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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 396-398

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Book Review

The West and the Third World: Trade, Colonialism, Dependence and Development

The West and the Third World: Trade, Colonialism, Dependence and Development. By D. K. FIELDHOUSE. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. Pp. xii + 378. $62.95 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

Fieldhouse's historical narrative on the imperial connections between the West and the rest of the world over the past two centuries or so falls short as a comprehensive history of the topic. In recent years, for example, the field of imperial history has been overtaken by postmodern analyses focusing on cultural encounters. Much of this postcolonial scholarship has contributed significantly to our understanding of the imperial experience; some of it is mystifying and generally incomprehensible. Regardless, Fieldhouse completely avoids the literature on postcolonialism for he admits to have read little of it. In keeping with his earlier work, including Economics and Empire (1973) and Merchant Capital and Economic Decolonization (1994), Fieldhouse studies the economic history and theory of empire. In this respect, Fieldhouse's most recent book is superb.

Fieldhouse sets out to answer the following questions: first, have Third World countries (LDCs) benefited or suffered as a result of their economic relationships with the West; and second, would the Third World have been better off had it been left alone to develop autonomously? [End Page 396] Fieldhouse answers the second question succinctly. Given the dynamic character of the West's development in the modern era, global economic integration was inevitable. The West's economic, technological, and military dynamism from the sixteenth century onward ensured that even the most remote corners of the globe would remain unaffected by global economic integration. Even China, which escaped formal colonial rule, failed to evade the tentacles of western technological progress.

Fieldhouse's answer to the first question results in a detailed and nuanced excursion into classical political economy, developmental economics, Marxian and neo-Marxian economics, and dependency theory. He then divides his analysis into the theoretical "optimists" and "pessimists," and explores the implications of these positions on the economic experiences of settler societies in Latin America and Australasia, colonial dependencies in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and postcolonial developments in Africa and India. According to Fieldhouse, the optimists are those who believe that the formation of the global economy since the sixteenth century has been on balance mutually beneficial to the Western core and the non-Western periphery alike. Free trade optimism, which derives from the arguments of Adam Smith and the classical economists of the early nineteenth century, is most clearly expressed in the late twentieth century in the principles underlying the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the strategies pursued by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The core belief of the free traders is that "individuals and societies are most prosperous if they are free to produce and consume without artificial restriction" (p. 10). Given such freedom, each nation is free to devote its economic energy to commerce that offers "comparative advantage" in the international exchange of commodities. Such a formula, then and now, remains a hard doctrine for aspiring manufacturers seeking to break into the international market. Recognizing some of the limitations of free trade theory in its purest form, J. S. Mill formulated the "infant-industry" argument in the mid-nineteenth century. Mill modified free trade theory in a way that became the mainstay of modern protectionism, especially in colonial and postcolonial situations.

But how has the free trade formula worked for the LDCs? In contrast to the rosy predictions of the optimists, the pessimists believe the Third World has either languished or experienced little advantage in unregulated or even moderately regulated trade with the West. For example, in the 1950s and the 1960s developmental economists, concerned over the growing gap between rich nations and poor nations, argued that LDCs could only advance through industrialization within [End Page 397] a partially closed national economy rather than within the global economic system. In contrast, neo...