The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (2013)

Europe triumphant, 1400-1850
In the nineteenth century, the coming of steamships, telegraphs, and the railroad continued shrinking space; and as its economic potential was unleashed, the United States began challenging Britain, going from being an economic periphery to being a core in its own right.
America triumphant, 1850-2050?
The United States’ GDP overtook Britain’s in 1872 and Germany’s followed suit in 1908. In 1914 and again in 1939, German leaders concluded that the only way to solve the geostrategic problem of being trapped between France and Russia was through violence. The resulting wars devastated Europe, bankrupted Britain, and left the United States and Soviet Union to divide the spoils between them.
Japan overtook West Germany to become the world’s second-biggest economy in 1967, and in 1992, China pushed Japan out of the number two spot. In the thirty years after Chairman Mao died in 1976, the Chinese economy grew tenfold and its share of global economic output more than tripled.

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    The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: China, the European Union, and the United States in the Twenty-First Century

    by Ian Morris



    History is not a very good guide to the future, but it is the only guide we have got. Because of this, the only way to understand Sino-European relations in the twenty-first century is to look into their history; and when we do so, I suggest in this paper, we also see that we can only understand Sino-European relations if we also understand the relations between both parties and the United States.

    “The farther backward you can look,” Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “the farther forward you are likely to see,” and the great forces driving Sino-European relations in fact only become visible when we look back a very long way indeed. In sections 2–4 of this paper, I do this, looking back first more than fifteen thousand years, to the end of the last Ice Age. In section 5, I suggest that this historical perspective not only goes far toward explaining Western Europe’s place in the American-dominated world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, but also reveals what Sino-European relations might be like in the increasingly post-American world of the mid and late twenty-first century.

    The very long run: Europe and China, 14,000BC–AD1400

    Through most of history, Europe has been a backwater. Only around 500BC did Europe’s southern fringe become an important part of the world, with the rise of sophisticated civilizations in Greece and Italy; but by AD500, it was sliding back into obscurity. If we are to explain Europe’s rise to globe dominance after AD1500 and its changing position in the last seventy-five years, we must first explain why the continent has usually been—as the Marxist economist Andre Gunder Frank once put it—no more than “a distant marginal peninsula.” 
    The explanation for Europe’s general insignificance in the larger scheme of things can be boiled down to just one word: geography.  The driving force in history has not been great men, culture, religion, institutions, or even accidents. Genetics and archaeology have shown conclusively that people are much the same all over the world,  and anthropology, history, and sociology have shown that—because people are all much the same—human societies have developed in similar ways all over the world. What differs is the places where the societies develop, and that is why geography has been the driving force in history. Geography determined that complex societies would develop in specific parts of the world at the end of the last Ice Age, and geography also determined that they would spread and change in specific ways across the millennia that followed.

    But if that is so, we might well ask, why has history been such a messy and complicated matter? Most historians, after all, think that their subject matter is so messy and complicated that there is no larger pattern behind it. The past, they generally conclude, is just a dismal record of one damned thing after another. 

    The reason for this confusion is that geography is itself messy and complicated, which means that the historical patterns it produces are doubly so. We might, in fact, think of geography’s role in history as a two-way street: on the one hand, geography determines how societies develop, but on the other, social development determines what geography means. What we normally call ‘history’ is nothing more than the back-and-forth between geography and social development. 

    This is a very abstract way to put things. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz rightly observed forty years ago that “theoretical formulations [in the social sciences] hover so low over the interpretations they govern that they don’t make much sense or hold much interest apart from them”;  consequently, the only way to show how the interaction between geography and social development actually worked to shape the past (and how it will continue to work to shape the future) is to plunge into the details. This is what I will now do, providing a brief history of the world in a few thousand words.

    We need to start with the end of the Ice Age, which marked one of the two really important changes since modern humans evolved. When the world warmed up at the end of the last Ice Age, around 9600BC,  plants and animals multiplied madly as the solar energy available to them increased. As often happens with population explosions, however, the increase in hungry mouths outran the resources that had made the boom possible, bringing on Malthusian crises and population crashes. All over the world, humans reacted to scarcity by managing their food sources more intensively (herding animals and trying to breed them in captivity, and replanting, watering, and weeding particularly good stands of wild plants). These interventions changed the selective pressures operating on the plants and animals being eaten, pushing them down new evolutionary paths; and in one part of the world, geography determined that the new selective pressures would have spectacular results.

