West is not the only way forward
- (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
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'
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