Gene Expression

i-094f9e2166b8f13f3c235e85b435bdd6-postamericanworld.jpgFive years ago Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek‘s International Edition editor, splashed onto the public intellectual scene with The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. It’s somewhat heterodox, at least for the mainstream, observation that liberal democracy is more than simple majoritarianism, earned him some notoriety. Enough so that he could receive a fawning profile in New York Magazine. But while five years ago Fareed promoted some rather academically well known but transgressive ideas about the necessity for institutional, economic and cultural supports for a flourishing democratic polity, in The Post-American World he plays the role of the golden-tongued expositor of conventional wisdom. The basic thesis of the The Post-American World is that as the 21st century proceeds the United States will have to resituate itself in a multi-player world where it is the most powerful actor, instead of being the only agent on stage. China & India rise, globalization brings wealth, terrorism is a manageable, and no longer being #1 in every metric does not imply decline. The big picture is dime-a-dozen, but Fareed’s fleshing out of the argument is littered with facts which shed light on subtle points in regards to the precise dynamics across which the arc of history will be played out.

The Post-American World is anchored by a series of extended essays which pass themselves off as chapters tied together only loosely by the theme of the book. In fact, sometimes I felt I was reading selections from Foreign Affairs, a journal to which I once subscribed and for which Fareed served as managing editor. After a perfunctory précis the The Post-American World dives into a brisk calming narrative where Zakaria makes the case that despite the fact that history has not ended, it is definitely not regressing. He reaffirms the power & the plenty of the modern world, the forward progress in terms of battling poverty and generating wealth despite the looming threat of anomie posed by Islamic terrorism. In short, 9/11 did not change everything, it was simply a minor course correction. Nor does Zakaria believe that North Korea or Iran pose existential threats. Some of you may be curious as to why he would address such alarmist conceptions, but the power of such apocolyptic ideas to shape American foreign policy seems manifest and so it must be named and repudiated as the fevered dreams which gripped us in the wake of shocking tragedy.

With the task of assuaging our fears past him The Post-American World transforms into a “cliff notes” economic history which pulls us from the past to the present, and attempts to put into perspective the unique moment in history which we’re observing. Zakaria references several prominent economic historians, Greg Clark and Angus Maddison, in the process of transmitting the received orthodoxy of this discipline. It seems that Northwestern Europe was already, on a per capita basis, the wealthiest region of the world centuries before the Great Divergence, which ushered in the era of increasing returns on technological innovation and the breakout from the Malthusian Trap. In the process he repeats some of the arguments from The Future of Freedom which suggest particular preconditions for why Europe was poised for this particular take off due to changes which date back to the High Medieval period. As the chapter closes we now move past the European moment and gaze upon the vistas of a world where the rest besides the West look to be retaking their conventional place in the order of things.

The next two chapters deal with China, the potential rival to the United States, and India, the potential ally. It is here that one might confuse The Post-American World for the rehash of conventional wisdom that you might find in Newsweek, how many times have you read about the rise of China and India after all? Despite this subtle details which massage the margins of the tried & true narrative are emphasized; from China’s autocratic nature to the chaos of India. Zakaria claims, I believe correctly, that the race between China and India is China’s to lose, not only does it have a head start but its rate of growth is still higher. By simple deduction from these axioms the inference is clear that India will not catch up unless it can exceed China’s rate of growth sufficiently in the future. Despite the awakening of these two demographic and cultural giants to produce the post-American world between them, it is important to note that for the foreseeable future the United States will still remain the Coca-Cola to their Pepsis; a jack of all trades and still master of some. Zakaria emphasizes again and again that the reduction of American power will be relative, not absolute. This is obvious and banal, but it needs reiterating to a public which is not comfortable with the details of international affairs.

One thing that definitely shows through in these two chapters is the reality that the author is a human being with his own biases and experiences which shape his viewpoint; the chapter on India was clearly written by someone with a far deeper knowledge of that society between the cracks than of China. Zakaria knows China as a journalist and public intellectual, as a wealthy New Yorker fêted in the halls of power. He knows India as someone born and raised in that nation until he went off to college in the United States. Not only does his treatment of India exhibit a personalized richness, Zakaria seems more familiar with the concrete quantitative factoids which adds body to the narrative.

