Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Decolonisation, Modernisation and Nation-Building: Political Development Theory and the Appeal of Communism in Southeast Asia, 1945-1975

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Decolonisation, Modernisation and Nation-Building: Political Development Theory and the Appeal of Communism in Southeast Asia, 1945-1975

Article excerpt

Introduction: ideologies of Western dominance and ideologies of modernisation

Michael Adas, in his important study of 'ideologies of Western dominance', questions the idea that the influential theories of modernisation that emerged during the late colonial and early Cold War periods were 'primarily' new concepts created to 'counter the appeal of Communism' in the 'underdeveloped world'. In his view, although the theories of modernisation of the Cold War era were 'recast in development jargon', they were grounded in ideas which were 'deeply rooted' in the 'historical experience' of Western Europe and North America. (1) Michael E. Latham's innovative examination of 'ideologies of modernisation' parallels Adas and concludes that, contrary to the arguments of their advocates, those theories that emerged in the 1950s and early 1960s 'were neither decisive intellectual breakthroughs nor completely new political initiatives'. He argues that while the basic assumptions of these emergent theories of modernisation were clearly grounded in the culture of Cold War North America, modernisation theorists also 'reframed' earlier 'imperial ideals' in order to tell US citizens 'who they were' and to clarify what the projection of US 'power could achieve'. As with earlier 'imperial ideology', says Latham, modernisation theory distinguished between 'backward' and 'advanced' regions, at the same time as it represented the United States as the 'summit of modernity' with a 'mission to transform a world eager to learn the lessons only America could teach'. (2)

These are sophisticated and insightful analyses; however, both scholars--particularly Adas--place too much emphasis on the relative continuity between the post-1945 theories of political and economic development that informed the US modernising mission in the Cold War era on the one hand, and the various ideas about progress and the civilising mission that animated imperial expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the other. Their approaches neglect important aspects of the changed circumstances of the post-1945 era and the significance of these changes for the theories of modernisation that emerged in the 1950s. In particular, there is a need to build on their analyses while giving more weight to the transformative character of decolonisation and the Cold War. A key shift in the period in question was not just the growing significance of the idea of development per se, but the way in which it was consolidated and naturalised as specifically national development in the context of the establishment of the United Nations and the universalisation of the nation-state system in Asia, Africa and Oceania. This period witnessed the construction--or reconstruction--of nation-states and national identities within the framework of an increasingly global nation-state system that rapidly incorporated the former colonies. Importantly, this also involved the simultaneous reconfiguration of imperial nation-states such as Great Britain, France, Portugal, Holland and Belgium (as well as Japan and the United States) into nation-states shorn of most if not all of their formal colonial possessions and, in some cases, of their imperial pride.

Decolonisation, the universalisation of the nation-state and the Cold War provided the crucial backdrop for the rise and elaboration of modernisation theory and closely related theories of political development and nation-building that were centred on direct or indirect US involvement in the formation and consolidation of stable anti-communist national political systems. After 1945 the nation-state became the central and unquestioned unit of study for modernisation theorists and the natural object of a burgeoning number of exercises in state-mediated national development and nation-building. (3) At the same time, modernisation theory and theories of nation-building exercised a profound influence on, and were bound up with, the rise and transformation of area studies generally and Asian Studies specifically. …

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