Friday, April 04, 2008

Modernization theory and neoconservatism

David Milne's new biography of Walt Rostow, America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War, is explicitly conceived and written as a prequel to the intellectual errors that led us into the current quagmire in Iraq. At two points he becomes explicit about how Rostow's version of modernization theory, including its relationship to military intervention, adumbrates the intellectual and political errors of the neocons:

Sunny in disposition and generous to a fault, Rostow took the most expansive possible interpretation of where U.S. interests lay. In some respects Rostow's vision for American foreign policy was a forerunner of the global vision advocated by today's neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. The main difference between Rostowism and neoconservatism is that the former placed its emphasis on global social justice, while the latter stresses the unilateral extension of political freedom and the transformative power of capitalism. Both worldviews share a common theme, necessitating U.S. military intervention anywhere at any time. And Rostow, like today's neocons, devoted less time to considering how the government might finance such an activist foreign policy....

Rostow's story will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in contemporary international relations. His apparent duality of personality (the development-minded dove and anticommunist hawk) has found parallel expression in the career of Paul Wolfowitz. Indeed today's neoconservatives have taken up Rostow's internationalist, crusading mantle and have run with it to potent effect. The former president of the World Bank, and architect of the second Iraq War, Wolfowitz is identifiably Rostovian with respect to his reading of international relations: it is beholden upon the United States, as the world's preeminent nation, to democratize and do "good"00at the bayonet's point if necessary. Both Rostow and Wolfowitz seem influenced by the Genevan Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau's illiberal injunction that "freedom" does not necessarily arise from personal volition: "Whosoever refuses to obey the general will shall be forced to be compelled to so by the whole body. This means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free." All ideologies can do awful things when they are pursued with unyielding determination.

One thing I also learned from Milne's book is that apparently Walt Rostow's brother Eugene had a hand in setting up the 1970s vintage of the Committee on the Present Danger. Set up in the late days of the Ford administration to serve as a fifth column against the strategy of detente, the CPD would wage political guerrilla warfare against the Carter administration and eventually supply the most hawkish members of the Reagan administration, including Wolfowitz and Dick Pipes--the same ones who would denounce Reagan for being a fool for believing that Gorbachev actually wanted to end the Cold War.

These guys just keep getting the big stuff right, decade after decade after decade.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up on Milne's book. I'm finishing a thesis project on the relationship of MT and the postwar end of ideology discourse. Part of what inspired the choice of topic was the feeling that MT never really went away. It's certainly easy enough to see Wolfowitz et al as Rostow's heirs. I'll have to check it out (the title's pretty funny)...