Unfortunately it is here during these “close up” chapters of China & India that Zakaria also feels the need to make up “facts” and engage in some rather wild speculation about cultural differences which I believe warrant skepticism, and perhaps even dismissal. Fareed Zakaria writes as an American who was born and raised in India into a wealthy Muslim family. He also views the world through a cosmopolitan internationalist lens. He is a secular Muslim who once wrote a wine criticism column for Slate. And by criticism, I don’t mean he criticized wine consumption; no, Zakaria penned strange defenses of the quality of German wines of all things! (haram indeed) To me, the most annoying aspect of The Post-American World is the fact that Zakaria, a Muslim who doesn’t seem to believe in Islam, makes some rather tendentious claims about the differences which are entailed by the fact that the cultures of China and India do not believe in God. Or, to be more clear about it after some qualification, the Abrahamic God, the God of the Christians, Jews and Muslims. A Creator God who is the author of the heavens and the earth, the great lawgiver on high.

How does Zakaria support this claim? He points to a 2007 Pew Global Survey which suggested that China and Japan are two nations where the majority do not believe that one needs to believe in God to be moral, and that the United States is a nation where the majority do believe you need to believe in God to be moral. And that’s about it! Granted, he makes some allusions to Chinese history & philosophy and the nature of Hinduism, the latter thoroughly larded with his own observations of the Hindu religion supplemented by folk wisdom in regards to Eastern superstition. I believe that Zakaria is onto something real when he suggests there are deep-rooted philosophical differences on the level of culture between East Asia and the West. If you want a scholarly treatment of this from social science, I would read The Geography of Thought : How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. It confirms many of Zakaria’s contentions drawn from his reading of history; the Chinese philosophers were generally pragmatists more interested in case-by-case solution rather than grand principle. The Chinese do have an aversion to law as opposed to human judgement. But I don’t think that Zakaria handles the generalizations with much grace; intellectual history isin’t his field, and I think one can make a strong case that these philosophical generalizations might not necessarily mean that much on the level of the typical person. And that fact matters because Zakaria makes the case in The Post-American World for the universal rise of mass, as opposed to high elite, culture.

The treatment of Hinduism was just plain sloppy, and if the author of some of the passages in this book had been a white man he would be accused of crass cultural imperialism. Zakaria is not a chauvinistic Muslim; in fact, he is only marginally more Muslim than Richard Dawkins is an Anglican. If Richard Dawkins had emigrated to Morocco perhaps he would be asked to give the “Christian” perspective on the world? In any case, Zakaria’s description of Hinduism as polytheistic is correct on the popular level, many Hindus will tell you that they believe in 333 million gods (though how seriously they take this does vary from my experience). But at the same time he also states that Hinduism is a philosophy as opposed to a religion as such, and as a philosophy (e.g., Vedanta) Hinduism is usually not polytheistic at all, it is monistic/pantheistic. If Hinduism as a philosophy is polytheistic then so is Christianity. There are also devotional movements of some prominence within the Hindu which are explicitly theistic in a manner which would not be unfamiliar to followers of the Abrahamic religion (e.g., Hare Krishna). I won’t even address Zakaria’s cultural generalizations because one asks not to be taken seriously after such a sequence of contradictory assertions and fantastical analysis. The future will be one where cultural differences which will come into sharp relief will not be those noted and tabulated in the ivory tower, they will bubble-up from below in the differences of taste & preference. What has this to do with Rome or Jerusalem?