    The part of the world in question was a band of ‘lucky latitudes’ stretching in the Old World from China to the Mediterranean and in the New from Peru to Mexico (Figure 1).  Here, human intervention modified the genetic structures of the plants and animals people were eating to the point that these other species evolved into forms that could only survive with continued human intervention. Without really knowing what they were doing, the people of the lucky latitudes turned wolves into dogs, wild aurochs into cattle, and wild rice and barley into domesticated versions that could only grow if humans harvested and replanted them. Botanists call this process domestication, and with it, the hunters and gatherers of the lucky latitudes turned into farmers.

    Geography explains why farming began in these latitudes rather than in Siberia, central Africa, or anywhere else on earth, as the biologist Jared Diamond explains in his classic study Guns, Germs, and Steel. The world, Diamond observes, has roughly 200,000 species of plants, but humans can only eat about 2,000 of these, and only about 200 have much genetic potential for domestication. Not many of these have seeds big enough to be worth the effort of harvesting, preparing, and eating them; and of the 56 plants with edible seeds weighing at least 10 milligrams, 50 originally grew wild in the lucky latitudes, and just 6 in the whole of the rest of the planet. Before twentieth-century science came along to speed up the process of genetic modification, humans had only managed to domesticate fourteen species of mammals weighing over a hundred pounds; nine of these were natives of the lucky latitudes.

    Farming began in the lucky latitudes not because the people who lived there were smarter, or more energetic, or had better institutions, cultures, or religions than people in other places, but because geography made it easier for people to domesticate plants and animals in the lucky latitudes than anywhere else on earth. Given that people are much the same everywhere, it is therefore no surprise that the world’s first farmers appeared in the lucky latitudes; nor should we be surprised that out of all the regions within the lucky latitudes, it was Southwest Asia, which has the highest concentrations of potentially domesticable plants and animals of all, that led the way.

    The first signs of domestication—unnaturally large seeds on plants and unnaturally small bodies on animals—appeared in Southwest Asia around 9500BC, just a few generations after the end of the Ice Age.  By 7500BC, the region archaeologists call the “hilly flanks”—roughly the borderlands of modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran—was filling up with farming villages.

    At the other end of the lucky latitudes, the region we now call China also had high concentrations of domesticable plants and animals, but not as high as the hilly flanks. The first signs of domesticated rice appear between the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers around 7500BC, and farming villages by 5500BC. Millet and pigs followed over the next millennium. In Pakistan, barley, wheat, sheep, and goats were domesticated on roughly the same schedule; squash, peanuts, and teosinte (the ancestor of maize) were domesticated in Mexico between 6500 and 3250BC; and quinoa, llamas, and alpacas in Peru between 6500 and 2750BC. The fit between density of potential domesticates and date of domestication is almost perfect.

    14Domestication had its downsides—farmers typically worked harder than foragers, and ate more monotonous, less healthy diets—but it also had one huge plus: farming produced much more food per hectare of land. As their food supply grew, humans—like any other animal—turned the extra calories into more of themselves. Villages grew, population densities rose, and farmers spread out across the landscape.  It took farming about five thousand years to spread from its initial heartland in Southwest Asia all the way across Europe, and a similar span of time saw it expand from its second-oldest core, in China, as far as Borneo and Malaysia (Figure 2).

    Farming did not, however, advance equally quickly in every direction. It took just as long—more than four thousand years—for agriculture to spread the few kilometres from the hilly flanks down into the plains of what is now Iraq as it took it to spread all the way to the shores of the Atlantic. This was because the long trip from the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris to the Seine basin all took place within what geographers call a single biome (a zone where the climate and ecology allow similar types of plants and animals to flourish), while the short trip down to the floodplains of the Euphrates and Tigris involved crossing into a very different biome.
    In Europe and the hilly flanks, there is usually enough rain to support barley, wheat, sheep, goats, and cattle, but in Iraq, that is rarely the case. To succeed in Iraq, farmers need to be able to organize fairly sophisticated irrigation systems, and for several thousand years after farming began, almost no one could manage this. Not until around 5000BC did social development reach the point that villagers could build and maintain permanent irrigation systems, but when development did reach this level, it changed the meaning of geography. Before 5000BC, the parched plains of Iraq had been almost uninhabitable; after 5000BC, irrigation made them into more productive places than farming’s original heartland in the hilly flanks.

