Bryan Caplan  

The Curious Absence of American Emulationists in the Third World

Can regulations stop terrorism... Never say never...
After World War II, virtually every Third World country had a major political faction that looked on the Soviet Union as a model society.  What path should their nation take?  The answer was obvious: Emulate the Soviet Union.  With minor allowance for local conditions, they sought to copy Soviet institutions and policies.  Despite the fiery anti-colonial nationalism of the day, members of the Third World's pro-Soviet factions happily publicized their desire to follow in the footsteps of a foreign land - even putting a string of Europeans - Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin - on their banners.

You could say, "Of course they did.  It was the Cold War.  Every Third World country was debating which alliance to join."  But there's a stark asymmetry.  While most Third World countries had a faction that wanted to ally with the U.S., few had factions that emphasized their desire to emulate the United States.  You could say that many in Western Europe and Japan wanted to model their societies after the U.S., though even that's a stretch.  As far as I know, the Christian Democratic parties of Germany and Italy never anointed the United States as the Promised Land.  But in the Third World, it's hard to think of any major political parties that held the U.S. up as an ideal.  For example, the governments of South Korea and South Vietnam angrily rejected the Soviet path, but their alternative was independent nationalism, not Americanism.

Personally, I think post-war U.S. institutions and policies were often bad.  But it still seems like American emulationism should have had great psychological appeal at the time.  Compared to the rest of the world after World War II, the U.S. looked absolutely fabulous: rich, strong, tranquil, and safe.  You'd think that anyone from a newly independent country who visited the U.S. would say, "The Americans have their act together.  Wouldn't it be great if we could make our country just like theirs?"  Furthermore, the Us-Versus-Them mentality of the Cold War should have amplified the variance of opinion.  Once you dub communists the spawn of Satan, it seems natural to embrace the Yankees as God's Chosen People.  But almost no major movement did.

All of this leads me to a question I struggle to answer: Why exactly was Soviet emulationism so much more prevalent than American emulationism?  While you're at it, what are the strongest counter-examples to my claim?  Again, I'm looking for Third World movements that explicitly advocated the emulation of the United States, not groups that were merely "pro-Western."

Please show your work!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Nicholas Weininger writes:

Ho Chi Minh in 1945 might count:

More generally, the American model of wresting independence from an imperial overlord was something that likely did appeal to plenty of Third World countries: and the fact that the US was generally on the side of the imperial overlords in the Cold War period may have dramatically decreased the frequency of American emulationism.

Also, most of the Western intelligentsia under whom the postcolonial leaders studied, including the US intelligentsia, were Marxists. Those leaders may have come to America and thought it great, but observed that the Americans who were friendliest to their cause thought the Soviet path represented the future.

Alan writes:

The Stilyagi tried to emulate American culture ... but then again, technically the Soviet Union was 2nd world.

I think more generally Americans had greater respect for local traditions and preferences, and did not TRY to get their allies to copy American ideas wholesale. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was all about a new and better way of life and international unity, so if you are trying to get everyone to change from the bad old ways to the good new ways and a unified regime, it isn't surprising that everyone was expected to emulate the revolutionary vanguard. That was sort of the whole point.

Don't have work to show - just a general impression. You can use it or not.

Logan writes:

I think it's a combination of Americanism being ill-defined and America not courting the Third World as aggressively as the Soviet Union did. It's telling that West Germany and Japan adopted a more American style than maybe even the rest of Europe even though they had been our enemies. I imagine it's because we were exerting control and funding so many rebuilding efforts there that they both accepted our terms and learned our ways. Plus, so many Western European powers were in the midst of ceding control of their African colonies -- I wonder if the United States was wary of exerting similar influence and interfering with its allies affairs or if it even saw potential of exerting much effort. Maybe colonialism made the Third World wary of Americans as part of the Western European alliance.

I also think that there was a feeling, having collectively won WWII, that governments could and should do big things. The American federal government was investing heavily at both home and abroad. The new order was more "you need aid/government to build the groundwork for a productive economy" and they were waiting for money from either the USA or USSR to do so?

Steve F writes:

How a society is made better by an invisible hand of freely acting individuals is not intuitive to the human mind. How a society is made better by a group using force to mandate its morality does make intuitive sense to the human mind. The former works and the latter doesn't, but the results are too isolated from the ideas, so where the former ideal hasn't taken root in the society already, people tend to follow the Marxist idea that makes most intuitive sense instead of the Smithian one that yields the best results.