So it’s nice when Fareed moves to something he knows quite a bit about from first hand experience, the United States, its history, its economics, and its place in the world. Zakaria was a teenager when he was an Indian, and it shows. As an American he is an intellectual trained at elite institutions, and it shows. A decade ago he wrote From Wealth to Power, which chronicles the transition of the United States to a major actor on the world stage of international affairs in the last years of the 19th century. Some of the material from that work is deftly inserted into the narrative as Zakaria shifts the focus to the hyperpower of our time. Since most of his readers are likely to be Americans he can’t make do with embarrassingly obvious assertions, rather, he throws in surprising facts to allow us to grasp the historical perspective from startling new angles. For example, aside from the anomaly after World War II our nation’s proportion of world economic output has remained in the 20-25% range for almost a century! Zakaria shows that though we are for all practical purposes #1 in all measures, military and economic, cultural and technological, such was not always so, and such may not always be so. It seems likely that within a generation China will reach parity with the United States in terms of Gross National Product, but conversely it seems unlikely that the United States will cede ground as second on many of the other metrics. Will Mandarin replace English as the language of mass culture and science? Unlikely. Will a China confronting the specter of demographic transition be seeking parity with the United States on the field of arms by matching our expenditures on military equipment? That seems unlikely for any fiscally responsible state.

It is in tracing out the present and projecting the most likely trajectory into the future where Zakaria displays his most effortless erudition as he makes analogies with, and draws distinctions from, with the last hyperpower: Britain in the 19th century. By illustrating the dance of various parameters which come together to shape the nature of a state and its ability to act upon its intentions among the parliament of nations Zakaria highlights the importance of historical contigency. So doing he offers up a caution about the future, and emphasizes that his narrative is ultimately a high provisional one which makes the most plausible outcome constrained by the more deterministic demographic variables. It seems fair to say that only a multidisciplinary tapestry which weaves together historical, economic and social aspects, placed in a broader temporal and spatial framework, could add value to the knowledge base of an American target audience in regards to their own country. And so with the description and prediction out of the way Zakaria closes with prescription. Much of this seems common sense, but its validity is by necessity filtered through your norms. So I’ll just list them out and leave you to find out what he means by each….

1) Choose

2) Build broad rules, not narrow interests

3) Be Bismarck not Britain

4) Order à la carte

5) Think asymmetrically

6) Legitimacy is power

Comments

  1. #1 Luis
    May 28, 2008

    First a side comment: I was left rather perplex at the concept of “Great Divergence”, totally new to me. Wikipedia’s article is very poor and unsourced, so I did not get the idea really. In my understanding of History, the West was already dominant in the 16th century, when Portuguese and Castilians (rather than Spanish) divided the non-western world in two with very important practical effects. A divergence that begins in the 18th century can only be the Industrial Revolution anyhow but the global dominance of the West is at least two centuries older.

    Now, going to the matter: powers arise and fall, that’s known, normal and to be expected. Sometimes they fall dramatically but more commonly their decline is gradual. But even when gradual, they may experience sudden somehwat dramatic transitions, maybe because of a failed war or an economical crisis. France for instance lost global hegemony with Canada in the Seven Years’ War, Spain in several more localized ones (Netherlands, Portugal, the Caribbean Sea) and related economical crisis, England was faced with a fast growing Germany that forced them to look for US protection twice in a row. It was maybe less spectacular because they did not technically lose any war and the new power was a former colony of them… but anyhow.

    I suspect that the USA with all its huge external debt and ubiquitous presence all around the planet resembles maybe more Spain than other cases. I was reading today to Michael Hudson (in Spanish, not sure if there is an English version or where) claiming that the falling dollar is caused because its stregth depends largely of foreign powers, powers that are not anymore interested in feeding (with a strong dollar) the US imperal militar intervention everywhere. He argued that the USA has now (and now is now in this delicate moment of incipient structural crisis, I undertstand) to make a choice between a costly empire and a the internal economy. This may go in line with the “Clintonian” (as opposed to “Bushian” interventionism) suggestions of this Fareed Zakaria.

    Nevertheless I am not sure: the huge consume per capita of the USA (they call it GNP but it’s a tricky term) relies in certain form of neocolonialism. This kind of control of foreign resources may require imperialist intervention. Renouncing to that may just make the economy of the USA even more unstable. Of course, fueling conflicts without viable solutions doesn’t seem to help either.

