The Triumph of the West
Try to imagine history without Western civilization: it’s hard to do. For the last five hundred years no civilization has had a deeper impact on world history than the West; its footprint lies everywhere. There are many historians who claim that the rise of the West is the most important historical phenomenon in our last two thousand years, and I am among them. Some scholars challenge this (many on purely moral grounds, but without much evidence). They suggest that the West has had no more impact on world history than any of the Rest, and that, if the West shaped other civilizations, then it was equally shaped by the Rest. The West does owe some debts to China, Islam, Byzantium, as well as the Hellenic world, but no one could claim that the West resembles any of these other societies in anything greater than a superficial sense. And then there is the West’s impact on the rest of the world; an impact greater than that of any other society or civilization.
Historian John Roberts wrote in 1985: “That is the West’s ambiguous triumph-the difference it has made to the world”. Western civilization is not without its faults. Imperialism is now condemned as a great violation of human rights by those who only understand human rights and value through Western ideals. The Great War, the Nazi Holocaust, the endless pursuit of material gains, and all the misdeeds of imperialism are certainly products of Western civilization. But does this really make the triumph of the West ambiguous? To answer that question let us consider the difference the West has made to the world.
It seems that so many people long for the past. The past was simpler; life more enjoyable. Modern readers must be reminded of the lot of the vast majority of mankind. Before the modern world that Western Europe created, poverty, disease, violence, and hunger characterized all pre-modern societies. Considering only income, the masses lived on little more than a dollar a day. For all intents and purposes the people of the world were no better off than their ancestors at the dawn of civilization. Poverty, and the desperation that comes with it, was the norm amongst our ancestors. Even in the best of times no consistent, long-term increase in living standards was possible. Technological change just wasn’t fast enough to allow economic growth to continuously outpace population growth. Jean Bourdichon portrayed the misery of pre-modern societies in his piece “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty”. There was no middle class; a person was rich or poor depending on the family he or she was born into, and most everyone stayed there.
Life expectancy was also abysmal; just 24 at birth for anyone born between the dawn of civilization and the sixteenth century. If a person survived to his or her fifteenth birthday the chances of reaching a ripe old age were drastically improved. Survival is the operative word; almost a third of children between 0 and 15 living in England in 1650 would check out between those birthdays. Almost a quarter of female deaths at birth were the result of infanticide. Disease, often helped along by terrible sanitation, famine, and dirty clothes, checked population growth. Many westerners are familiar with the bubonic plague which struck not only Europe, but all of Eurasia in the fourteenth century. That was only the most famous of mediaeval diseases. Today, many of the poor in industrial nations live healthier lives than the wealthiest of pre-industrial societies.
A man’s home is his castle, and in pre-modern times it needed to be fortified as such. People were not safe in or out of their homes. Highway robbers frequently struck unsuspecting passersby. The Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan depicted a common incident in which a man is robbed and beaten while traveling between two cities. More alert and sensible travelers moved in groups, and carried concealed weapons. Even the American National Rifle Association is not as paranoid as people were in pre-modern societies. Before conceptions of human rights were fully developed a ruler’s peasants were his life blood- and fair game for invading armies. In the past, warfare meant plunder, rape, pillage, and the enslavement of defeated populations. Peter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” painted in the late sixteenth century portrayed a gruesome massacre during one of Europe’s many religious wars. Hunter-gatherer societies are sometimes idealized for their equality and peacefulness. Yet, a person is more likely to be murdered in primitive tribes than in today’s modern societies.
The modern world is an escape from all of this. For a start consider that it is now possible to write optimistically about “the end of poverty”. Once, it was thought that nothing could be done to ease poverty. People were poor because they did not have what it took to be rich, or God had made them poor in order to serve the rich, so the thinking went. The West was the first society to toss such thinking out the window. The West’s wealth brought new confidence and organization to fight poverty not just at home but abroad as well. The United Nations and other international organizations set goals and timetables for achieving increasing standards of living among the poorest countries. A multitude of economists, sociologists, and big-hearted individuals have dedicated themselves to eradicating poverty around the world. Paul Collier and Jeffrey Sachs have made careers locating poverty and offering solutions because they know that poverty can be beaten.
Indeed, their appeals are to the West, and other now developed countries to help the poor around the world. They know that Western investment in, and policies toward, poor countries can make a great difference. According to Sachs: “The wealth of the rich world, the power of today’s vast storehouses of knowledge, and the declining fraction of the world that needs help to escape from poverty all make the end of poverty a realistic prediction by the year 2025”. The Western world broke the poverty trap in which all societies throughout history existed. Russia was the first nation to attempt to emulate the Western European states. Since then, an unbelievable number of nations have lifted their citizens from misery and poverty to, or at least towards, wealth.
The upsurge in incomes for all but a few societies has brought with it greater life expectancy. Many countries sent bright young students to Western universities to study, among other things, medicine. They brought that knowledge back their home country, and taught their fellow citizens Western medical practices. Many societies decry the injustices of imperialism for good reason, but colonization was not without benefits. The Western world brought with its settlers and missionaries vaccines to combat tropical diseases just as lethal to Africans as to themselves.
Violence, too, has declined. In part this is the result of greater wealth and less misery. As people become less desperate to meet even basic needs, they are less likely to rob or murder for their food or shelter. Yet, violence is often the result of a need to seek revenge for insults or injustices. Steven Pinker superbly documented the history of violence, especially its decline among civilized societies, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Not only did Western European governments develop a monopoly of power, but they also instilled trust to settle disputes among the vast majority of their citizenry. Violence increases when citizens feel that they have to take justice into their own hands. Thus “an imposition of the rule of law may end the bloody mayhem of feuding warlords, but reducing rates of violence further, to the levels enjoyed by modern European societies, involves a more nebulous process in which certain populations accede to the rule of law that has been imposed on them”. Western Europe became steadily less violent, and it was only in the colonies far from a government capable of punishing wrongdoers that violence was more common. The decline in violence spread outward from Western Europe.