Nathan Taylor writes:

Related question: why did leaders of third world countries want to emulate a place (USSR) their own people didn't want to move to (in contrast to the US)?

Let's lump systems of government as:
1) constitutional parliamentary systems, with or without monarch (Britain is emulation model)
2) presidential republics (US is model)
3) presidential-parliamentary (Spain or Russia today)
3) communist autocracies (USSR was model)
5) other autocracies/one party systems (China today)

Here's a map that splits countries by current system of government.

What I see is that today is #1 (british model) won out in British former colonies. #2 (us model) won out in the Americas and parts of Africa. #3 (presidential-parliamentary) won out eastern europe/parts of Africa. And #3 is definitely more autocratic.

So I'd suggest that:
a) USSR government was easier for third world countries to emulate than the US (democracy is hard)
b) even knowing the US was where their own people wanted to live, it'd require leaders losing their own power to model the US
c) the US model is far harder to make work, and more prone to autocracy, than the British model!

That legacy is visible in governments today, where ones with presidents tend to have more problems with autocracy than ones without.

Daniel writes:

Manuals for being like the Soviet Union were readily available. Manuals for being like the US were not.

There is a lot more American Emulationism now, as everyone can look up how the Americans do various things. But it still isn't the organized study of a monolithic body of knowledge that the Communist Party helps translate into lots of languages.

George J. Georganas writes:

One reason the Marshall Plan worked so well was that the US accepted many of the local practices of the European nations it was helping. The US did not seek to impose its model and some of this toleration of local peculiarities was not due to the US being especially broad-minded. Why ought the US try to get strong competitors at a time at which it was leading the world in so many areas of human endeavor ?
So, it is no wonder the US chose to "respect" local "cultures" of cronyism and kleptocracy in its allies in the Third World. The case of Eugene Clay, nephew of the celebrated Lucius Clay, and heading the Economic Section of the American Mission to Greece is, perhaps, instructive. He accepted a bracelet as a wedding present from queen Frederica of Greece valued at US $ 1800 (at the dollar value of that time), but was forced to give it back, since Greece was receiving economic aid by the US at that time. Interestingly, the Ancient Greek word for a bracelet is σπατάλη. In Modern Greek, the word has come to mean waste like in "haste makes waste" !

Rafael R writes:

The US was just another normal country, that is a normal Western country like the others. The Soviet Union was a crazy experiment, something that never happened in history, before or since. A serious attempt at reconstructing society from the ground up through rational central planning. The US was just the normal spontaneous evolution and that was also happening in most countries.

So overall, the USSR represented something truly radical, a radical departure from business as usual and so represented the idea that society could evolve to perhaps a radically better path while the US was the typical business as usual set of policies. They were better off than other Western countries in the 1950s and 1960 because of WW2 shock to Western's Europe macroeconomic evolution.

Roman writes:

In addition to the American economic model being irregular, there's a case to be made that it relies heavily on the rule of law and respected legal structures to conduct it, which is something that most third world countries either don't have access to or in the case of dictatorships are simply not interested in.

Peter Gerdes writes:

I think there is an issue here of confusing Marxism as an ideology and the Soviet Union as a state. For starters people like Lenin occupy a dual role as politicians in the early Soviet Union and philosophical leaders.

Also, there was always a pressure for those in the Soviet Union or those who sought alliance with it to acknowledge it as the embodiment of proper Marxism. Thus, adoption of the marxist ideology, which required rejection of the US/western alliance, implicitly prevented states from saying 'Yah, marxism but not like the soviets' as that would suggest that either marxism was imperfect or the soviets weren't truly marxists.

In contrast there is much less identification between the US and the ideals of freedom, liberty, and democracy. We aren't the only or even the first country to try them (we may have been the first to put together a certain package but that is more subtle). Also our tolerance of criticism (both from within and without) meant there wasn't the same pressure to publicly come out and support the US as the ideal implementation of any particular values.

Finally, I'd raise the possibility that as a democracy we were less sensitive to criticism and less responsive to idolization. Voters in the US lack a personal stake in whether or not countries in the third world idolize our leaders and our leaders come from competing parties so even they have less stake in such concerns. Thus we may have focused more on simple short term pragmatic concerns. In contrast the long tenure of soviet leaders and the lack of an overtly adversarial political system may have meant personal flattery and idolization of their state mattered more.