    Irrigation allowed farmers to harness the power of the great rivers, producing higher yields that could feed true cities. By 3000BC, there were 45,000 people living at Uruk, defended by fortifications and ruled by a centralized government whose bureaucrats had invented writing. Irrigated river valleys could support much larger states than rain-fed farming, and, again by 3000BC, Egypt’s first pharaohs had united a thousand kilometres of territory along the Nile Valley.

    Mastery of rivers drove social development upward, only for rising social development to change the meaning of geography again. Cities and governments required rivers for irrigation and transport, but as states grew and turned into genuine empires,  they learned that while controlling a river was good, controlling a sea was even better. For many centuries, no state was developed enough to control the Mediterranean Sea, which meant that pirates could infest its waters, generating instability and chaos. Egyptian texts refer to these raiders as the Peoples of the Sea, and tell us that by 1200BC they had become so disruptive that they sacked and plundered almost every palace between Greece and Israel. A dark age ensued, but by 500BC development had recovered and reached new heights. Phoenicians (from roughly the area of modern Lebanon) and Greeks founded colonies in Italy, France, and Spain, and by the first century BC Rome had conquered the shores of the entire sea.  Once again, rising development changed the meaning of geography, turning the Mediterranean from a barrier to peace and prosperity into a commercial superhighway; and once again, new meanings of geography pushed social development higher than ever before.

    By the first century AD, a continuous chain of empires ran from China to the Britain. The Roman and Han Chinese Empires each had probably sixty million subjects. Rome, the biggest city in the world, had about a million residents, and the Han capital at Luoyang had about half that number. Tens of thousand of merchant ships were plying the seas and billions of coins were in circulation. Social development rose higher than ever before, and—predictably—the meaning of geography began changing again.
    20Nearly ten thousand years had passed since the end of the Ice Age, and in this time, the steppes—a band of arid, treeless grasslands running from Manchuria in the east to Hungary in the west (Figure 3)—had been even less welcoming than Iraq had been before the invention of irrigation. The only way for humans to survive there was by raising animals that could eat the grass, and then eating the animals. As the early first millennium BC went on, however, the soaring social development in the agricultural empires presented horse-riding nomads on the steppes with a new way to live: they could plunder the empires and extort bribes from their rulers, much as the Peoples of the Sea had done in the east Mediterranean a thousand years earlier.

    By the second century AD, the steppes had turned into a new highway, with mounted nomads moving rapidly across Eurasia. This, though, had much more devastating effects than the movements of the Peoples of the Sea. Up till the second century AD, the disease pools of the Chinese and Mediterranean worlds had been almost entirely separate, but the sharp increase in migration now merged them. This generated germs against which few people had antibodies. Great plagues broke out in Rome and China in the 160s, killing perhaps one third of the population, although that number can only be a guess. The consequences, though, are all too obvious. From one end of Eurasia to the other, the ancient empires proved unable to cope with the new facts of geography, and in the third century, they started disintegrating.

    For the next thousand years, the Eurasian empires cycled through periods of collapse and consolidation, never solving the problem of how to deal with steppe nomads. One after another, the Huns, Xiongnu, Shaka, Yuezhi, Turks, Mongols, and others burst out of central Asia to loot and overwhelm the richest of the agricultural societies, leaving ruins in their wake. In western Eurasia, a series of rulers—the Byzantine Justinian in the sixth century, the Persian Khusrau in the seventh, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs of the Arabs in the eighth, the Frankish Charlemagne in the early ninth—tried to recreate something like the Roman Empire, only to fail. Eastern rulers did rather better, and by 1100, Chinese social development had regained the levels that Rome had seen a millennium earlier. However, the harsh new geography that required agricultural empires to coexist with steppe nomads prevented the farming societies from pushing development any higher; in the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan and his successors devastated the empires more thoroughly than ever before, and in the fourteenth the Black Death carried off somewhere between one third and one half of all Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese.

    By AD1400, it would have been easy to conclude (as the famous Arab intellectual Ibn Khaldûn did) that history was cyclical. Thanks to the new meanings of the steppes, Eurasia seemed stuck, with even its grandest empires unable to surpass the achievements of the ancient Romans. In parts of the world where agriculture had been invented independently, such as the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, social development was continuing to rise, but these societies still had very far to go to catch up. The fifteenth century Aztecs and Inca still lived in the Stone Age, while even the greatest of the African kingdoms, at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, remained preliterate. Agricultural empires, it seemed, were the most developed societies humans would ever create.


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