What about values? For a start consider the British Empire. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argues that the British Empire had a self-liquidating character, with notions of liberty being the most important ideal. “Once a society had sufficiently adopted the other institutions the British brought with them, it became very hard for the British to prohibit that political liberty to which they attached so much significance for themselves”. The American Revolution was not simply a revolt against taxation. British citizens tossed off British rule because they believed the government was no longer securing certain rights, among them: liberty. The wave of decolonization in the post-World War II era was a push by colonies to achieve the same degree of freedom and dignity enjoyed by their respective Mother Countries. The British were not the only self-liquidating empire. The Haitians took hold of the values of the French Revolution and sought their own liberty and equality.
As for institutions there is no doubt that the most successful are those pioneered by the West. Japan stands as a great example of what can be achieved with Western institutions. Liberal democracy, the mixed economy, and secure property rights are trumpet by many as the not-so-secret ingredients of Western economic and technological success. The consumer economy by which industrial production expands, not to meet the demands of the government, but of consumers is a defining feature of the Industrial Revolution. Education, too, is increasingly being westernized around the world. China is now finding that moving further and further from communist institutions is preferable in order to maintain its stunning economic growth.
The West has, in short, brought us the modern world, with all its benefits and, indeed, troubles. It was a not a perfect path; some may argue that there were alternatives which would have resulted in less suffering. Geoffrey Parker claimed that the West’s principal export during its early imperial phase was violence. Yet violence was commonplace, and it would be difficult to argue that a more peaceful and less invasive way to spread modernity was possible.
Some may argue that modernity has actually made us more vulnerable, and that we die in more horrific ways than ever before. Car crashes claim the lives of far too many young drivers and their passengers. Smoking and processed foods with low nutrition kill us slowly and rot us internally. Guns and other weapons make killing easier and less personal. These things are all deplorable, and it is likely that these problems will not go away.
Yet, studying Western history allows me to be an optimist on the future. In the past, we thought that societal problems were the norm; that there was nothing that could be done about them. Today, in the Western world and increasingly more and more of human societies, it is possible to believe that the next generation will be better off than the one before it. We deplore poverty, hunger, disease, violence, and oppression because of our modern frame of reference. We know what is possible for humanity to achieve because the West has brought the world to this point. Is that an ambiguous triumph? I do not believe that it is. The world is a better place in almost every measurable sense today than it was five hundred years ago. The challenge is explaining why it was in Western Europe that this first happened.
The Rise of the West
For Europeans, the fifteenth century was a troubling time, and it was by no means obvious to anyone that the little European states were on the verge of world domination. Indeed, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent conquest of the Balkan Peninsula by the Ottoman Turks meant that the infidel appeared unstoppable. European statesmen looked nervously to the southeast and wondered if Vienna or Rome might go the same way as Constantinople. Granted, Europeans were on the move during this century. The conquest of Ceuta in 1415, the explorations of the Portuguese, the Reconquest of Spain, and the discovery of America for Europeans evinced a boundless energy and mastery of sailing. Even these achievements seemed pathetic when placed along the achievements of the Chinese and Islamic world-the other two major power centers of the fifteenth century.
Of these three power centers, China was the most impressive in the fifteenth century. Far from being a cultural backwater the Chinese Confucian bureaucracy was chosen by merit not status through a series of rigorous tests. Chinese technology was well ahead of Europe, and had been throughout the Middle Ages. A few of the more famous inventions are gunpowder, the spinning wheel, blast furnaces, paper money, and printing by movable type. Each of these predated their more familiar European imitations. Chinese textiles were of such superior quality that they could regard European textiles as inferior well into the eighteenth century. The ironworks of Honan and Hopei were churning out 125,000 tons of iron every year; more iron in the eleventh century than all of Britain in the eighteenth century. The early fifteenth century was also a busy period under the new Ming dynasty. Construction of the Forbidden Palace was underway and employed a million workers. The Grand Canal, with its system of locks and arch bridges, was reopened in 1411-a feat of engineering in its own right.
But the most impressive activity was going on in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese emperor, Yong-lo sent out a series of oceanic voyages to collect tribute from, and bestow gifts upon, other societies. In ships that dwarfed the Portuguese vessels that would later call at their harbors, the Chinese made seven voyages under the command of Admiral Cheng Ho between 1405 and 1433 and sailed as far south as Mombasa on the east coast of Africa. It was entirely possible that the Chinese could have sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and into the harbor at Lisbon to demand that the Portuguese king acknowledge the power of the Son of Heaven. Then, quite suddenly, the voyages were stopped, an imperial decree banned the construction of oceangoing vessels, and China closed itself off; a missed opportunity.
Historians have often been puzzled as to why the Chinese, with such advanced sailing techniques, did not continue their voyages. Mark Elvin provides some insights: Foreign expeditions were conducted under the Emperor’s auspices reached their height at the time of Cheng Ho, but restrictions on private trade existed long before these voyages. The Ming navy became a luxury because the reconstruction of the Grand Canal in 1411 meant that a merchant navy, once necessary to transport grain to Peking, no longer needed protection. First the navy, and then merchant shipping by sea was banned. Much of this was done to prevent piracy, but it reflected deeper cultural suspicions. China was made self-sufficient (in Ming theory) by the final opening of the Canal. Self-sufficiency, in turn, meant the Chinese no longer had to trade with mistrusted foreigners, and could turn inward with hardly a second look.