Ultimately, of course, I'm just speculating so no work to show.

Seva writes:

3 factors

1. Colonialism. The USSR could present itself as an anti-colonial savior “fighting the dragon of the West.” The US was the incarnation of that dragon.

2. Third World demographics and class structure. The usual case: an immense and impoverished peasantry and a small, politically weak middle class. Little space for the appeal of liberal democracy. “The less capitalistic a society is, and the less developed its productive forces, the more favorable are the conditions it offers to Bolshevism,” Leon Aron, 1954

3. Policy incentives of Third World elites. Gave the elites of the developing world a convincing justification for strong centralized rule instead of an American style system. A "centralized style of governance suited itself to the revolutionaries seeking to remold their societies." (Marks 2003)

James H writes:

The people that wanted their countries to become like America moved to America instead of trying to change their country's politics. It doesn't quite work for everyone, but it does for people of means--and they are the kind that have a larger influence on their country.

I mean--maybe?

Carl-Henri Prophete writes:

I suspect that the Soviet Model had greater appeal for the Third World for the same reason a "Socialist" Revolution succeeded in poor and starkly unequal Russia and not in the richer countries of Western Europe. In poorer and very unequal countries (the case of Russia prior to the revolution and the Third World after WWII) there was a stronger demand for radical social and economic change. American style free markets and liberal democracy may have not seem to be bold enough to bring that radical change.

Vegas writes:

How many Africans in the early postcolonial years visited US? Virtually none, and the ignorance could not permit emulation. I myself grew up in USSR and I had had no idea how people live across the border.

E. Harding writes:

The U.S. was never very much like a third-world country (it was quite rich by contemporary standards by the time of its independence, and was always a nation of settlers, not occupied native peoples). The Russian Empire, on the other hand, once had serfdom and had a very large peasant population at the time of the revolution. Countries with self-conceptions as poor countries would find it more logical to emulate countries with histories once like theirs. American emulationism actually did become popular in the USSR in the 1980s, but basically disappeared in the 1990s.

Vegas writes:

US is very self-isolated country, and not particularly visible. In the post-soviet part of Europe, for example, Scandinavian businesses dominate, with American business pretty much missing.

Brian Mason writes:

People love plans and lust for certainty even when it is bad.

Fernando Leal writes:

As a Mexican citizen, I can confirm that no political or intellectual movement in my country has ever wanted to emulate the USA, yet not after WWII but already after 1846. What happened then in 1846? The US government invaded Mexico and then proceeded to "buy", at gunpoint, the territories of what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and more than half of Colorado. This happened after helping to "liberate" Texas in 1836. Before 1836 and especially before 1846 Mexican politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and the common people were practically all emulationists. But not after that. This is the most likely explanation for it being politically impossible to be an American emulationist in Mexico. I wonder whether similar explanations can be offered for other 3rd world countries.

Tim writes:

The answer is obvious. Communism, socialism, etc. all promised utopia while America only promised freedom.

mm writes:

maybe b/c you don't fight for years in the swamps to be 1 out of few million votes- you fight to be THE vote. Most countries in the modern world have only in the last 100 years or so thrown off colonial administration or monarchy-and it wasn't nonviolent. The leaders of the "revolt" sought power behind a facade of popular sovereignty. Rather than ask why they don't emulate the US you should ask why was Geo Washington so unique? Remember King George remarked that if Washington stepped down from power he would be the most remarkable man of his age. Furthermore, most intellectuals think they are better to able to choose for the masses than the masses are-it is the same here. "Experts" don't trust the natural evolution of systems-they want to be the designer and it is hard to trust the natural evolution (invisible hand) when you start from a very dysfunctional beginning.

Savva Shanaev writes:

I believe Singapore counts as a pretty clear example of Western emulationsim, British emulationism rather than American emulationism, but still. I suppose one of the reasons why copying Western institutions post-WW2 would be harder and less appealing even for well-meaning Third world elites is that Western-educated intellectuals promoting Western institutions were much rarer at the time than Soviet-educated intellectuals promoting Soviet institutions. Most of the Soviet-type experiments were at least partly consulted and supervised by Soviet-educated specialists. Singapore had its elites educated in the UK, fascinated by and firmly believing in the "old", more classical-liberal Western institutions. Undoubtedly, that helped to carry out a rather successful transition of Singapore. Western intellectuals, in turn, were in their majority fascinated by social engineering ideas and often argued for at least some Soviet emulationism themselves, especially right after the WW2. Therefore, it would arguably be rather hard to find a Western so-called "free-market economist" post-WW2 to assist the elites in any kind of "Western emulationism" project.