    Certainly China and the other alternative powers (India, Brazil, Russia, Germany…) act in that non-interventionist way mostly. But that’s largely because they have no choice and also because their needs are much lower than those of a huge developed hyper-consumerist economy like that of the USA. But certainly keeping up with the costs of the military machinery and network that constitute the “American Empire” without almost any foreign support (support for a srong dollar primarily) is not possible either.

    If the vassals are reluctant to pay the bills and the competitors much more so, the USA faces a big problem. Specially in these times of structural crisis. Maybe the USA is still holding the 25% of global GNP (consume) but that will probably not be the case after this crisis is over. And it may well be largely irrelevant what the USA does in fact because it’s not something that they seem to be able to control anymore. Earlier with the socio-political challenge of the Soviet Union, the internal solidarity of the Empire was somewhat guaranteed but nowadays it is not anymore, specially as the allies see the new adventures as meaningless or rather troublesome and the USA and China (or any other big power) largely interchangeable.

    Now China (for example) may hope to grow to levels that approach those of the USA in gross GNP but never in GNP per capita, as they are like four or five times the population of the USA. In fact countries as big as India or China are necesarily bound to practice some sort of internal colonialism unless they could actually dominate all the rest single-handedly, what is not likely at all.

    My two cents.

  2. #2 razib
    May 28, 2008

    In my understanding of History, the West was already dominant in the 16th century, when Portuguese and Castilians (rather than Spanish) divided the non-western world in two with very important practical effects. A divergence that begins in the 18th century can only be the Industrial Revolution anyhow but the global dominance of the West is at least two centuries older.

    this is wrong. the west was not dominant in the 16th century. i can see from an iberian perspective how it could seem that way, but note, for example, that the sultanate of oman expelled the portuguese from zanzibar in 1698 (the portuguese were kicked out of many of their indian ocean outposts during this century, in part by local asian powers and in part by the dutch). european power in the old world was not particularly of note until late in the 18th century. e.g., the manchus expelled the russians from the amur river valley in the late 17th century and forced a treat upon the czar. remember that ottomans were campaigning in austria until 1700 or so.

    p.s. all through the 17th century europeans operated in the indian ocean to a large extent at the sufferance of asian powers. e.g., mughals, manchus, etc. the rollback (which was gradual) of ottoman power in central europe didn’t really occur until after the second seige of vienna in the late 17th century.

  3. #3 Luis
    May 29, 2008

    Portugal in those dates was in decline. The expansion of Portugal (much of precursor of Dutch one, both based in relatively small trading colonies and unable to colonize effectively large areas) had a timeline of the late 15th century and specially early 16th century. At that time they defeated virtually anyone who stood in their way, including a Venetian-Egyptian coalition. They took what they wanted from Congo and its neighbours, Zandj and Hormus, they estabilished many bases in South and SE Asia at the expense of local powers and even obtained Macao from still powerful China.

    Later, with the personal union with Spain (1580-1640), they became the target specially of the Dutch (but also the English). Overall both Iberian states were overextended and somewhat retrograde by then but Portugal was by nature (size) much weaker.

    This Portuguese decline period also approaches the decline of Spain. But, with the Omani exception, certainly the greatest blows were inflicted by other nascent European powers.

    european power in the old world was not particularly of note until late in the 18th century. e.g., the manchus expelled the russians from the amur river valley in the late 17th century and forced a treat upon the czar.

    But the Russians had got to the Manchu borders (after defeting a number of Central Asian and Eastern European khanates).

    Anyhow, Russia is not clearly a western power (western as in European or West Eurasian yes – but then also Ottomans probably; western as in Western European or Atlantic no). Its expansion and developement certainly differs greatly from that of other European powers, although it’s surely related too.

    remember that ottomans were campaigning in austria until 1700 or so.

    I agree that the decline of power of China and Ottomans was gradual and in that time they were still major regional powers (in fact the timeline of Ottomans strangely parallels that of Spain). But it’s also true that the Spanish were able to smash them at Lepanto and force an agreement on the division of spheres of influences in the Mediterranean (much to the anger of Venetians, who wanted to exploit that victory). Basically Spain was not anymore focused in the Med as much as in the oceans, where opportunities were much better.

