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Invitation to Thoroughly Rethink European and Western Expansionism,
This review is from: After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 (Hardcover)
John Darwin explores three themes in "After Tamerlane:"
1. The growth of global connectedness that results in the globalization as it is known today;
2. The key role that Europe and later on the West played in that process;
3. The resilience of many of Eurasia's other states and cultures in the face of Europe's expansionism.
Darwin pushes his audience to rethink the history of Europe's expansion by making four assumptions:
1) Europe did not progressively rise to preeminence, then fall and rise again as part of the West. The pace of European advance was spasmodic at best in the 250 years following the arrival of Christophe Columbus in the Americas in 1492 C.E. The subjugation of the Americas did not offer Europe a decisive advantage over the rest of Eurasia during that period. Asians were not interested in most of what the Europeans had to offer, resulting in a flow of American silver to South and East Asia. After 1750 C.E., this pattern progressively changed with the subjugation of India and the advent of the industrial revolution that allowed Europeans to impose a trade of manufactured products against raw materials and foodstuffs in the region.
The great expansion of trade in the 19th century C.E. and the globalization that it helped to promote were possible for two main reasons. Firstly, there was no general war between the major European powers between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 C.E. and the outbreak of the WWI in 1914 C.E. Secondly, industrialization allowed culturally self-confident Europeans to colonize far faster and on a far larger scale than was previously possible. For example, think about the scramble for Africa among European powers at the end of the 19th century C.E.
In contrast, Asian empires showed a remarkable cultural and political resilience in the face of Europe's expansionism. Despite all foreign encroachments, China ultimately lost only Outer Mongolia. A fast-industrializing Japan became quickly a match for its Western alter egos before losing all its colonies at the end of WWII. The victors of WWI failed to partition the Anatolian core of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s C.E. Finally, Iran comprises to this day most of "historic" Persia. The great exception to that rule was India because of its openness and accessibility, and because of the sophistication of its financial and commercial life.
2) A global proto-economy came into existence in the 16th century C.E. once the Americas had been connected to Eurasia and Africa. Without the exploitation of American resources, and the commercial integration of North East America and North West Europe to form an "Atlantic" economy, the eventual creation of a global economy in the late 19th century C.E. might not have happened at all. The increased protectionism against free trade that started in the 1880s C.E. did not stop the growth in international commerce before the outbreak of WWI. Globalization remained mostly in limbo during the Europe's second Thirty Years War.
The second wave of globalization that started after the end of WWII under the leadership of the U.S. has gone far beyond the limited promise of the pre-1914 world. The "great divergence" in wealth and economic performance between the Euro-Atlantic West and most of the rest of Eurasia has given way instead to the "great convergence," which should, if it continues, restore the balance to the rough equilibrium of half a millennium ago in the next fifty years.
3) Reducing the history of Europe's global expansion to that of Britain, the Low Countries, northern France, and western Germany is misleading for three reasons. Firstly, the quarrels and conflicts of the European states were a constant limiting factor on their collective ability to impose Europe's domination on the rest of the world. Secondly, this reductive approach ignores the territorial expansionism of tsarist Russia that was a European power. Finally, that analysis ignores the contribution of the early colonies to Europe's global expansion.
4) Empire has been the default mode of political organization throughout most of history. However, European imperialism stood out for two main reasons. Firstly, Europe was the main driver behind modernity in political, economical, and cultural terms. Secondly, Europe had a superior capacity for organized violence through expropriation by subjugation, and if necessary, by exclusion, expulsion, or liquidation.
Despite these strengths, European imperialism was inherently both unstable and unsustainable. The long interregnum of competitive coexistence that existed since the peace of 1815 C.E. crumbled for good in 1914 C.E. Furthermore, the Europeans lacked the resources and sometimes the motive to parcel out, or, if kept in existence, to reduce the remaining Asian empires to semi-protectorates before 1914 C.E. After 1918 C.E., their divisions were greater and the task even harder. Equally important, these Asian empires displayed tenacious traditions of political and cultural resistance in the face of Europe's expansionism.
To summarize, Darwin succeeds in his endeavor to encourage his audience to go beyond the received wisdom about European and Western expansionism.
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Initial post: Dec 27, 2012 10:03:07 AM PST
Victor Padilla says:
Well written review, and having read the book, I agree with your analysis. This really is a masterful account.
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