Now we can shed some light on a deeper question: why didn’t China rule the world since they appear to have possessed many of the ingredients of power. It seems that China suffered from two conditions: being autocratic and culturally conservative. The Ming had taken power from the Mongols and longed for a return to traditional structures of society. Since the emperor ruled with power and authority that even the Hapsburgs or Louis XIV could only dream of, his will was law. The Grand Canal, army, Forbidden Palace, Great Wall, and other great Chinese achievements existed for state purposes and could be restored or neglected at the whim of the ruler. At the same time as Cheng Ho’s voyages, the emperor banned foreign contacts by civilians, revealing a fear and mistrust of foreigners. A growing isolationism in the Ming court closed off China to rest of the world except for certain trading posts on the coast. The first Ming Emperor never forgot that he had been a peasant once, and ascended the throne only after deposing the last Mongol emperor.
There was also little support for mercantile activity and technological change. Restriction on mercantile activity began in 1309 under Mongol rule. No overseas voyages could be made under any circumstances. Some restrictions were opened up, and certain goods could be traded, but by the time of the Ming new restrictions meant that only tributary goods could be exchanged in recognition of Ming power. To the Ming, trade with barbarians was a favor to them. China did not need to trade, but barbarians did. If China closed off trade with the outside world it did not hurt China, but it was crushing to the barbarians. At least that was the prevailing Ming philosophy.
China was not stagnant during the Ming period, but whatever changes did take place they were not widespread or revolutionary. Merchants were marginal members of society who often gave up merchant activity to buy land and seek political power. The landowning class had considerable weight in Chinese society owing to the growth of population, and they had the greatest influence at court. The Confucian bureaucracy may have been meritocratic in the sense that anyone could make it, but the landed elite had far more leisure time to learn the Confucian classics on which the tests were based. Therefore, the merchant interests were weakened while a conservative Confucian bureaucracy held immense sway at court.
Chinese technological improvements from the Sung period were used to ensure the status quo remained unchanged. Printing did not spread new ideas as it did in Europe; it was confined to printing the classics for the enjoyment and education of the elite. Much like Europe, gunpowder ensured the consolidation of central authority. Yet, unlike Europe, there were no other powers capable of threatening the autocratic power of the emperor. There was also a great inhibitor to learning from outsiders. The cultural superiority of the Ming until around 1750 meant that they could regard foreigners as ‘barbarians’, and argue that whatever other societies might try to trade, Chinese goods were far better in quality. In this way they could maintain traditional methods of production, however sophisticated and advanced, while remaining blissfully unaware as the Western world surpassed them.
Of the Islamic empires none was more powerful than the Ottoman. In fact, the Ottomans, more than Chinese, was the empire best placed to challenge the Western world. Its proximity to Europe meant that European technology could be more readily disseminated. Challenges from the Christian nations on its borders and at sea encouraged the kind of competition that many scholars have posed as an answer to rise of the West. It was as much a part of the balance of power in Europe as any of the Western powers. As a nomadic clan the Ottomans lacked a long, flourishing cultural history. Unlike the Chinese they were more open to Western thought, technology, and trade.
The defining moment of its history came in 1453 when Constantinople fell to Mehmed II’s forces. Swift victories came soon after in Syria (1516), Egypt and Arabia (1517), Hungary (1526), and Yemen (1534). At the height of its power Ottoman rule extended from Iraq to Algeria; from the southern border of Poland to Aden on the Indian Ocean. These impressive military victories, against foes far more powerful than the Aztecs and Incas, reveal, firstly, a well organized, efficient, advanced military structure.
The janissaries were the most feared warriors on any given battlefield in which they were present. They were recruited from among the children of the Sultan’s Christian subjects and probably assured the loyalty of his parents as well. The child converted to Islam, and his parents prayed for his safety on the battlefield (familial ties go a long way). The Ottomans also possessed the largest cannons in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and, like most steppe nomads, were quick to learn the art of siege warfare from those they conquered or could recruit from outside.
Yet, the Ottoman Empire also failed to achieve the wealth and power of Europe. Here the culprits seem to be an environment that inhibited initiative from below and conservatism at the top. There was institutional change in the Ottoman Empire, but it was focused on the preservation of central power and did not lead to the kind of market systems that arose in Europe. The Ottoman Empire was largely a military state. This should not be taken as a vast plunder machine, or as an unchanging despotism. The Ottomans were open to change in response to European encroachment. However, most reforms were at the direction of the central bureaucracy, and reflected its priorities: the maintenance of central authority and military primacy.
Economic reforms were meant to raise revenues for state enterprises, above all military reform and modernization. The number of military defeats after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683 convinced the Ottoman state that it had lost its military edge to more modern, industrial armies. During the Ottoman industrial revolution factories were built to supply the military with European-style outfits. For example, in 1804, a woolen factory was set up near the Bosphorus that made woolen uniforms for the army. The trouble is that this industrialization never captured, nor was meant to capture a wide consumer market. Industrialization took place because the sultan and his advisers knew the army had to modernize.
There was some private consumption of goods, and the wages in the empire increased steadily. Unfortunately, there was no serious competition with European products. Throughout the attempts at modernization, European manufactured goods had steadily increased sales throughout the Ottoman Empire. The empire relied too heavily on foreign specialists which required higher pay to encourage migration. Meanwhile its own citizens lacked the technical skills that the Europeans employed to encourage innovation from within.
