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West is not the only way forward

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  • Simon McGuinness
    (This broad view of history makes Fidel Castro s view of south-south cooperation and trade look like a mainstream view of the path to development. It is
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2005
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      (This broad view of history makes Fidel Castro's view of
      south-south cooperation and trade look like a mainstream
      view of the path to development. It is important to
      remember that "the west" is only 200 years old and Europe
      has yet to eclipse the economic wealth of China in 1800.
      The reference ".. as US power approaches its military and
      economic zenith, .." implies that Cuba's economic rebirth
      is happening just as the US begins its decline. Interesting
      times indeed. - SMcG.)

      West is not only direction to the world's path ahead

      The Irish Times, Fri, Apr 01, 05

      The West's belief in the universality of its model of development
      betrays a short-sighted view of history, writes Mark Mazower.

      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

      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.

      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 that
      again. - (Financial Times Service)

      Mark Mazower is professor of history at Columbia University and author
      of Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950

      © The Irish Times

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