    But the dividing line between a time when Europe was just like anything else in the planet and the time when it was clearly dominant begins in the 1490s with Portuguese and Castilian naval expansion. The other Western European powers basically followed their path (and partly caused their demise). Arguing that this or that other Western power stole this or that from the Iberians (or later also The English from the French and the Ducth, and later the USA from all – albeit indirectly in most cases) is just “internal matters” in this Western context.

    I don’t really see any justification for the odd concept of “Great Divergence”, except, as mentioned the Industrial Revolution, a process clearly led by England and focused in NW Europe. I suspect it’s an Anglocentric/Nordicist concept and, as said, never ever heard of it before.

  4. #4 razib
    May 29, 2008

    luis,

    no, you’re wrong. e.g.,
    But it’s also true that the Spanish were able to smash them at Lepanto and force an agreement on the division of spheres of influences in the Mediterranean

    1) the fleet was mostly italian remember, though it was under the aegis of the iberian elite. so depicting it as a “spanish” victory really would piss some people off :-)

    2) but more importantly lepanto wasn’t that big of a deal from an ottoman perspective, they didn’t mention it in their records. you have to look at things not just from the spanish perspective, right? if you read the egyptian accounts of kadesh they won. we know that’s not the reality. i’m not going to argue with you, but looking at history as a few battles such as lepanto or tours really isn’t that useful.

    But the dividing line between a time when Europe was just like anything else in the planet and the time when it was clearly dominant begins in the 1490s with Portuguese and Castilian naval expansion.

    historians don’t agree with you. you can give a few examples of bases, but that’s totally irrelevant. the example of the congo is also totally irrelevant. the base of comparison are the asian powers, not the african or new world examples (the african ones are also not a good example because europeans were prevented from expanded beyond small ports by disease until the 19th century). you are totally eurocentric insofar as you mention european expansion, but you don’t know that the peak of mughal expanion was 1700, or that the chinese state-empire was at its historical peak in the late 18th century. you assert that by the 17th century europeans were dominant and had bases at the time, but not mentioning that those bases were purchased or begged from asian powers (generally there was a process of giving mercentile concessions by land powers who had always worked with middlemen, whether arabs, gujaratis or europeans).

    you also don’t know the history well in terms of the russian expansion, so why start arguing with me? the manchus were focused on some other events like finishing their conquest of south china while the russians were expanding through siberia. when the former was complete they turned around and rollbacked the russians without much trouble and forced a treaty on them and pushed into central asia beyond the current borders of the people’s republic (the russian-chinese border is an artifact of unequal treaties in the 1860s).

    I don’t really see any justification for the odd concept of “Great Divergence”, except, as mentioned the Industrial Revolution, a process clearly led by England and focused in NW Europe. I suspect it’s an Anglocentric/Nordicist concept and, as said, never ever heard of it before.

    economists have things called statistics. these statistics make clear that gain in productivity and relative economic power by europe shifted toward increasing marginal returns in the 19th century. additionally, most economic historians don’t accept that there was a specific industrial revolution, rather, the increase in productivity was continuous and reaches back centuries, but simply accelerated. the main dissenter to the idea that the industrial revolution didn’t really happen is david landes. the economic power of the iberians in the 16th century were windfalls, especially in the spanish case with silver mines. they weren’t due to endogenous gains in capital and institutional shifts, so they weren’t sustainable and didn’t lead to the phsae of european supremacy which characterized the 19th century because they were much like the mughal or manchu expansion in terms of accruing power through grabbing more land and brute forcing more extraction out of the inputs.

    you can of course believe what you want. just be assured that profesional historians and economists think you’re wrong. just be clear about that.

  5. #6 Luis
    May 29, 2008

    The Early Modern Great Divergence: Wages, Prices and Economic Development in Europe and Asia, 1500-1800.