The Ottomans also failed to establish themselves on the Atlantic. Attempts to conquer all of North Africa failed when they encountered heavy Spanish resistance near Gibraltar. The Ottoman Navy lacked the tougher, oceangoing vessels employed by the Spanish and Portuguese. The refusal of Morocco to accept Ottoman trade and access to the Atlantic sealed the fate of Ottoman ambitions to reach the Atlantic. Had they achieved this, the next step could have been an Ottoman navy on the Atlantic to rival the Spanish and Portuguese, and an Ottoman colony in the New World.
There is a group of scholars who contend that Europe’s divergence was both late and devoid of any long-run dynamics. In the view of these revisionists, all Eurasian societies were proceeding along similar developmental paths until, due to some chance circumstance, Europe suddenly pulled ahead, and ended up stifling the other advanced regions’ economic growth and development. There is a grain of truth to this. As we have seen the other advanced societies were dynamic and powerful, and it was not immediately apparent in these societies that Western European culture and methods were superior.
Unfortunately for the revisionists, their case has been ground down by a number of scholars. Angus Maddison at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shatters any claims that the West and the Rest were all at equal levels in terms of per capita income. Thus the West was already wealthier than its counterparts in the East. Joseph Bryant at the University of Toronto offered a blistering critique of the revisionist case in an article, ‘The West and the Rest Revisited’. Taking each major revisionist work and breaking down the arguments made, Bryant shows that a revision to the established wisdom suffers major empirical flaws and incoherence. Perhaps Bryant’s most powerful statement against the revisionists relies on the patterns of history itself. Things do not happen by accident; they are a buildup of deeper trends. Thus the conquest of the New World, the Glorious Revolution in England, and the Industrial Revolution (to name just a few of the turning points of history) are not accidents.
To open the revisionist case up to further skepticism, consider the rise of China over the last three decades. Is its newfound strength and energy the result of some accident of history? No revisionist would see it as such, and neither do I. Thus the revisionists are only interested in overturning what they see as Eurocentric history. China is modernizing in its own way, according to its own culture, just as Europeans modernized in their own way beginning in the High Middle Ages. A better spend of time is to alter our conceptions of other societies by stressing the value of their cultures rather than portraying them in such a way that the typical “resterner” would not have recognized himself in order to delegitimize the rise of the West. The tides of history turn as the result of dynamics. The question remains, what was the dynamic, present in Western Europe that led to its rise?
Anthropologist Jared Diamond attempted an answer to how all societies throughout history have developed differently in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. But not until his article ‘How to Get Rich-A Talk’ did he attempt to explain how Western Europe forged ahead. The answer: geographic environments favored a plurality of competitive power centers and an inability for one state to remain isolated. Thus innovation occurred because falling behind meant that a rival could overpower the more backward opponent. It also meant that no idiot ruler could force all Europeans to abandon overseas trade and exploration.
The geographic answer has been promoted by other scholars in addition to Diamond, and each of them advances a similar line of reasoning. Large mountain ranges and rivers which flowed in different directions prevented both the centralizing tendency common in Middle Eastern and East Asian societies, and protected against rampaging hordes of nomadic warriors. Those nomads that did come were soon pacified and became part of the fabric of Europe’s political environment. Dense forests added to this protection and ensured that farming output was lower in Europe than China. This meant that there were no masses of peasants that could be easily overrun. All of these political divisions also benefited rulers in that they could rely on relatively more loyal subjects than the Eastern empires. In the more populous, yet sprawled out, empires of China, India, and Islam, the loyalty of the peasant masses were harder to ensure.
A temperate climate eliminated the parasites that ravaged the populations of China, India, and Africa. While Europe was by no means free of disease, the freedom from tropical diseases and parasites meant that Europeans spent less time recovering and more time being productive. Stocks of capital were able to accumulate, and damages from disasters, when it did occur, were repaired relatively quickly. Europeans had developed an early form of disaster relief to get life back to normal as quickly as possible.
The immense diversity of resources of Europe, and the simple fact that no state could monopolize such diversity meant that trade in bulk and strategic products flourished. Timber, grain, wine, wool, herring, copper, iron, and later products from the New World were shipped up rivers and across seas and oceans.
The geographic case suffers some severe flaws that make it untenable as an explanation for why Western Europe achieved modernity and others did not. First, the only East Asian power that remained totally isolated was Japan. All of the others were aware of the developments taking place in the West. In fact, they felt them brought to bear against them. As we have seen the Ottomans were an integral part of Western European power politics. In this capacity they were quick to feel the strain that modern warfare placed on the administration and resources of the empire. Yet, this doesn’t seem to have brought with it a concomitant upward spiral in innovation and scientific inquiry. China scoffed at European achievements, and India was just as politically fragmented as Europe.
Second, the plurality of power centers was always in jeopardy. One power could harness its resources and military might against the lesser powers and dominate them. This is nearly what the Hapsburgs achieved in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They had all the resources of the New World at their disposal. In Europe, they had the largest population and some of the best military units in the field. Their failure to consolidate all of Europe under their banner had more to do with the institutional shortcomings of the empire than the rival powers ganging up on them.
Third, sharp divergences took place in areas that were very similar in terrain and resource endowments. One quick example is that of Poland and Prussia. The former gradually drifted into a minor European state, and eventual absorption into Prussia, Russia, and Austria. This is despite the fact that Poland had once been powerful. In 1415 a Polish army smashed the Teutonic Knights and essentially forced them into a puppet state of Poland. It was a Polish army that forced the Ottomans to raise the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683. However, it was Prussia who became an advanced military and industrial superpower that united all the lesser German states into one Germany. This unified Germany challenged British industrial supremacy despite having little in the way of strategic resources or even overseas territories.
