Aspects of modernization theory had antecedents in classical social theory, notably Weber and Marx, even if the debt to the latter, at least, was not one that U.S. modernization theorists of the 1950s and '60s were generally eager to acknowledge. As it took shape in the Cold War-era academy, modernization theory assumed, as Latham notes, that all societies passed through essentially the same gate from tradition to modernity and further assumed that the correct policies, properly implemented, could speed up the passage. The premise was that the U.S. could simultaneously contain Communism and spark a transformation of the 'developing' world, rapidly improving living standards and propelling it into the twentieth century by means that would avoid the brutal coercion that marked, for instance, Mao's efforts to transform China.
Modernization theorists saw the supposedly universal transition from tradition to modernity as stressful and, thus, unsettling to individual psyches. The MIT political scientist Lucian Pye's 1956 book Guerrilla Communism in Malaya argued that Communism's appeal was not primarily ideological but psychological; Pye contended that Communism appealed in particular to young men from the countryside trying to escape from the anxiety and "personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transition from tradition to modernity" (Latham, p.48). The emphasis on psychology reflected the influence of Harold Lasswell, who had taught both Pye and Gabriel Almond (47).
If the problem was the psychological strain of the transition to modernity, then the prescription, especially for poor societies in which revolutionaries mounted armed challenges to the government, was "a pattern of nation building that would replace the institutions of the insurgency with those of the state and give the peasant caught in the 'transition'...a renewed sense of the potential for personal advance" (138). As applied in Vietnam in the early '60s, part of this prescription involved trying to expand the central government's reach into the countryside. Somewhat like the king's agents in the medieval France of Philip Augustus, Ngo Dinh Diem's provincial and district chiefs would travel around their domains and supposedly "bridge the gap between the central government and the rural masses" (134).
Another aspect of attempted nation-building in South Vietnam involved relocation of the rural population. This was the strategic hamlet program, designed to move about 15 million people into fortified villages where the NLF (Viet Cong) would be unable, so the thinking went, to get at them. As Robert Packenham writes, the program "reflected a curious mix of forced-labor and liberal-constitutionalist tactics," although "[t]he first element...seems to have been implemented more consistently than the second" (Liberal America and the Third World, pb. ed. 1976, p.83).
In America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War (Hill & Wang, 2008; link), David Milne describes the strategic hamlet program as follows (p.105):
The director of the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research, Roger Hilsman, presented the program's blueprint -- "A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam" -- to [President] Kennedy on February 2, 1962.... Hilsman correctly identified that South Vietnam's villages provided sustenance, recruits, and a safe haven for the NLF. To prevent the insurgents from requisitioning these vital commodities -- often through coercion -- he...proposed that a series of fortified hamlets be established with bamboo-spiked ditches dug around the exterior and barbed wire attached to the hamlet itself. South Vietnam's villagers would then be removed from their traditional homes and relocated to these fortified oases of non-communist security.The program was not a success; by "the spring of 1963, only 1,500 of the 8,500 strategic hamlets remained viable" (107). Milne observes that the "implementation of the strategic hamlet program was like watching an infant attempt to hammer a square plastic block through a triangle-shaped hole" (109). The U.S. escalation decisions of 1965 changed the character of the Vietnam war, and by "January 1968 the intensified war in the countryside created approximately four million refugees" (Latham, 142). By 1970 rural 'pacification' programs had been dropped entirely.
As Latham observes, modernization theory and nation-building waned in the late '60s and '70s but made a comeback, albeit in altered form, in the late '80s and even more after the end of the Cold War. After the U.S. invaded Panama in Dec. 1989 and removed Noriega, whom it had previously supported, the first Bush administration embarked on nation-building via "Operation Blind Logic, the appropriately named plan for the reconstruction of Panama," which "was extremely ambitious and deeply flawed" (195). The Clinton administration's plans for Somalia were equally ambitious, with UN Ambassador (as she then was) Madeleine Albright stating that "we will embark on an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning, and viable member of the community of nations" (quoted, 197). After the Somalia mission led to 'Black Hawk Down,' the Clinton administration retreated from this sort of rhetoric. (Also, as Martha Finnemore notes [in The Purpose of Intervention, p.83], the Somalia intervention was partly prompted by defensiveness over charges by then-UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali "that powerful states were attending to disasters in white, European Bosnia at the expense of non-white, African Somalia....")
George W. Bush opposed nation-building as a presidential candidate in 2000, but that changed with 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Bush declared in a Nov. 2003 speech that "[t]he establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution" (quoted in Latham, 204). Of course the Pentagon basically ignored planning for the reconstruction of Iraq and cut the State Dept. and other agencies, which had conducted such planning, out of the loop. (Where nation-building or postwar reconstruction has proved more successful, it is likely to have been the result of UN or other multilateral peacekeeping missions with broad mandates. Latham says that such peacekeeping missions have "rarely met expectations" , but I think that statement's too sweeping; some haven't but some have.)
What about the present? Latham sees "the ghosts of modernization" hovering around the activities of the U.S. and its allies in both Iraq (at least up until U.S. forces withdrew) and Afghanistan. Clearly the U.S. and NATO/ISAF have defined their Afghanistan mission not just in military but also in socio-political ('development') terms. The context (corruption, the effect of decades of war, etc.) ensured that Afghan development was going to be extremely hard and, as Latham observes, the effort has not been funded at the levels of post-war reconstruction in e.g. the ex-Yugoslavia or E. Timor (if one takes population sizes into account). Moreover, too much emphasis was put on 'the market' as opposed to building a strong central government, in line with prevailing neoliberal doctrine. While there have been some successes (e.g., in opening up more opportunities for women), the overall picture seems not very encouraging (e.g., a recent WaPo headline mentioned roads built in Afghanistan with U.S. funds that are now crumbling for lack of maintenance). Today the U.S. and its allies probably would settle for an Afghanistan in which the level of violence is kept under control; the Taliban, if brought into the government, is kept to a subordinate role; and the government is able to control key cities and transport routes. Whether even this outcome will be achieved is an open question.
On the broader issue of approaches to development, Latham is right to emphasize the wisdom contained in some of the late-1970s emphasis on 'basic needs' and distributional issues, which challenged the then "dominant narrative" (215) that the rising tide of growth would lift all boats. Even in China, where millions in recent years have left rural poverty for factory employment, a more egalitarian growth path would have reduced poverty more. The 1970s critics of modernization were also right to raise questions about the environmental implications of growth, even if some of the specific predictive claims might have missed the mark. It's hard to disagree with Latham's view that development should focus on "locally centered" (216) efforts directed at "the problems of poverty, inequality, and environment, and combining them with a renewed focus on an expanded conception of human rights and social justice" (215), tempered by the acknowledgment that it will not be easy.
Added later: Jennifer Clapp (Univ. of Waterloo) reviewed Latham's book, along with Nick Cullather's The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (2010), in Perspectives on Politics 11:2 (June 2013).