    That’s a more purely economic viewpoint (almost a matter of accountancy only, I’d say) than the one I had, which was more based in mere political and militar power. From a purely economic view, parts of NW Europe, specially Flanders were already on the rise in the late Middle Ages though their time would not come until Portuguese expansion severely damaged the economy of the Italian city-states, specially Venice. From that viewpoint certainly Spain was never a manufacturing power, nor much less Portugal. With few localized exceptions (textiles in Catalonia and some weaponry specially in the Basque Country) their main manufacture was ships. Portugal was more of a trading power though, specialized in slaves and spice.

    Anyhow, I am not sure why political-militar power has only to be seen from an economic perspective. Certainly the main issues for the modern USA are as much economical as political-militar. And that was the case also for earlier powers. The variables of economy have changed somewhat though but the issue of controlling key resources and keeping them cheap and available for national companies is the main theme driving imperialist competence along history, specially through modern history.

    no, you’re wrong.

    You mean you disagree with my opinion. Ok.

    the fleet was mostly italian

    The fleet was about 40% Spanish. The rest was mostly Venetians, who certainly had a big share in the victory with their six heavy galleases and all that. But it’s like saying that the USA did not win WWI (or even WWII) because the French and the English (and specially the Soviets in WWII) had many more troops in the battlefields. Spain (or the Habsburgian domain centered in Spain) was the leader of the alliance and the one who took the important decissions, for instance if to keep attacking the Turks after that or not. Venice was a most important ally but it was not the leader at all. Its time had passed.

    but more importantly lepanto wasn’t that big of a deal from an ottoman perspective, they didn’t mention it in their records.

    I have discussed this issue in depth before with people from all around the world, including many Turks, and certainly it was a very big blow in the naval facet: the Turkish navy was destroyed and, most importantly, their able seamen were too (either dead or captured). They rebuilt it eventually but only because Spain did not attempt to exploit this victory, busy as it was in so many other fronts. The Venetians wanted to carry on but they could not alone.

    Wikipedia mentions that historian Paul K. Davis said:

    “This Turkish defeat stopped Turkey’s expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining western dominance, and confidence grew in the west that Turks, previously unstoppable, could be beaten.”

    It was not like the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th century but it was a clear landmark that that their fromer unstoppable expansion westward had reached a limit.

    historians don’t agree with you.

    Then why they call the whole period since c.1500 “Modern history”.

    the base of comparison are the asian powers, not the african or new world examples (the african ones are also not a good example because europeans were prevented from expanded beyond small ports by disease until the 19th century).

    I understand well that some Asian powers were much more powerful and advanced than these but Spain did not head to Asia (except Philippines) and Portugal was always a small power of the sort the Netherlands or Denmark (or Venice in the Mediterranean) could be. Portugal was still able to estabilish a wide network of colonies not only in Africa but also along southern Asia, defeating everyone who faced them and causing the collapse of the traditional routes along the Middle East, seriously damaging the conomy of many Muslim powers as well as the Italian city-states (particularly Venice, who tried to stop them). The Netherlands would never do much more – in fact probably less, except in Indonesia. You cannot compare Portugal with England or France, it just makes no sense. And for historical reasons the only comparable power, Spain, went in the opposite direction and never intervened significatively in Asia (or Africa).

    But the impact anc challenge of Portuguese expansion specially cannot be undermined: they broke the Muslim monopoly on several key merchandises (the spices as most important) and opened trade and colonization routes that other powers would follow later. They invented the plantation colony (Madeira was the first one), they developed high seas navigation and cartography. The Castilian contribution is maybe more focused in America but certainly they also were important pioneers (discovery and conquest of most of America, circunnavigation of the world). You just cannot ignore all this pioneering and the Spanish status as first global power for more than a century. In fact Spain (Habsburgian empire) was the first western superpower since Rome.

    It’s not nationalist apology (I don’t feel attached to Spanish identity, rather the opposite) just sense of proportion.

    you are totally eurocentric insofar as you mention european expansion, but you don’t know that the peak of mughal expanion was 1700, or that the chinese state-empire was at its historical peak in the late 18th century.