Fourth, the geographic answer ignores the true human achievement of all societies. Even Diamond admitted that progress was a choice.
Could it then really be the case that Europeans were more innovative than the Rest in nearly every single aspect simply because they were constantly shooting each other? The geographic case remains popular in part because it appears to avoid the problem of Eurocentrism. Europeans did not make the terrain suitable to economic growth, industrial output, military rivalry, and democracy. However, this could be taken to mean that nature or God favored Europe above everyone else. This is patently untrue; God does not take sides (witness the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Joshua). Geography may have favored Europe in some instances such as resource endowments, but it did not favor each Western country equally, nor did it necessarily mean that the most well endowed nations were destined to become the most powerful. Avoiding Eurocentrism should not lead us to accept answers that conflict with historical trends. Geography will be featured throughout this book, but it plays a minor role in the development of the West.
Another attempted answer is imperialism. It would certainly be wrong to claim that groups of Europeans did not gain from overseas territories. The sugar, spices, cash crops, gold, silver, and other products from the New World not only increased the size of Europe’s pocketbook but its standard of living as well. Corn and sugar became staples of the European diet, and it is hard to imagine Irish history without the potato once that crop became widespread.
There have been empires before those of the West, and none of them produced modernity. Even within the West the balance sheet of empire remains mixed. Consider the very different outcomes of the Spanish and English. The Spanish conquered huge tracts of Central and South America which had large gold and silver mines, abundant resources, and the stored up wealth of the Aztecs and Incas. Yet, Spain fell behind, and it was not in Spain that the Industrial Revolution occurred. It has become clear that the easy money of the New World inhibited industry in Spain and its colonies. Modern economic theory holds that an increase in the money supply without an equal increase in productivity leads to inflation, and in Spain it ran rampant, and still the Crown was unable to cover the debts that European warfare incurred. The Spanish were an extractive regime which meant the eventual collapse of Spanish power, and a long road towards recovery for its colonies; a road still traveled by many Latin American nations today who lag behind their British counterparts in development.
The English case stands out in direct contrast with that of the Spanish. English colonies were intended for settlement not extraction. The English came as commoners not conquerors and learned to live with the natives rather than as their slavers and masters. Once it became clear that there was no gold in Virginia, the English resorted to cash crops such as tobacco. People came for the opportunity to own their own land and be their own boss.
Now consider those nations who never had any overseas possessions or were late to the game. The Austrians, one of the more backward and sluggish European states, continued to diverge further and further from the Rest in all major development indicators. Prussia, too, was a relatively backward state until Frederick the Great. Once it unified Germany and acquired overseas colonies in Africa, there was neither economic, nor scientific, benefit to Germany. Clearly imperialism has a mixed record on the development of the mother country. It can retard development as easily as not being an imperial power can lead to development. It seems apparent that it matters not the size or initial wealth of an empire, but the institutions and cultural values which founded that empire in the first place.
Some scholars advance the argument that Europeans excelled at savagery; they were born and raised in a society that celebrated slaughter and violence. It is possible that Europeans were more inclined towards violence than those of certain hunter-gatherer tribes or small farming communities. Yet, they were not exceptionally violent in general. The Chinese, Japanese, and Indians committed frequent infanticide and abortion in order to keep their populations in check. China experienced frequent peasant revolts and border warfare. The Ottoman Empire was engaged in war as often as any European state. The Indians engaged in a number of horrifying acts. A couple of examples should be sufficient here. The first is the practice of a widow throwing herself onto her dead husband’s funeral pyre. Another involved ambushing a traveler on the road, strangling him, cutting out his heart, and eating it in order to absorb his strength. Both of these practices and several more were ended during the British Raj.
I do not mean to imply that Europeans were not violent. Witch hunts went on well into the seventeenth century. Religious wars devastated some regions of Europe. The Thirty Years War made ghost towns of some German state cities. The expulsion of Jews in Spain and Huguenots in France depopulated some regions and turned them into backwaters where they once throve. The list of violence and injustice could continue, but the point here is that, if violence is the only thing necessary for empire building then it could have been any of the major Eurasian civilizations to achieve world domination.
David Landes took a more positive view of European culture. He suggests that Europeans were more inclined than other societies to tinker, innovate, create, explore, work hard, and disobey the rules if necessary. Because of their desire to get rich, merchants were always looking for the best places to do businesses. They could be picky because of the number of states available to choose from. Rulers, for their part, desired to increase state revenues and found that increasing taxable commerce was the best way to achieve this result. The ruler, therefore, attempted to attract merchants to his kingdom. Thus cultural norms impacted institutional change. It is a compelling answer, which I will return to momentarily.
Deidre McCloskey also saw a cultural dynamic at work. In her book Bourgeois Dignity she posited that European attitudes towards the bourgeoisie changed, becoming more favorable towards those who accumulated wealth and came up with new ideas and methods. However, she believed that this took place just before the Industrial Revolution. It seems clear that any sufficient explanation is going to require a long term presence in Western Europe.
Douglass North and Robert Thomas argue that the dynamic was present as early as 1000 A.D. In their book, The Rise of the Western World, they stress the development of well defined property rights necessary for mercantile activity, technical innovation, and the proliferation of credit institutions. Perhaps this helps explain the rise of finance and mercantile activity, but what about science? Galileo knew that his new scientific theories were unpopular in his time, and that the Church persecuted those who held potentially heretic beliefs. The same was true of the Protestant reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. These men were, in many ways, ahead of their time. They pushed their causes because they believed in them, not because there were assured of intellectual and physical protection. Intellectual property rights go a long way towards guaranteeing consistent technological and scientific progress, but to explain the rise of the West a broader explanation is needed.
