Modernization as a Global Project: American, Soviet, and European Approaches

Modernization as a Global Project: American, Soviet, and European Approaches

Corinna Unger and David Engerman
German Historical Institute
Washington, DC
United States
From - Until
28.03.2008 - 29.03.2008
Corinna Unger, Department of History and Civilization, European University Institute


In recent years, American historians have explored the project of modernization and development from its conceptual origins through its practical applications. German and European scholars are paying increasing attention to the problems of economic and political development in the new Third World – or, from the European perspective, the former colonies. It is, therefore, a useful moment to bring together historians to compare approaches to modernization and development in the global north – the United States, Europe (East and West) and the USSR.

In his award-winning book, The Global Cold War, Odd Arne Westad argues that the conflict between East and West in the Third World was an expression of two competing models of modernization, a democratic one and a socialist one. This thesis can serve as a conceptual basis for a comparison of modernization politics. Were the two models really as different as they presented themselves to be? How did each side perceive the other model? Which problems did each party encounter when trying to implement its modernization concept abroad?

A handful of scholars, primarily in Europe, have begun serious research on the modernization and development programs of the Soviet Union and its East European allies. Yet there remains a great deal to be learned about Soviet bloc activities in the Third World, from education and training opportunities to economic development, to military aid. How did Communist models of development change during their “export” to the Third World? What challenges did proponents of Soviet-style modernization encounter abroad?

And was there only one form of democratic modernization? Did the members of the Western alliance – many of whom had been colonizers in the immediate past – follow a common approach to modernizing the Third World? It might prove fruitful to ask whether the Western alliance’s coherence with regard to its modernization approach vis-à-vis the “underdeveloped world” was really as strong as usually portrayed. To do so, one has to analyze the intellectual origins of American and European concepts of modernization, the transatlantic transfer of ideas of modernization and development, the formulation of modernization projects in national and/or regional contexts, and the Western countries’ methods, successes and problems in implementing their models in the Third World.

Finally, many of the accounts to date have emphasized western ideas and policies over Third World aims, interests, and responses. How did the target countries of the Third World react to the different modernization schemes offered to them? What did indigenous and imported ideas about “modernity” share? And how did they conflict?

To encourage discussion of these questions and problems, and to bring together scholars working on related topics, the German Historical Institute Washington is organizing a workshop to take place in March 28-29, 2008, at the GHI. The GHI will cover travel and accomodation expenses. The workshop will be held in English.

In order to facilitate scholarly interchange, participants will circulate their papers before the conference, and will give only very brief oral summaries. Final papers (12 to 15 pages) are due March 1, 2008, and will be available to conference participants only.

The following topics could be discussed at this occasion:

- Modernization Discourses in the West, the Soviet Bloc, and the Third World
- Industrialization versus Agrarian Reform
- Demography, Human Ecology, Public Health
- Flow of Technology, People, and Ideas
- Propaganda and Cultural Diplomacy

Scholars interested in participating in the workshop are asked to send an abstract (200 to 400 words, in English) and a short curriculum vitae to Corinna Unger ( before October 22, 2007. Inquiries can be made to both conveners, David Engerman ( and Corinna Unger (


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Corinna Unger
German Historical Institute Washington
1607 New Hampshire Ave., NW,
Washington, DC 20009
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