    And the Safavid empire, and Oman, and the brief Moroccan imperial adventure in West Africa, and Ethiopia, and the Algerian corsairs…

    I cannot help being somewhat eurocentric by birth and education but certainly none of these powers was much of a global challenge, to any European power: they were focused in their own regional areas and did not directly compete. Not even China, without doubt the most powerful of all. If China would have wanted to compete… then maybe all modern history would have been different. But it wasn’t the case. When a European power in this timeline fell it was for internal problems and, specially, for the competence of other rising European powers.

    In fact it is a very interesting moment now because it is the first time in many centuries that non-western powers are challenging the hegemony of a wester superpower, and because there is no new western rising power (Brasil?, Russia?) in the game. The USA could well be the last of western great powers. It is a a new chapter but the chapter that may be ending was opened in the late 15th century.

    you assert that by the 17th century europeans were dominant and had bases at the time, but not mentioning that those bases were purchased or begged from asian powers (generally there was a process of giving mercentile concessions by land powers who had always worked with middlemen, whether arabs, gujaratis or europeans).

    Sometimes there were wars too: Portugal conquered Malaca, almost 180º away from home. And Portugal was a tiny country, it still is in spite of demographic growth. Certainly attacking the large continental empires woud have been suicidal, but, as you may be having a slightly Indo-centric viewpoint, India was conquered by the English, a large country (six times Portugal), only in the 19th century (and alrgely motivated because of rivalry with France, the same reason behind the capture of Dutch colonies, as the Dutch were allied of the french Republic and later Napoleon). Portugal had not the power to make such conquests but also did not have the need either. Portugal, like the Dutch after them, was never a major European power, even if it was a major African and Asiatic power. It was another scale of things than what drove French and specially British imperialism.

    I do agree that the conquest of India and some other Asian countries, along with the rush for Africa are the apogee of European imperialism and imperial power but that doesn’t deny the rest.

    you also don’t know the history well in terms of the russian expansion, so why start arguing with me? the manchus were focused on some other events like finishing their conquest of south china while the russians were expanding through siberia. when the former was complete they turned around and rollbacked the russians without much trouble and forced a treaty on them and pushed into central asia beyond the current borders of the people’s republic (the russian-chinese border is an artifact of unequal treaties in the 1860s).

    It doesn’t matter. What I mean is that the transformation of power relations wasn’t radically done by the British East India Company or the eventual decreased power of the late Manchu dynasty. It was gradual but this gradual transformation had a quite suddent start in the 1490s and the decades following this date. It also had a not sudden apogee at the late 19th and early 20th century. You cannot pinpoint a date (except maybe the Napoleonic wars or the Congress of Berlin, very internal European affairs) for a the beginning of that imperialist apogee. You can with the Portuguese/Castilians explorations and colonization.

    economists have things called statistics. these statistics make clear that gain in productivity and relative economic power by europe shifted toward increasing marginal returns in the 19th century

    That sounds more like an end than a beginning. It’s a totaly different thing.

    additionally, most economic historians don’t accept that there was a specific industrial revolution, rather, the increase in productivity was continuous and reaches back centuries, but simply accelerated.

    You mean some economic historians. I have also read some economical history myself (in fact it used to be one of my favorite subjects). Certainly an exact date for the industrial revoltion is hard to find but since the end of the 18th century in Britain and soon after in increasing areas of the rest of Europe there was a much larger increase in productivity and gradual mechanization of the productive processes. Surely you can trace the roots of this economic improvement to the early Modern Age, the Italian Renaissance or even the High Middle Ages, but the last two centuries have witnessed changes without precedent and at unprecedented speed, not just in economy and technology but socio-politically too. Increase in western imperial power has accompanied them certainly but is not the main feature. The main feature is a new way of production that soon clashed with the old post-Medieval way of doing things.

    I can even agree that some form of proto-Capitalism has existed before, at least through all Modern history and maybe “always”. But the Industrial revolution (or revolutions) is a major change (or chain of succesive changes, each one more radical and faster) on its own.