That broader institutional case was made most recently by Niall Ferguson. To him there were six ‘killer apps’ that the West patented which account for the great divergence: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. Institutions were developed which facilitated the rise of each of these six applications. Yet, such institutions were not even fully developed in some Western nations. Russia, Austria, Spain, and even France did not develop favorable property rights until relatively late (serfdom was still in place in Russia after Napoleon). Ferguson favors the English and their offshoots too heavily in his book without accounting for how the apps developed in many of the other major Western nations. He counts Russia among the major Western powers, but little mention of its achievements is given except during the time of communist rule.
It would not matter anyway. Institutions cannot be the primary reason the West challenged and the dominated the Rest. A favorable institutional environment is necessary to maintain growth, but such institutions were created through cultural means. Ferguson admits that institutions are products of a culture. Therefore, where the cultural climate does not exist for institutions which spur economic growth, scientific inquiry, and technological innovation and invention they are unable to succeed. Institutions are necessary to define practices and maintain modernity, but they are not the ultimate cause of modernity.
It is clear what happens when different institutions, one that favors growth, and one which inhibits growth are imposed on a people with the same culture. Here a good example is Germany. In the west, capitalism and liberal democracy were put in place and the West German economy moved along almost as if the Second World War never happened. In the east, communist institutions were set up, and the economy stagnated, innovation floundered for four decades, and there was next to nothing in the way of scientific achievement. Yet, communism could not be maintained in East Germany. People longed for the freedom which existed on the other side of the Iron Curtain; a freedom they knew from before Nazism. Even in the rest of Eastern Europe communism crumbled away. It was not because of outside pressures which broke the back of communist institutions. Instead, communism was imposed on peoples of an unfavorable cultural environment. They fought against the system, and prevailed.
What is needed is a broader, more comparative approach that accounts for the major revolutions that took place in Western civilization: military, scientific, financial, democratic, and industrial. Throughout the literature on Western ascendancy some of these pioneering revolutions are accounted for. Often the economic and political developments are covered excellently while the scientific and military sides are neglected. No single work covers each of these in equal portions, nor traces their development throughout the member states of Western civilization.
Each of these revolutions has a common thread found in the individual initiative found in the West. Change happened from below, not from institutional structures. William McNeill mourned the lack of literature focusing on individual effort in creating the modern world; this is an attempt to satisfy him. What was realized in Western Europe was the human potential. The West patented a certain kind of environment which allowed individuals to explore their talents and test what they were capable of. Institutions favorable to innovation, development, and military power do not come about because of the orders of some central authority (that is a tautology); they are constantly adapted to the cultural climate in which they exist. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire provides a good example of what happens when change is attempted from the top.
Eventually prescient individuals started to figure out what was required in order to spur technological innovation, economic growth, military power, and scientific achievement. Only in Europe was a partnership forged between institutions and society, but only after certain developments took place. In Europe, old institutions that hampered growth were torn down. Feudalism, as a mode of economic organization, was eventually done away with.
And there doesn’t appear to be a sudden cultural revolution that turned people towards innovation. As we have noted before, the West was wealthier than the Rest by 1500. Innovation (though not much invention) had been going on in Western Europe for centuries before the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, or even the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth.
A few clarifications are in order. We are all made in God’s image, thus we all possess the same ability to rationalize, create, innovate, and order-essentially, the same potential. Western individuals were not inherently better than the individuals in other societies in these regards. Rather it was because of their cultural environment that the behavioral differences were created. Witness China, whose people made remarkable advances in military weaponry, engineering, agriculture, and navigation despite an institutional and cultural environment which was often hostile to such endeavors. Look also at the Jews who lived in the West. All too often a society hostile to Jews suffered a drop in human capital because of pogroms against them. Jews worked hard and were just as capable of success as their European neighbors. These are only a couple of examples of human capabilities.
By adopting a cultural answer to the modern world I am not suggesting that Western European culture is superior in some way. There are many cultures outside of the West who are finding that the ingredients necessary to create a modern society are within them. Societies as diverse as Brazil, China, India, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and many more are growing up. Besides, cultural superiority is a relative thing; who are Westerners to suggest that their culture is the best because it meets a certain Western definition of superiority. Other cultures possess value in meeting the (spiritual, physical, mental) needs of its people. The Western world is unique, but neither superior nor universal (though it certainly came close to universality).
Individualism makes sense as an explanation for Western power and wealth. The West values individualism above all else-yes, even its liberal democracy and capitalism because it sees these things as the best ways to protect individual liberty and rights. It was only in the West that individuals could have the impact upon history that they did. They built empires; rationalized science and discovery; pushed the limits of what was known; explored; and traded. No one nation could monopolize individual talent because all nations attempted to enhance it to varying degrees and using similar methods. Once one nation adopted policies favorable to individual achievement, other nations could copy these policies. Western civilization was bonded by a common culture which meant a constant increase in the power of individuals. Today, new interpretations of Western history threaten this cultural unity. The West is going through an identity crisis; the largest it has ever suffered.
The Fading of Western Unity
“He who fears what is to come usually also fears facing what has already been…But lying can never save us from the lie. Falsifiers of history do not safeguard freedom but imperil it. The assumption that one can, with impunity navigate through history and rewrite one's own biography belongs to the traditional Central European delusions” Vaclav Havel delivered these words directed at Central Europeans not to forget or corrupt their past yet they have powerful meaning for all the Western world, and indeed any society.
In the West, the misdeeds of imperialism became a beacon around which the victims gathered to tell a less glorious account of Western history. Like the revisionists I mentioned above, those who are one or two generations removed from someone living under Western dominance object to any account of history which suggests that Western Europe, and then Western civilization more broadly possessed any unique characteristics. Instead, Europeans were savages until they came into contact with African civilizations. Moral indignation does not get us very far, unfortunately.
