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Regular version of the site

Article

“Westernizations” from Peter I to Meiji: war, political competition, and institutional change

Theory and Society. 2018. Vol. 47. No. 2. P. 207-231.

Radical “Westernizing” transformations in extra-European countries, from Peter I’s Russia to Meiji Japan, are traditionally presented as a response to pressures from the more militarily and technologically advanced European powers. This corresponds to the general tendency to view war as the driving force behind early modern state-building. However, the question remains: how exactly did such transformations happen, and what explains their timing? Why did some countries, such as Russia, embark on radical institutional restructuring that threatened large sections of the traditional military classes in the absence of any obvious existential threat, while in others even clear and immediate dangers failed to ignite a full-scale “Westernization”? This article seeks to complicate the “bellicist” narrative of “Westernizing” transformations and to generalize about the role of elite conflict in propelling “self-strengthening” reforms. It argues that “Westernizations” in extra-European polities were enabled by breakdown of domestic political balance and driven by “challengers” emerging in the course of these conflicts, as they strove to maximize their power. Factional struggles accompanying “Westernizations” are interpreted here not as a conservative reaction against reforms, but as a process that preceded and enabled institutional restructuring.