Published: March 31 2005
Once upon a time there was the west, winner of history's race to modernity, and there were the rest, trying to catch up. Every society was thought to make the same journey, at greater or lesser speed, from hidebound tradition to the bright promise of industrial modernity and unrestricted economic growth. If it did not, something had gone wrong: it might be excessive attachment to (non-Christian) religions and creeds, or to pre-modern sources of loyalty such as the family and the tribe. Women were a litmus test: where their feet were bound or heads covered, there was little hope for their communities without radical change delivered by western-oriented saviours. Secularism, urbanisation and market forces would propel them forward.
During the cold war, fleshing out this self-congratulatory model kept academics busy. According to the historians, the west owed its ascent not just to anything as recent or crudely violent as 19th-century colonial expansion or the preceding industrial revolution but to other, more venerable institutions and values. For some, the west's ascent was thanks to a 17th-century "scientific revolution" - the moment at which humanity supposedly asserted its claim to knowledge over the censorious power of religious authorities; for others, it was the rise of capitalist banking, perhaps even the emergence of a church-state balance of powers centuries before.
All this reflected the realities of the time. Europe's dreams of world domination, shattered in the bloodletting of war, had passed to the US: extolling the west's virtues served to assert the depth of shared transatlantic values, and simultaneously defined them against the cold war barbarians to the east. So it should not surprise us now, as US power approaches its military and economic zenith and confronts the rapid emergence of India and China, that the shifting global balance is altering our understanding of the past once again. According to some east Asia experts in the US, the west's ascent was reasonably recent and fortuitous: in 1800, China's gross national product was probably still higher than Europe's. For them the Pacific, not the Atlantic, is key to understanding the long run of world development. Their findings give western policymakers reason to pause before seeking to spread their own values around the globe. For if the west's rise is no more than two centuries old, its success may owe more to contingency and less to values than its cheerleaders believe. For states as for stock markets, what goes up may also come down.
From the Enlightenment onwards, the ascendancy of the west was contrasted with the moribund east. Its origins were traced back to Greece and Rome rather than, say, Egypt and Mesopotamia. India was ignored, at least until the British marched in. The Chinese were credited, thanks to Marco Polo, with pasta and ice cream and occasionally, paper. Yet we now know that in terms of per capita income or density of trading networks there was little to choose between the most advanced parts of Europe and sophisticated Asian economies before the late 18th century. It was not lack of curiosity or weakness that explains why the Ottomans, the Moghuls, the Russians and the Chinese did not join the European mania for exploration and colonisation; they did not need to. Their expansion took place mostly by land and they left costly maritime ventures to the profligate but technologically inventive Europeans.
Conversely, it was not brilliant success but rather imminent impoverishment that forced a resource-bare, crowded island off Europe's north-west coast to move to a labour-intensive, coal-based economy. Britain's embrace of new technologies was fostered by its rulers' ruthless priorities. Whereas the older empires placed a premium on social stability, successive British governments focused on developing military technologies, state-licensed trading companies and market-driven systems of credit. The outcomes were often internally destabilising but in small countries, this mattered less than in large ones. Britain's European rivals could hardly afford not to follow.
Only in the 19th century did Europe, a conflict-torn region of small, belligerent states, leap decisively ahead of the great Eurasian land empires, spreading capitalism and colonialism across the globe, before being overtaken in turn by its child-rival, the US. Today, barely 200 years since the west's ascendancy, its end may be in sight. Yet many western policymakers continue to see their own values as universally desirable, the key not only to their past but to everyone else's future. A precarious argument. If Chinese historians, from a resurgent Beijing in two centuries' time, point to those western values as the source of America's 23rd-century decline, will we say they are wrong?
States that believe promotion of their interests depends on
export of their culture and values are doomed to fail. Better to
realise that religious politics is not necessarily a sign of
medievalism, and that privatised democracies are not a one-size cure
for the world's ills. Of course China's rise does not portend the
downfall of the US or Europe but it does challenge the west's
self-perception as the civilisational hegemon in global affairs. In
this context revitalising the United Nations becomes more vital than
ever, for ideas translate precariously across the boundaries of
language and belief, and life will not be easier in the absence of
the international forums that make mutual comprehension possible.
The world before 1800 was one of multiple power-centres and value
systems: let us adjust to the fact that it is starting to look like
The writer, professor of history at Columbia University, is author of Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews1430-1950 (Harper- Collins/Knopf)