    I really don’t understand your logic: you deny that the Iberian colonial expansions changed (or began changing) the global relations of power in favor of Europe and then you try to push back into an undefinite timeline the Industrial Revolution(s). Then what do you have left in the 18th century that makes up the “Great Divergence”? Nothing.

    If the Russians and Brits had accumulated enough power to defeat the Indians and the Chinese in the 19th century, that was basically because of the Industrial Revolution, something these countries had not. Ok, Russia had not it either but it could buy the weapons and hire the experts in Germany or Britain (and China or the Mughal Empire could not).

    ________

    Anyhow, this discussion only touches a minor issue in the main topic that is about the “post-American world”. If we are not to get focused on it, I’d suggest that you reply to this if you wish and we leave it. Considering our divergent viewpoints we could go on and on for long otherwise wihout arriving anywhere.

    Intersting debate but somewhat off-topic probably.

  6. #7 razib
    May 29, 2008

    But the impact anc challenge of Portuguese expansion specially cannot be undermined: they broke the Muslim monopoly on several key merchandises (the spices as most important) and opened trade and colonization routes that other powers would follow later.

    the portugese experience in the indian ocean is illustrative of the difference between the “age of discovery” and the 19th century: the difference was one of focus & inclination, not aptitude. the asian powers did not generally focus on the oceans as extensions of their power and allowed other entities to mediate between entrepots. from a european perspective the building of strongpoints looms large, but if there was will the native powers could have taken them (as the safavids did with hormuz). why did the manchus allow macau? simple, it was a point through which they could funnel all the trade with the outside so as to control its flow (the area of the pearl river delta in general). IOW, there is a qualitative difference between the emergene of european fortresses along the maratime fringes in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the blowing open of inland lines of communication by great powers in the late 18th and 19th century (the former is analogous to the string of muslim fortresses which existed on the east african coast from mozambique to mombassa).

    You cannot pinpoint a date (except maybe the Napoleonic wars or the Congress of Berlin, very internal European affairs) for a the beginning of that imperialist apogee.

    the conquest of bengal in the 1760s represents the first major breakthrough. the treatment of the macartney embassy by the manchus in 1793 represents the last gasp of oriental rejection of western demands. the ottomans were still reconquering parts of central europe into the mid 18th century which had been lost to the austrians in the early 18th century. by the end of the 18th century the russians had finally broken through the black sea.

  7. #8 pconroy
    May 30, 2008

    Just to inject a little levity into this discussion, check out this quote:

    There’s an old saying about those who forget history. I don’t remember it, but it’s good.
    – Stephen Colbert

  8. #9 Luis
    May 30, 2008

    Your late 18th century dates (not sure if Bengal as such counts: it doesn’t seem more important than Malacca, Hormuz, Zandj, Ceylon, Ternate or Mataram) are signs of a change of grade not so much a fundamental one. And this change of grade is so directly tied to the effects of the Industrial Revolution that cannot be treated separately.

    The Ottomans were still a sizeable rival in the Crimea War of the 1850s (considered the first clearly industrial war) and even in WWI, the Japanese were challenging all Western powers in the early 20th century. It’s not like it can be described in black and white terms. Maybe for India and China the late 18th century was a historical landmark but that is partly a local focus in these two countries/regions. From the global perspective it is also a landmark but not so much for a not-so-clear radical shift of power relations between Europe and mainland Asia but for radical socio-economical and therefore political changes.

    One issue clearly is the ability of power to deploy sufficient troops to fight large inland wars so far from home. This was not something Portugal could do of course and surely only in the age you mention was possible and only for large powers like Britain, France and the like. The Netherlands for instance could not do that either at any time.

    It’s not an Iberian viewpoint: Spanish historiography, unlike English one, makes a marked difference between the Modern age (early Modern: since the Colombus and de Gama explorations) and the Contemporary age (late Modern: since the US and French revolutions). This difference is terminologically as sharp as the contrast between Middle and Modern ages and Antiquity and Middle Ages. But it’s clear for me that the Modern (early Modern) age preludes the Contemporary (late Modern) age very markedly and that one cannot be even imagined without the other, as you seem to want to do.