This is why history is so important. Any society which does not know its past forgets itself. I have become frustrated at the number of college students who do not know basic facts about American history. Studies of American adults evince a dismal knowledge of basic American history: more than one-third of respondents thought the American Revolution happened after the Civil War; many did not know that the Bill of Rights was part of the Constitution. A study done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only one quarter of American schoolchildren from elementary to high school are deemed “proficient” in history.
It seems almost counter-intuitive to say that as we forget our past it can be painted to suit other agendas (how does one change what has already happened). Yet, our perceptions of the past are highly fluid; we can forget who we are and how we got here when our past is hidden from us. Milan Kundera’s book The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has one historian say, “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have someone manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was”. America is a melting pot society, forging all groups, nationalities, races, and religions into a single American culture. Sure, American culture has changed over the course of its history, but there can be no doubt that its institutions and values are distinctly Western. Thus this book is as much about answering who and what the West is, as offering a unique answer for its power and wealth.
There are groups who challenge this identity. In the last century one minority group after another has decried the focus of history text books on white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants and their role in making America. Basing their arguments on the damaging effect this has on minorities, groups such as the Task Force on Minorities, attempt to change the American focus of history to minority groups. A report published by the Task Force sees racism and hatred at work in the curriculums of schools and universities. It also suggests that the reason minorities do so poorly in American schools is because they lack role models who are like them, as if to say that a minority could not become a Beethoven, Shakespeare, Galileo, or Michelangelo if he or she wanted to be. This is not to say that the West is the only culture with great men and women, and for far too long the heroes of other cultures have gone unnoticed in Western textbooks.
This is not a solution to the problem. In fact, it exacerbates it by dividing us still further. Rather than suggesting that George Washington or Christopher Columbus are only minor players in American history, perhaps a better remedy is teaching minority children that these individuals are as much a part of their past as a white child. I echo again Genesis 1: 26-27 in saying that we are all human beings and the achievements of individuals and societies should be appreciated not because a white man or a black man accomplished them, but because they represent what humanity is capable of. Teach all American students to be inspired by the accomplishments of their fellow Americans.
It is hardly the case that minorities do poorly in US schools because they are taught a history which emphasizes America’s ties to the West, and, more specifically, to British values and institutions. Instead, they underperform whites in schools because they face tough institutional resistance to their success. Interestingly, Asians do better in school than whites despite being portrayed as mistrusted and expendable railroad workers in the late nineteenth century and the very blunt mistreatment they faced at the hands of the American government, particularly, but not limited to, bans on Asian immigration.
I cannot say exactly when I noticed it. Perhaps it was at my home church in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the time of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The championship match saw the Dutch pitted against the Spanish. I made it clear that I was supporting Spain because I claimed (erroneously) that Spain was more European; more imperial, greater contributions to Western civilization. My friends, many of whom had never even visited the Netherlands retorted with, “If ya ain’t Dutch, ya ain’t much”! Or, perhaps it was at Barnes and Noble before the tournament had started I overheard a Latino family discussing the teams they wanted to see win: Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Paraguay, etc. Italy was the first Western team whose name I heard, and the US wasn’t even mentioned. Whenever it was, I came to the realization that Americans no longer seemed united behind an American identity. The World Cup brought out feelings of pride, not in the country people lived in, but where their ancestors came from.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. adroitly characterized this shifting attitude: “Instead of a transformative nation with an identity all its own, America increasingly sees itself as preservative of old identities…as composed of groups more or less indelible in their own ethnic character”. There are, of course, two sides to this shift. The more positive path is simply taking pride in a particular heritage. What is far more dangerous is when people of different groups within countries choose to define themselves negatively against one another. When a common American identity is not realized then the potential for conflict is multiplied. Steven Pinker argued that violent people are often stateless. Instead of feeling a sense of allegiance to American values, norms, and law, they owe allegiance to nothing except those who are like them. America has always a nation built by immigrants from around the world. Once, Americans took pride in their melting pot society-the metaphor that all races, religions, and groups were forged into a common community unified by key Western political ideals. Today, the salad bowl metaphor is preferred; all kinds of variety with no one singular flavor.
As with America, so with Europe and the entire West. Australia faces the backlash of two centuries of dominating primitive aborigines. Canada, divided between French and English-speaking regions, nearly separated into two nations in 1991. Europeans, like the United States, are facing new immigration challenges. Muslims pour into Germany and France seeking asylum or economic opportunity (mostly the former as these two are losing their competitive edge). Unless they can be properly assimilated into Western societies, immigrants will never feel quite at home in the West. In many cases this leads to tension and conflict between groups. France, Germany, and many other Western European countries are trying to figure how to define themselves in the wake of these fresh immigrants. Europeans seem reluctant to pay taxes into a welfare state when people who are seen as different, perhaps even threatening, are benefitting. The question is, will the differences unite the West, or get in the way of unity?
The British seem to be losing faith in the EU at a time when it is imperative that the West stick together. A referendum is set to take place in 2017, and will decide whether or not the U.K. will remain an EU member state. Granted, Britain may be able to exit the Union with little disruption since it is part of the Euro-zone, but such a phenomenon represents the deeper attitudes of the British people. Should Britain vote to exit the EU, or even remain a member with a large minority voting for exit, it will impress upon the world that Britain does not identify itself with its continental friends. It will also be a blow to confidence in the EU to act as a strong unifying institution capable of strengthening its member states and setting broad coordination between them.
