financial reparations for World War II (Reuters/Guardian 2019) based on national narratives and politicized memory.

A well-structured and researched article on regionalism and global powers is delivered by Evi Fitriani. Branded as “new regionalism” Fitrani offers a compelling comparison between Western regionalism (EU) and East Asian regionalism. The research field lists the following aspects as serious obstacles to regionalism: “severe disparity in levels of economic development between countries, diversity in political systems and cultural backgrounds, and bitter historical experiences (…)” (p.117) and the role of global powers (US). From a European post-World War II perspective, the historic similarities seem striking and the severity of these arguments can be discussed, as Fitriani does with the role of the US, which supported regionalism in Europe. Thus this criteria might be challenged in the Asian-Pacific region too. For a fuller comparison of both regions one might add that Europe after 1945 was marked by bitter historical experiences as well, the economies of Portugal and Germany remained extremely disparate until at least the Maastricht Treaty and different political systems existed – in Spain and Portugal right wing dictatorships ruled until 1974/75. Fitriani`s article in addition offers insights and a methodological approach to researching regionalism in global powers in Asia. It also should be used as a basic article for comparing regionalism in Europe and Asia.

Scholars and politicians alike will find a hidden gem in Hugh White`s article on international law and order. It offers an authoritative and concise analysis of the influence of military power in shaping the dawning international order of the 21st century. White can be applauded for his critique of Western policymakers who have unlearned a basic premise: “an international order in a system of states is framed (…) primarily or ultimately by what great powers within the system are willing to go to war with one another over.” (p. 128) Expertly secure in historical events, his argumentation is flawless and the new realities of our century can be better understood with reading this article or other works by this exceptional thinker. Especially IR scholars should reflect on his observation that on the one hand old fashioned realism might not be dead but on the other hand remains an incomplete answer for the study of great power politics. Researchers are thus advised to study the often neglected English School of International Relations and Martin Wight, Hedley Bull and Coral Bell.

Muddy Boots and Smart Suits achieves its primary aim: creating new knowledge. The assorted articles all capture the research field of Asia-Pacific Affairs and engage the reader in follow up ideas and further research questions. This review has highlighted several thought-provoking articles by well-versed thinkers from the Asia-Pacific region and the reviewer remains impressed by the relevance of the expressed ideas for Western scholars – especially Europeans are advised to reflect on the insights of this book on current developments in the Pacific which will certainly have an impact on their economies and politics.

Works and websites mentioned and used:

Polish MP calls for new push for WW2 reparations from Germany. April 18, 2019.

Greece to ask Germany for billions in war reparations. April 21, 2019.

Halbwachs, Maurice, On collective memory, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Müller, Jan-Werner, Memory and Power in Post-War Europe. Studies in the Presence of the Past. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002.