Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Nation-building from the 1890s to the 1960s

Recently someone wrote to ask me, "Is there any link between the open door expansion of the 1890s, as discussed in Williams's Tragedy of American Diplomacy, and modernization [theory in the 1950s and 1960s]?"

Michael Latham discusses this subject at some length in the opening chapter of his Modernization as Ideology. I basically agree with Latham's take that postwar modernization theory was but an updating of a pretty old tune. One might say that the score always remains a variant of cosmopolitan Victorian progressivism, with each era applying a different libretto.

In each era -- including our own -- American internationalism has been predicated on the notion that U.S. interests and international interests were not in conflict, and that the salutary benefit the U.S. provided the world was to make them become more "like us." But this idea of being "like us" immediately raised the issue of national identity: who and what was the "us" that we were trying to help foreigners achieve for themselves? As such, this strand of foreign policy reflected national identity politics, always suggesting a complex and unstable interplay of domestic and foreign policies. As Latham explains, in both the 1890s and the 1960s (and he might have added the 2000s), ideologues of progressive foreign policy believed that, "America's domestic vitality would depend on continued expansion through either commercial or colonial means."

Three big things changed from the 1890s-1900s to the 1950s-1960s:

  • the mechanism by which this transformation would take place: The 1890s expected that religious and moral suasion along with commerce would drive the transformation, whereas by the postwar period the state was seen as the primary driver of modernization.
  • the formal language used to articulate this process: in the 1890s the process of transformation was described primarily through journalism, travelogues, and private economic association literature, whereas in the postwar period it was the language of social science -- economics, political science, and sociology -- that provided main linguistic vehicles.
  • the vision of what "like us" meant: here we enter into a discussion of the national identity that I go into at length in my own book and that Latham also discusses, from a somewhat different (though agreeable) vantage point.

One thing I hoped to add to Latham's account was the idea that while Victorian progressivism has been present at every stage of American foreign diplomacy, at certain times -- notably the 1890s-1900s, the 1950s-60s, and the 1990s-2000s -- this presence has been particularly forceful and effective. The reason why this style of foreign policy came into force and effectiveness at these particular times, I believe, is that in each of these eras the country was undergoing a national identity crisis -- very different sorts of crises, to be sure, but all crises that called for a foreign policy capable of speaking to the national identity crisis by emphasizing the essential moral goodness of the United States. Conversely, politicians who failed to use foreign policy debate to express a clear position on the domestic national identity crisis were in each era marginalized. In short, one domestic faction used moralizing foreign policy as a club with which to beat domestic ideological enemies: ambitious foreign policy was linked via moralizing rhetoric to the promotion of sweeping domestic reforms.

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