The dominance of the West represents a historical blip in the last millennium
Alan Mikhail, the author of three books, is a professor of history at Yale Where to end the story? For historians, the answer to this question can often shape their accounting of the past. “Empires of the Weak” very consciously ends its story right now.
Most histories written in or about the 20th century accept some version of the idea that Europe “won” world history. From the perspective of today, however, this seems an increasingly difficult claim to defend. For J. C. Sharman, a professor of international relations at Cambridge, “Europeans didn’t win in the end: Their empires fell, and their military capacity shriveled. Even the United States has experienced more defeats than victories against non-Western forces over the last half-century.”
In Sharman’s account, the dominance of the West (note Europe’s easy baton-pass to the United States), roughly from the Enlightenment to World War II, represents a historical blip in the last millennium. And, perhaps more important, today we seem to be on the cusp of a return to a more regular state of affairs, where the large states of Asia will again be the globe’s hegemons.
To make this provocative argument, Sharman finds the early modern period, conventionally dated from 1500 to 1800, the most fruitful for thinking about where we are headed. In those centuries, the enormous empires of the East — the Qing, the Ottomans and the Mughals — were the most formidable states on earth. Territory equaled power, and those states held the most land.
Much of this book turns on Sharman’s critique of what historians term the “military revolution thesis” — the idea that advanced military technologies led to Europe’s domination of the world beginning around 1500. Sharman shows this not to be true. For example, he dismantles the notion that the period of Western overseas expansion led to the rise of Europe, either militarily or politically. Asia’s enormous land-based empires didn’t much care about their coastlines and tolerated — more than they succumbed to — the Europeans nibbling on their shores in what were desperate, highly risky and ultimately temporary ventures. Until approximately 1750, Europeans — even in Europe, thanks to the Ottomans — held no military advantage over other powers.
But how then to explain the undeniable fact that Europeans dominated the globe from the turn of the 19th century to World War I? Sharman reasons that it was a combination of internal fractures within the Qing and Ottoman Empires, as well as the inclination of Europeans to think that empire building was the route to national sovereignty: in other words, almost a kind of vanity project. He might have said more about how exactly Europe achieved temporary global pre-eminence, especially as it would bolster his argument that this was a deviation from the norm of the last millennium.
Still, as a critique of prevailing modes of thinking about global politics, “Empires of the Weak” succeeds admirably. The history of international relations has focused too much on the most unrepresentative period of the last millennium — the century and a half in which Europe dominated the world. This weighting of the scales has skewed our understanding of global politics and the importance of the West. Sharman’s is a far richer story and one that perhaps more accurately reflects today’s global rebalancing.
To guess what’s on the other side of the impenetrable wall of the present — always risky — we might venture that global affairs in the year 2100 will look more like it did in 1700 than 1900 and that the center of world power will be in the East rather than the West. As we contemplate the future, we would do well, therefore, to cast our gaze to the early modern period — and to Asia.