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Identity Clash: The Identity Dilemma and the Road to the Pacific War Open Access

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My dissertation offers a new way to study international conflicts from identity politics perspectives. Conventional wisdom is that hostilities, arms races, and wars result from the security dilemma, a situation in which states perceive the other’s security-seeking actions as threats and take retaliatory measures. I challenge this view and offer an alternative way to explain conflicts by theorizing the “identity dilemma,” a situation in which one’s action to enact its identity challenges the other’s identity. States form identities based on the roles they play in international society and feel secure about their identities by enacting those roles. The identity dilemma occurs when two states have incompatible identities and an event exposes this incompatibility and leads the states to defend their identities. Due to the incompatibility, each state views the other’s action as a challenge to its own identity and develops hostility against the other. As hostility deepens, states seek confrontational actions, possibly leading to conflicts. The identity dilemma is escalatory because it is more emotional than rational. It impedes coolheaded discussions and negotiations because passion and nationalism trump reason and pragmatism. I test these assertions by analyzing the rise of American-Japanese conflictual relationship during the 1930s, a decade that historians call the “Road to the Pacific War.” This is a crucial case not only because it is historically important but also because conventional accounts attribute the conflict to strategic factors (i.e., conflict of interests in China) and domestic factors (i.e., Japan’s anti-Western militarism). Through discourse analysis and process tracing based on primary and secondary sources, I rebut these conventional accounts and show that identity politics explains why the conflict arose during the 1930s and not before. Before the 1930s, the identities of the United States and Japan were compatible, and there was no identity dilemma. Many Japanese leaders were “moderate internationalists” who thought that Japan as a great power should be a responsible member of the Western community. And many Americans were “isolationists” who believed that the United States should assume its role as a “city upon a hill” and stay aloof from overseas troubles. Unconcerned about Japan’s expansion in East Asia, American isolationists welcomed Japan as a member of the West. Japanese moderates reciprocated by cooperating with the Western countries under the Washington Treaty System. In short, there was mutual recognition of each other’s identity. There was no identity dilemma, and the two countries maintained friendly relations. During the 1930s, the two countries’ identities became incompatible. The identity dilemma started and caused American-Japanese conflict. Many Japanese leaders believed that Japan must assert its role of a “leader in Asia” and supported the country’s expansion into China. This “pan-Asianist” worldview and policy challenged U.S. “liberal internationalist” worldview that the United States must assume its role as a “crusader nation” to uphold the post-WWI peace system and democratize and Christianize China. For this identity-based reason, many Americans pushed embargoes against Japan to stop its invasion of China, although the United States had no vital strategic interests in China. These embargoes in turn triggered Japan’s further expansionist measures and ultimately Pearl Harbor.

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