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Adventures in Chaos, by Douglas Macdonald

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Russil Wvong

Jan 21, 2003, 4:25:46 PM1/21/03
Back in December, I mentioned that I had picked up the book "Adventures
in Chaos: American Intervention for Reform in the Third World", by
Dougalas Macdonald.

Trakar <> wrote (back in December):
> Let me know what you think! I hear from some of my colleges that it
> was on the academy's required reading list back in the mid-late
> nineties. I am fairly impressed with both the author's style and
> opinion, if you run across anything else he has had published, please
> drop me a line.

I thought it was very good: it strikes a good balance between
concepts (bolstering vs. reform, resistance to reform, bargaining,
commitment trap) and detailed case studies (China under the
KMT, the Philippines, South Vietnam under Diem). It's not detailed
enough to be a guide for would-be nation-builders, but it's better
than anything else I've seen. I'm glad to hear that it's widely

Macdonald argues that the US has often attempted to push through
reforms in unstable client states -- political as well as military
and economic -- as a way of strengthening their legitimacy. The
problem is that the client government is probably primarily concerned
with maintaining its power relative to other domestic factions.
To quote George Kennan:

... Every government has a dual quality. It is in one
sense the spokesman for the nation at large. Yet at the same time
it is always the representative of a single dominant political
faction, or coalition of factions, within the given body politic,
and thus the protagonist of the interests of that political
element over and against the interests of other competing
political elements in the respective country. The aspirations and
pretensions it voices on the international level therefore do not
necessarily reflect only the actual desiderata of the totality of
the people in question; they may also be the reflection of the
internal political competition in which the respective
governmental leaders are engaged. That goes for every country in
the world, including our own.
[*Realities of American Foreign Policy* (1954), pp. 42-43]

Because reform will alter the domestic balance of power, it is always
resisted by the client government. In times of political stability,
the response is, "Why rock the boat?" In times of upheaval, the
response is, "First I must restore order, then we can discuss reform."

Application to US-aligned states in the Middle East is left as an
exercise for the reader.

Attempts at military reform in China under the KMT failed, partly
because of what Douglas Macdonald identifies as the "commitment trap":
if the patron state doesn't have any choice but to supply aid to the
client without conditions, then the patron doesn't have any leverage
to push through reforms. And the rising tensions of the Cold War,
plus the strength of the China Lobby in the US, put the US in this

Lessons learned from China were applied successfully in the Philippines.
Macdonald identifies two types of political reform: *elite reform* and
*redistributive reform*. Elite reform means changing who's running
the country: getting rid of officials who are incompetent and corrupt
(but probably loyal to the leader), bringing in officials who are
competent. Redistributive reform means sharing power more equally
between different groups. In the case of the Philippines, US support
for Ramon Magsaysay was one of the key turning points. Macdonald's
narrative describing the election battle between Quirino and Edward
Lansdale of the CIA is alternately horrifying and amusing.

Without political reform, it's difficult to make military reforms and
economic reforms succeed. (Which may explain why IMF and World Bank
intervention doesn't often succeed. Macdonald's passing comment that
Carter's human rights policy was relatively superficial was also
quite perceptive, I thought.)

Macdonald's third case study is South Vietnam under Diem. Macdonald
describes splits within the US government over how to deal with Diem,
and the complex interaction between different groups within the US
government and Diem's government.

Macdonald also spends some time describing the US policy choice between
bolstering (providing aid to a client with no strings attached) and
reform, and how different administrations have leaned one way or the
other. Although Macdonald certainly doesn't underplay the difficulty
of reform, he's more optimistic about reform than some other diplomatic
historians I'm familiar with (Kennan, John Paton Davies Jr.'s "Foreign
and Other Affairs"). I'm also curious as to whether Macdonald's seen
James Scott's "Seeing Like a State", which presents a pessimistic view
of large-scale planned social change.

According to his postings on H-DIPLO, Macdonald is currently working
on a new book on the role of ideology in the Cold War. One of his
articles, "Communist Bloc Expansion in the Early Cold War", is
available on the web:

Russil Wvong
Vancouver, Canada FAQ:


Jan 26, 2003, 3:25:26 PM1/26/03
On 21 Jan 2003 13:25:46 -0800, (Russil Wvong)

>.....,According to his postings on H-DIPLO, Macdonald is currently working

>on a new book on the role of ideology in the Cold War. One of his
>articles, "Communist Bloc Expansion in the Early Cold War", is
>available on the web:

Thank-you for the link!

Russil Wvong

Jan 27, 2003, 11:52:55 AM1/27/03

You're welcome!


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