You grew up in Canada. How did you come to study Argentina?
I first got interested in Latin America when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. There were a lot of exiles from Argentina and Chile there, refugees from the dictatorships of the 1970s, among them a couple of my teachers. At the time Canada was a haven for such refugees. That was really an eye-opening experience. I took a year off during college and lived in Colombia, working for the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps.
I got into Argentina later, in part because of the question Argentina posed. Why does a country like Argentina, which has all the endowments you would think would be necessary for successful economic development, spin off on a different trajectory? Argentina was seen as an enigma by people who studied development. The country saw extraordinary economic growth from 1880 to 1930, largely due to exports. In the 1920s a lot of people would have treated Argentina as a success case; Argentines were only too happy to describe themselves in the same ways that Americans and Canadians did. But things fell apart quickly, and by the 1960s and ‘70s Argentina was seen as a country locked in a very deep crisis. And there is still no consensus about why that happened.
Your first book compared frontier development in Canada and Argentina. What did you discover?
This problem of Argentine development brought me back to Canadian history, which I’d always been interested in as a Canadian. In particular, I was interested in how North American societies go one way and Latin American societies go another, despite initially similar conditions. The growth models in Argentina and Canada were in many ways similar: both countries used immigrant labor, both borrowed capital from Europe, both relied on exports as a motor of economic growth. What distinguished them was the distribution of land. One general theme of that book is that the distribution of resources, the relative equality or inequality of the distribution, is really the conditioner of modern life. The quality of a democracy, the model of economic growth--a whole set of outcomes are very much determined by the underlying distribution of resources. In Argentina land distribution was not all equitable, and this produced a very polarized society. But I mean resources in the broadest sense. It could be social or cultural as well as material.
Republic of Capital follows the development of Argentina from late colonialism to the adoption of a constitution in 1853. How did you choose this topic?
I was trying to explain some of the anomalous features of the Argentine state. How it could be a modern republic and at the same time so exclusive. It was a republic in name, but in fact it seemed to leave out large numbers of people and to support the interests of only a small minority. In Frontier Development I didn’t really interrogate the role of the state in public policy. Yet, ultimately, the state determined the distribution of resources. I realized that I needed to look at the political conditions that shape this distributional landscape. It turns out that there was a more interesting story about how the internal development of the state was never really settled; that in many respects there was not a “formed” state or republic in the wake of secession from Spain. Argentines live with the legacies of their founding revolutions in ways I had not really appreciated. In the end, many of the questions raised in the debate and struggle over statehood and society remain open--and highly contested. As a result, I think politics has played a much larger role in determining the trajectory of Argentina in the 20th century than I thought when I wrote Frontier Development. I have come to appreciate more the importance of political contingency. The economic framework I once used doesn’t really explain how politics can shape a country’s trajectory.
Latin America has been described as a place where liberalism failed -- where free markets and democratic politics did not reinforce one another. What do you think of that?
To some extent that’s true: liberalism went awry in Latin America. But that doesn’t mean that Latin America was a place of congenital failure. The challenges of liberalism were much greater in Latin America than elsewhere. Liberalism not only had to give an institutional framework to very diverse societies--a framework within which people could debate and contest and practice pluralism. It also had to create institutions to provide underlying stability. Liberalism was never really imagined as a mechanism for creating institutions.
The other thing to note is that the imbalance between social and economic and political forces that you can point to in Latin America is always possible in liberal societies. Liberalism is not always its best custodian. It’s much easier to destroy legitimacy and institutions than it is to create them. That’s been a big difficulty in Latin America. But it’s also always a potentiality in the United States and Europe. We saw this in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. We shouldn’t take our liberties for granted. Breakdown is possible. And it may not be the holdover of some archaic tradition that’s anti-liberal. The breakdown can come from within liberalism itself.
Recently you were the coauthor, with other Princeton historians, on a new world history, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. How did that come about?
The book grew out of a course that Gyan Prakash and Robert Tignor had taught for many years. We started out wanting to write a history of the world that did not always view its subject through the lens of Europe, as Western civilization textbooks traditionally did. We discovered that European history was certainly important, but what was also very important was the presence at any given time of many different voices and alternatives. History was not marching in one direction toward a Euro-centric world or toward modernity. Within Europe and beyond, there were lots of simultaneous, countervailing processes. There was always a lot of noise. If you want to be a good historian, you have to listen to the noise. If you tune it out, you miss a vital part of the past.
Do you think about history differently having worked on that book?
Yes, no question. I now think about Latin American history from a more international perspective. My new projects focus more on the relationship between Latin America and the world. My current book is about the end of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires and the origins of the nation state in Latin America. One of the punch lines of the book is that Latin American states are very much the product of an international conflict that didn’t start in Latin America, it started in Europe. The process began in 1807, when Napoleon invaded Spain and Portugal. The dominant understanding of decolonization is that colonies acquire a sense of difference from the metropole and then secede. What I’m arguing is that, in fact, it was a breakdown at the core of the empires that caused the crisis in the peripheries and the secession of the colonies. It was the failure of the empires in Lisbon and Madrid that led to secession, not the other way around.
How do Princeton students approach the study of Latin America?
Students often arrive at Princeton knowing a lot, partly because Spanish has become the second language of the United States. Many of them have learned Spanish in school, many have spent time in Latin America. So there is actually a high level of familiarity. Having said that, there are lots of stereotypes I try to challenge. There is an image of Latin America as underdeveloped, both materially and culturally. Latin America is a very rich part of the world; it’s just very badly distributed wealth. I try to get students to think of Latin America--or the Third World in general--not as a place of poverty and illiteracy. Latin America is a very dynamic place and very exciting from a cultural point of view. The debates going on in Latin America about the meaning of democracy, or about high versus low culture, are as vibrant as the debates in the United States. I want my students to see that.