Daniel Weimer. Seeing Drugs: Modernization, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Narcotics Control in the Third World, 1969-1976. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2011. 316 S. ISBN 978-1-60635-059-1.
Reviewed by Julien Mercille
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (November, 2013)
D. Weimer: Seeing Drugs
The United States’ ‘War on Drugs’ could be seen as America’s longest-running war, on-going for over 40 years and having impacted numerous countries. Interestingly, it has, however, never been successful or effective when judged against its stated purpose, namely, eradicating drug production and reduce narcotic consumption, in the United States or elsewhere. The war, which has been a total failure, was officially launched by President Richard Nixon, and it is this point of departure and subsequent few years (including the Ford presidency) that Daniel Weimer explores in his book. There have been many volumes and articles written about US policy toward drugs, but relatively speaking, there are markedly fewer about this early period, and in this sense the book is a welcome addition to our understanding of the drug war’s formative years.
This being said, there already exist a few volumes of high quality that describe the historical origins of US drug control policy, most notably Alfred McCoy’s work. Making novel and significant advances in the historiography of this period is thus no easy task. Weimer’s contribution is to highlight the significance of modernisation and counterinsurgency theory in the design and rolling out of strategies related to narcotic control on the part of US officials. He focuses on interventions in Thailand, Burma and Mexico in the 1970s, while including discussions of drug problems in the United States as well. American officials believed that by targeting those countries using the insights of modernisation and counterinsurgency principles, they would ultimately alleviate America’s own drug addiction problems. For example, he argues that crop-substitution projects in Thailand in the early 1970s intertwined drug control and development ideals and illustrate the American belief that modernisation was an important weapon in the fight against drug production.
Methodologically, Weimer uses discourse analysis to interpret modernisation and counterinsurgency as cultural constructions through which US officials understood, created and implemented policies related to the war on drugs in various locales on the globe. As he notes, such discourses were not the only relevant ones at play. Perhaps most importantly, the cold war discourse of anti-communism cast its shadow over all of US foreign policy during those years, and Weimer explores how it was interlinked with his subject matter. Another line of analysis running throughout the book explores the cultural significance of drugs and addiction as well as their links cultural identity formation in the United States, Burma, Thailand and Mexico. The broader significance of Weimer’s work is to shed light on US relations with the Third World during the Cold War, through the lense of drug control interventions. Although narcotics and the war on drugs never ranked highly among the factors shaping US foreign policy, they are nevertheless certainly worthy of consideration, something which Weimer accomplishes systematically.
An assessment of the book must first recognise that the arguments presented are well taken, and that the discussion of the role of modernisation and counterinsurgency theory in overseas narcotic control operations is thorough and well delivered. Where one might take issue with Weimer’s thesis, or at least argue to recalibrate it, is in the relative significance of modernisation and counterinsurgency in understanding the US war on drugs. They are obviously part of the picture, and Weimer shows well in what ways this is so, based on extensive discussion of their application in various countries and regions. But one would be entitled to ask if modernisation and counterinsurgency are as central to counternarcotics strategies as Weimer claims they are? What about factors like the cold war, US hegemony, imperialism, and the like? Have they not been more central in shaping and influencing the directions taken by counternarcotic strategy? Of course, the book does not ignore those factors, and sometimes explicitly and extensively comments on them, but still does not put them at the centre of the analysis.
This choice may be related to the types of questions that the author seeks to address and answer. If the book is more concerned with the factors that have shaped the implementation of drug control policies in immediate terms, then perhaps modernisation and counterinsurgency should be foregrounded. But if the goal is to explain what has motivated US officials’ understandings and implementation of overseas narcotic operations, then it may be that modernisation theory was less central than other factors. US foreign policy, of which the ‘drug war’ is one aspect, has been driven first and foremost by power and political economic considerations, such as establishing control over natural resources, markets, investment outlets, while ensuring that foreign regimes align themselves with Washington as opposed to adopting an independent course of development. In this scheme, drug wars are best seen as propaganda exercises providing pretexts for global intervention.
The book’s methodological and theoretical framework is clearly explained, drawing on discourse analysis to interpret US officials’ pronouncements, conceptualisations and strategies related to the drug war. Although this apparatus does not reduce the quality of the book, it is difficult to see what it adds in terms of our understanding of the subject matter. True, such approaches have been trendy in academia and especially among scholars of culture, but one would be hard put to indicate what they reveal that cannot be said in simpler language. Nevertheless, overall, the book remains a worthwhile contribution to the historiography of the early and defining years of the ‘war on drugs’.
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Julien Mercille. Review of Weimer, Daniel, Seeing Drugs: Modernization, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Narcotics Control in the Third World, 1969-1976.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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