Juan writes:

Apart form what other comments said, it is important to note that local elites would be harmed by free elections and free markets. So the right in third world countries is against market and political liberalization, to keep their share of the rents.

Hazel Meade writes:

Most third world countries are non-white. The US in the post-war era was a country that was racially segregated and minorities had a lower status.
My guess is that countries composed largely of non-white populations didn't want to emulate a culture in which they would be considered inferior.

Manfred writes:

Fernando (Leal) -
Fine - you say that Mexico did not want to emulate the US since 1846, because of resentment against the US.
Let me get this straight: Mexican politicians, Mexican policymakers, Mexican decision-makers, preferred to build a country full of corruption, graft, underdevelopment, with a Third World mentality, just because of resentment against the US? And the Mexican voters and Mexican society was fine with that? Mexican politicians preferred to keep Mexicans poor and underdeveloped, rather than emulate a system that would give them prosperity and wealth for all (and not just a chose few)?

It seems to me that Mexico and Mexican shot themselves in the foot. And that foot, even after 160 years, is not cured, and will probably never, ever, be cured at all.

Ivan writes:

Couple of factors to answer your first question:
1. Emulating the “American” system requires a lot of work. Building good institutions, clamping down on corruption, decentralization of power, etc. All these changes would look very unattractive to authoritarian/totalitarian dictators that 3rd world countries tends to have
2. Soviet system was already authoritarian/totalitarian and hence an easy transition for the above mentioned dictators
3. Soviet system offered a plausible veneer for dictators to hide behind i.e. (I am oppressing you for the greater good of communist utopia)
4. This one is a bit speculative but I imagine Soviet union offered the 3rd world dictators more tools and resources to oppress their people and maintain power, given how adept the soviet system was at this

Jesse C writes:

Manfred - I was dumbfounded by that theory of Mexico as well. Ironically, 99% of the US remains unaware of this political "snub" from Mexico.

Fernando Leal - has this sentiment also manifested itself as an overall rejection of US culture since 1846, or just the framework of constitutional government?

Floccina writes:

When I lived in Honduras I was surprised that they had a Social Security like program similar to the US program and minimum wage. I thought that these seemed silly to me for a country like Honduras. People there would quote absurdly high unemployment rates (30%-40%) yet people seemed to mostly working, many in the informal sector, maybe to avoid the minimum wage and the SS tax.

Also the education system seemed to mimic the USA system.

So they seemed to follow the USA in Government programs.

Unlike the USA they have tried to implement a gov. healthcare system like the UK, but so far it's only in the major cities.

Although the country's national public health system was created in 1959, the date when the Honduran Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño del Seguro Social--IHSS) began to operate, the proliferation of health services to all regions of the country has been painfully slow. For years, people have had to travel to Tegucigalpa to avail themselves of public health service. During the 1970s, when the government made an effort to expand health services, the INSS opened a medical center in San Pedro Sula. However, in El Progreso, only fifty kilometers away and the third largest city in the country, IHSS services were not available until 1992. Population growth, the implementation of economic austerity measures by the government in the 1990s, and the present lack of facilities seem to suggest that public health services in Honduras are likely to remain inadequate in the near future.

So they copied the new deal programs but economic freedom is ignored. Tough to get rig of corruption.

They want development programs just allowing economic freedom is not intuitive.

I'd ask more than mimic the USA, why do they not mimic Chile which is close to them in culture?

Alejandro Durán writes:

I am also Mexican and I don't agree with Fernando Leal's comment. U.S. gun-point theft of half of Mexico in 1847 will remain a painful memory here. However, Mexican people's attitude and disposition to gringos -their culture, the way they are, their economic organization, their political system- has always been quite positive. Actually, since Mexican independence in 1821 and until Mexican revolution in 1910, Liberals -the end winners of XIX century civil wars- did want to mimic the U.S. as much as possible.

I am convinced that the rise of socialism worldwide and the needs of the regime that toppled one hundred years ago the old Liberal dictator took Mexico away from the free-market economic model. Interestingly, despite relevant differences in Mexican history from other former Spanish possessions in America, its political and economic backwardness is not that different than other Latin American countries which never endured U.S. military aggressions such as we did.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top