Mark Mazower: Is the West Going to Remain Ascendant?

Roundup: Talking About History

Mark Mazower, in Irish Times (4-1-05):

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....

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 that again.

comments powered by Disqus