Contemporary economic historians have frequently championed "the advantage of backwardness." In their view, 19th-Century late-comers to industrialization, like Germany, America and Russia, were able to preempt the most advanced technological designs developed by Britain to match and surpass its industrial prowess. Today, they contend, other backward economies can achieve the same results as America or Germany.
Not so for Theodore von Laue. In his new and tantalizing book, the well-known European historian asserts that Westernization has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of imperialists like Lord Lytton and Cecil Rhodes: Yet where new nations have embraced Western ideas, they have not usually been able to translate them into industrial reality. Successful Westernization has generally required political and social coercion.
Even the "success" cases become questionable in Von Laue's analysis. Bismarckian Germany did indeed transform its position through economic growth, but it needed repressive political institutions to accomplish the feat. Meiji Japan scarcely altered its traditional mode of governance and directed its new economic power in pursuit of another "Western" trait--seizing territory from hapless foes. Russia's 19th-Century forced-draft industrialization came at the expense of social liberty.
In his view, "catch-up" industrialization imposes social strain, inculcation of new political and economic ideas, and much greater discipline than does the pre-existing order. Industrialization forced by military competition demands still more regimentation. Whether new states achieve economic growth or not, they can never achieve the "natural" consensus of the early industrializers.
Thus for Von Laue, the history of the 20th Century is written in terms of repression. In their quest for instant modernity, Germany and Italy succumbed to fascism, Russia to communism. After World War II, when Western paramountcy was tellingly underscored in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nationalist leaders of the Third World constructed new social movements to gird their populations to meet novel economic and international challenges.
Mostly, however, they failed. Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser and Sukarno were overcome by their burdens. Mao retained revolutionary momentum only at the expense of industrial and scientific competence. Reinforcing party controls, Brezhnev still failed to realize Khrushchev's goal of an industrial victory over the United States.
According to Von Laue, the vehicle of industrialization is the national state, and Westernization thus means dividing humanity into parochial political compartments. Yet no state's industrial success can prevail against world economic interdependence.
Even powerful industrializers have to contend with economies outside their grasp. Seen in this light, World Wars I and II can partly be explained as vain attempts by aggressors to extend their political domains to include all economic resources and markets.
How then, now that forceful aggrandizement is even less successful, can states adjust to the interdependent world economy? Von Laue sees national leaders caught in a vise between international economic pressures on the one hand, and demanding national publics on the other.
Because of their limited perspective, people "on the ground floor" will not understand why they have to yield to a loftier vision that takes into account the policies of other states. Domestic constituencies then may press conflict-laden policies on national leaders.
But here Von Laue is too pessimistic. Confronting the dangers of a world economic crisis, today's leaders have retained leeway to help solve the economic problems of other countries. Equally important, not all industrial successes were won through repression. America's was not, and since 1945, Japan has democratically pioneered international relations based on intensive growth without extensive expansion.
Not all repressive cases were successful, and Von Laue recognizes Russia's failure, acknowledging that "compulsion can never match the cultural creativity of spontaneous civic cooperation." Nations of the Pacific rim have gained greatly in economic stature while gradually liberalizing their domestic political institutions. In fact, there were two aspects to Westernization. One involved the acceptance of the Western states system and tended to make new states behave as badly as their European forebears; the other embraced the need for economic development and made general peace appear preferable to war. Increasingly, and to their everlasting benefit, the Westernizing states of today are following Japan's example and not that of traditional Western Great Powers.