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Review August 2023

Entangled Easts: East Asia and Eastern Europe in a global perspective

Review by Ron Leonhardt
Jie-Hyun Lim, 2022
ISBN 9780231206778
344 Pages
Published by: Columbia University Press
1 May parade in Sariwon, North Korea, 1957. Fortepan/Ákos Lőrinczi

Jie-Hyun Lim composes a truly groundbreaking work with Global Easts. This recent release plucks at the seams of populist regimes both past and present in ways that force important reevaluations of global and national histories. Lim explores the historical and contemporary calculations that created and solidified the distance between the developed, forward, and modern “West” and the underdeveloped, backward, and premodern “Global Easts”. As Lim unearths, countries occupying space in the “West” rely on dehumanizing, violent, and discriminatory tactics so as to preserve their dominance over the ill-defined “East(s)”. These tactics are funded and organized by political powerbrokers largely unknown to non-experts, such as the Russian Rightist leader Alexander Dugin. Since the publication of this prescient work, some of these authoritarian worker bees are making headlines across the globe, such as Dugin’s daughter who was assassinated on the streets of Moscow in what some believe to be a retaliatory strike for Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. 

In the introduction to Global Easts, Lim unpacks the multitude of understandings of “the East”: the areas where the diffusion of European values are untenable or undiscovered—in essence, premodern square pegs unfit for modern round holes. Lim divides Global Easts into three interconnected parts representing three aspects of the East/West schism. In “Part I. Remembering”, Lim traces the connections between nationalism, victimhood, and reconciliation. Under the framework of “victimhood nationalism”, Lim dissects the links between national honor and wartime memory in ways that highlight how they oscillate between national and transnational landscapes and objectives. Lim also provides insightful prescriptions to combat the nationalist takeover of wartimes memories. Through “multidirectional negotiations”, questions of “who suffered the most” take a backseat to a focused attention on “answerability”: the ability and willingness to listen to the voices of others (p. 95 and p. 52).

Lim pairs noted historical inconsistencies with feasible solutions.

The second and most intriguing portion of Global Easts, “Part II. Imagining”, provides intricate examinations into Marxist and Postcolonial perspectives on development and modernity. As with Part One, Lim pairs noted historical inconsistencies with feasible solutions. Part Two can be safely divided into three sections: the Eurocentric roots of Marxist historicism, the creation of global “Easts”, and the global variations in national histories and historiographies. Terminology in this section may be unfamiliar to some undergraduate and graduate students, but Lim provides clear overviews and workable definitions for all theoretical principles he explores in Global Easts. Likewise, instructors working with students in historiography, methods, and adjacent courses will find meaningful discussions in Global Easts to use in the classroom. The deep dive into East Asian and Central and Eastern European historiographies and their discontents is a well-developed conversation on “making” history and provides a sampling of examples to explore without the necessary language prerequisites.  

The final section of Global Easts, “Part III. Mobilizing”, unpacks the blueprints for mass mobilization and the catalysts for the imposition of the “nation’s will” in a variety of national contexts—from democracies to dictatorships. In doing so, binaries such as coercion and consent or resistance and collaboration are brought into question, especially when these divisions are understood within larger, global systems of mobilization. The author’s desire to focus on “worlding” rather than regional perspectives makes possible the drawing of global “nonhierarchical comparisons” (p. 118). 

Columbia University Press has produced several important international and intellectual histories in recent years, including Victor McFarland’s history of U.S.-Saudi ties, Oil Powers, and the new approaches to U.S. diplomacy found in the edited volume Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations by Christopher McKnight Nichols and David Milne. Global Easts is undoubtedly an integral contribution to this publisher’s recent repertoire, but in taking such a wide-angled approach to history and its discontents, Lim misses some major historiographical contributions in the fields he traverses in Global Easts. When discussing positive portrayals of Adolf Hitler in Asia, Indonesia’s Sukarno is singled out, and Lim posits the “ambiguity” between socialist and fascist authoritarianism as the reason for Sukarno’s maligned infatuation (p. 291). Not referenced, however, are Benedict Anderson, Clifford Geertz, and others who not only unpack the nuanced political meanings of Indonesian politics, but also provide critical critiques of so-called “oriental despotism” over 30 years before Lim. 

Global Easts touches on the history of largescale national sporting events organized to reinforce specific ideologies, irredentist claims, and social control. Lim highlights Nazi Germany and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as the primary past and present organizers of “mass games”. While these two examples did use mass games for these national purposes, there are also phenomenal pieces of scholarship by Stefan Huebner and others that illustrate how European colonial powers also used sports for nefarious ends. Terry Vaios Gitersos and Johanna Mellis convincingly show that following the end of the Second World War, the West used the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to serve Cold War strategic initiatives, such as propping up Apartheid South Africa. Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young demonstrate how in the post-Cold War period, the IOC has heavily involved itself in Western Rightist movements that seek to police athletes’ bodies, especially athletes from “non-West” locales. 

Global Easts is the product of a historian whose perspectives were molded by authoritarian regimes in both South Korea and Poland

The discussion of mass games in an incredibly narrow framework also segues into one of the only core shortcomings of Global Easts: The United States is largely omitted from culpability in remembering, imagining, and mobilizing authoritarian regimes and politics. The United States—though a myriad of channels—undoubtedly reinforces strategically useful local, regional, and transnational disagreements over wartime atrocities, victimhood, and constructions of the “East”. From American universities that take money from nations seeking greater visibility as wartime victims through memorialization programming, to the Obama Administration’s failed campaign promise in 2008 to recognize the Armenian Genocide (see Chapter Three), the United States actively participates in the performativity of wartime memories and has strategically constructed desirable “East(s)” since the late-eighteenth century.

In the Introduction to Global Easts, Lim recalls a conversation with one of his graduate advisors who laments that despite being widely published on the English Revolution, they had never actually experienced revolution. Global Easts is the product of a historian whose perspectives were molded by authoritarian regimes in both South Korea and Poland, the former a developmental dictatorship and the latter an authoritarian amalgam resulting from the transition from socialism to capitalism in the 1980s. A self-proclaimed “barefoot historian” built from “street-fighting” and underground intellectual communities, Lim’s contributions to the discipline of history with Global Easts is a testament to the importance of building and sustaining communities of scholars who have imagined, participated, experienced, and lived life in a variety of ways (p. 4 and p. 11). Challenging the “Red Orientalist” and Rostovian precursors for making “progress” and “history”, Global Easts is a must-read for anyone studying “alternative modernities”, Holocaust memorialization trends, nation and state building histories, or the ins-and-outs of historiography. In a more general sense, Global Easts acts as a series of cheat sheets for anyone wanting to avoid historicizing non-Western topics through Eurocentric lenses. Students and instructors alike will find that Global Easts acts as an enthralling guide to the study of formerly “historyless” landscapes and as a testament to the corrosive power of using Western “ingredients” to historicize non-Western spaces (p. 132).

Ron Leonhardt is an Assistant Professor of History at Albany State University and an East Asia Voices Initiative Fellow at The George Washington University. He is currently charting the lives, mobility, and politics of non-Khmer populations living in Cambodia in the post-independence decades of the 1950s and 1960s. His most recent work, “Cultivating Cotton in the Red Earth of Kampong Cham: Self-Sufficiency, Alternative Modernities, and Wartime Refugees in Cold War Cambodia, 1955-1970” was published in Asian Studies Review in 2022. As part of his research, Leonhardt also explores Cambodia’s involvement in international sports, ties to U.S. Third World Leftists, and relations with Eastern Europe during the early Cold War period.