At the same time as the EU seems on the verge of break-up, America and Europe don’t have the unity they once had. The War on Terror shoved a wedge between the two greatest Western components. Thomas Friedman, New York Times foreign correspondent, traveled to Europe to find out whether or not Europeans actually hated America. In interviews with French and German citizens the impression was clear: by acting unilaterally, and against the wishes of many European nations, American foreign policy became seen as arrogant and belligerent. A Foreign Affairs article spoke of a lack of understanding between the two cultures. Past Secretaries of State such as Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles possessed a “deep personal knowledge of Europe and its heritage”. Today’s American policy makers can speak arrogantly about an “Old Europe”-which is to say, one that will not back American saber rattling in the Middle East.
With the challenges facing the West in the twenty-first century perhaps its efforts are better spent responding to them with closer coordination and respect. As Samuel Huntington said in his influential book Clash of Civilizations “America and Europe will hang together or hang separately”. The West is far stronger united than it is divided. America must accept its role as a Western power-indeed, as its core state. Europe must mold the EU into a workable union, and coordinate with the United States in order to set foreign policy goals for both of the major Western components. The time for unilateral action by this or that Western power has passed. Now the West must meet the challenges of the twenty-first century as one. This means understanding each others’ position and aims.
There certainly was hope in Friedman’s documentary: Europeans long for the America that made them dream big. Once, America instilled a sense of creativity and excitement in Europe. Add to this the fact that both Europe and America are bound by more than just historical ties; there are deeper cultural bonds that run through the West, as in all civilizations. Freedom, equality, justice, a Christian heritage, and the belief that all persons have certain rights-a human dignity, along with a sense of progress: these are values that characterize the West.
The facts are clear: for the last five hundred years the primary mover of progress has been Western civilization; at one point or another nearly all cultures were converted to the Western way of life; for better or worse the world we have inherited is-in large part-the creation of the West. Moralists will find all of this disconcerting, unless they happen to be like me in believing that the world we have inherited is better than the world of the past. My religion and my view of the past allow me to be an optimist for the future, but will it be a future in which the West continues to play a leading role? This is a question we will return to. For now we must look at the individualism that gave the West the lead in military power, technological improvement, scientific discovery, and economic wealth.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mouning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…I am making everything new!”
 McNeill, Rise of the West; Roberts, Triumph of the West; Ferguson, Civilization
 McNeill, Rise of the West; Ferguson, Civilization; Darwin, After Tamerlane; Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations
 Roberts, Triumph of the West
 Clark, Farewell to Alms; Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism
 Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective
 Maddison, World Economy; Clark, A Farewell to Alms
 Clark, Farewell to Alms
 Sachs, Jeffrey, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time
 Collier, The Bottom Billion; Sachs, End of Poverty
 Sachs, End of Poverty
 Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined
 Ferguson, Empire: the Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
 Ferguson, Civilization: the West and the Rest many of my arguments in the following paragraph have been largely shaped by this splendid survey of Western values.
 Parker, The Military Revolution
 Pinker, Better Angels
 Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
 Needham, Science and Civilization
 See in general McNeill, The Pursuit of Power; Needham, Science and Civilization
 Elvin, Pattern of the Chinese Past
 For what follows see Hucker, China’s Imperial Past; McNeill, Rise of the West; Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; Elvin, Pattern of the Chinese Past
 There is an excellent summary of the power and weaknesses of the Ottomans in Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. For a larger discussion see Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Period, 1300-1600 ; McNeill, Rise of the West ; Doumanis, Nicholas. ‘The Ottoman Empire: A Resilient Polity’ in Robert Aldrich (ed.) The Age of Empires; Inalcik and Pamuk. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1914
 Pamuk, Sevket. ‘Institutional Change and the Longevity of the Ottoman Empire, 1500-1800’
 Clark, Edward C., ‘The Ottoman Industrial Revolution’
 For an excellent summary of the revisionist case see Goldstone, ‘The Rise of the West-or Not?: A Revision to Socio-economic History’. However, perhaps the most famous revisionist case is Pomeranz, The Great Divergence
 Maddison, World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. The data for the chart below comes from Appendix B
 Bryant, Joseph M., ‘The West and the Rest Revisited: Debating Capitalist Origins, European Colonialism, and the Advent of Modernity’.
 Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
 Diamond, Jared. ‘How to Get Rich- A Talk’
See Jones, European Miracle; Chirot, ‘Rise of the West’;
 See Jones, European Miracle
 See von Laue, Theodore H., ‘The World Revolution of Westernization’ and Pomeranz, The Great Divergence
 For a good account of the effects of Spanish and British imperialism on North and South America see Acemoglu et. al. ‘Reversal of Fortune’
 See for example, Stanard, American Holocaust
 For a good summary of British reforms in India see Porter, The Lion’s Share
 Landes, David. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations
 McCloskey, Deidre. Bourgeois Dignity
 North, Douglass C. and Robert Thomas, The Rise of the Western World
 Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: the West and the Rest. This book presents a fantastic range of Western ideas, and is the inspiration for this book. See also Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty and Acemoglu et al. Why Nations Fail
 Kamm, Henry. “Evolution in Europe; 2 Heads of State Call on Waldheim”, New York Times.
 The Trumpet.com “Survey: Students and Adults Ignorant of Basic U.S. History”, January 27, 2010 https://www.thetrumpet.com/article/6902.5432.0.0/society/survey-students-and-adults-ignorant-of-basic-us-history (Accessed June 26, 2013)
 Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M., The Disuniting of America
 Pinker, Better Angels
 Moisi, Dominique, “Reinventing the West”, Foreign Affairs
 Huntington, Clash of Civilizations