Michael Latham, Ph.D., focused his latest book on modernization and U.S. foreign relations.
Photo by Ken Levinson

The ideas that have helped shape America into a modern society have often failed when applied to other countries, according to Michael Latham, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill.

Examining the results of America’s modernizing instinct was the impetus for Latham’s new book, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development and U.S. Foreign Policy From the Cold War to the Present (Cornell University Press, 2011), which he discussed with about 40 colleagues on March 23 at the Rose Hill campus.

Referring to an essay by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Latham said that, intellectually, he considers himself a hedgehog.

“The one big thing I have concluded is that ideas matter in the history of American foreign relations,” he said. “From my perspective, many of our animating ideas have often led us astray.”

The Right Kind of Revolution was shaped by questions Latham began exploring as a graduate student at UCLA, where he found a lot of work in his field to be too narrowly focused, he said.

“It walled out a lot of the things that I really cared about,” Latham said.

“I took courses taught by people outside of my field; we read social history or intellectual history and studied ideologies and how they affected different communities. That was fascinating. But then I read diplomatic history, and it was incredibly boring.”

So Latham wondered, “What if historians took questions and methods that were so vibrant in other fields and brought them into their own area of inquiry?”

To that end, he analyzed some of the large-scale ideas that shaped the conduct of American policy. “Ultimately, I came to realize that modernization was an idea that had a long intellectual trajectory,” he said.

Latham became especially interested in America’s relationship with what was then known as the third world—Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East—regions that were being shaped by the collapse of European empire in the wake of World War II.

“The questions that animated me were ones about the American response to decolonization—how the United States began to think about that world and react to it,” he said.

Prominent U.S. policymakers, searching to formulate a response, came to believe that modernization had a clear and common direction: all societies move from tradition to modernity. They considered it a necessary—but ultimately destabilizing—process, and one they were eager to direct and control.

Modernization was also a political ideology, Latham said.

“For social scientists, it promised to integrate their study of a world that was growing increasingly complicated as European empire dissolved. For American policymakers, though, it promised to link development with security,” he said. “The United States, they hoped, could promote development around the world, and in doing so, it could improve its own level of security.”

At the outset of the Cold War, American policymakers were focused on the question of how the United States could create a world environment in which its institutions and values were most likely to spread.

“Modernization, that particular approach to development, became a very powerful and appealing answer to that question,” Latham said. “In the 1960s, American policymakers often talked about a kind of global ‘New Deal’ and expected that American models of economic development could be replicated abroad. But by the mid-1970s, many of those ideas were rejected in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which ultimately demonstrated the U.S. inability to direct nation building.”

The accomplishments of the United States as a global exemplar also became harder to promote in light of the failure of the Great Society, the evidence of persistent racism and the failure of the War on Poverty, Latham said.

While those ideas were damaged and to some extent discredited in the 1970s, rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated.

“They would certainly come back quite strongly, I would argue, in the era that we see today,” he said. “During the Cold War, American modernizers thought about the need to transform the world and promote modernization to alleviate poverty and achieve economic development. If they failed to do it, they feared that the discontent generated by a revolution of rising expectations might lead the world’s poor toward revolutions or communism.

“Of course now, in American thinking, the danger is not communism but Islamic radicalism,” Latham said. “The argument is really quite similar. What can the United States do to promote development, to really transform societies leading toward a democratic, capitalist endpoint before such dangerous visions take hold?”

In writing the book, Latham said he found a tension between what his research uncovered and his own sense of moral values.

“Many of the people that I interviewed, proponents of this view, were people I admired. They wanted to further economic development and raise living standards,” he said. “Yet one of the things I found disconcerting is that as they applied these ideas, they often did so in ways that completely disregarded the history and culture of these societies. Their commitment to democracy also turned out to be quite thin.”

Latham said his book is a critical inquiry into a tragic element of American foreign relations.

“My hope is that we might rescue development from modernization,” he said. “Modernization provides a powerful narrative of what the United States might achieve in the world, but ultimately it leads us away from a deeper set of values.

“If these values are ones that we still hold, what can Americans do to rethink them? How can they take things like human rights seriously and promote a better, more just vision of development?”


Gina Vergel is Senior Director of Communications. She oversees the digital news coverage, public relations, and social media for the university. Before joining Fordham in 2007, Gina worked as a reporter for the Home News Tribune, and The Ridgewood News, where she won Society of Professional Journalist (New Jersey chapter) awards for breaking news and feature writing, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected] or (646) 579-9957.