Escape from Empire: The Developing World's Journey Through Heaven and Hell.

AuthorWebb, James
PositionBook review

Escape from Empire: The Developing World's Journey Through Heaven and Hell, by Alice H. Amsden. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2007. ISBN 0 262 01234 0 / 978 0 262 01234 8, $27.50. 197 pages.

In her brief, engaging essay, Alice H. Amsden sketches the puzzling performance of development among Third World countries since World War II (WWII). Amsden divides the period into the "First American Empire" (1946 to the end of the Vietnam War) and the "Second American Empire" (mid-1970s to the present). The quarter century after the end of World War II (First American Empire) was an extraordinary period of growth for many of the poorer countries of the world.

After the first energy-shock (in 1973-74) until the present (Second American Empire), the picture has been very mixed with many of the less economically developed countries performing much more poorly in terms of growth in income per capita. A number of countries--such as Mexico--experienced "lost decades" with zero growth. Argentina and Chile slipped from income levels as high as Western European countries to the mid-level of Third World countries. Some countries had periods of negative growth in income. But some countries have done remarkably well in the latter period: in particular China, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Thailand and Indonesia. Two puzzles in the Second American Empire are: (1) the loss of growth among most Latin American countries and (2) why a few countries, mostly Asian, have done well while many have slid backward or have grown very slowly.

The core of Amsden's explanation rests on the policies the United States imposed on the rest of the world as hegemonic power. The United States had an unprecedented economic advantage as the only major industrialized country that had come through WWII not merely undamaged by the fighting but greatly enhanced by the war effort. At the same time, the United States was quickly embroiled in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. At this time, the relatively successful collective action to contend with the Great Depression and the aggression of the Axis Powers was fresh on the minds of American leaders, such as George C. Marshall. The international institutions created in the aftermath of WWII were intended to be pragmatic in the best sense of the word. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) provided a great deal of flexibility on trade policies. Thus, the First American Empire was doggedly and dogmatically anti-Communist but...

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