The West Is Finding it Harder to get Its Own Way in the World

by Ian Morris

Ian Morris

The people of Europe and North America still produce two-thirds of the world’s GDP, spend more than two-thirds of its R&D dollars, and own almost all of its nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. Yet, in recent weeks the USA—the richest, most inventive, and best-armed country in history—has seemed paralysed as its allies have been tumbled from power across the Middle East, and China, now the world’s second-biggest economy, has blocked its latest moves to manage international finance.

There is no shortage of theories about the shift in power from West to East, blaming everyone from incompetent politicians to currency manipulators. But the real explanation goes much deeper. Winston Churchill famously said that ‘The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’ He was right. To make sense of the forces that shape our world, we have to look deep into the past.

When we do this, the upheavals of our own day are revealed as merely the latest phase in a historical process that has been unfolding for thousands of years. The process is driven not by bungling bureaucrats or by sinister moneymen, but by the deepest force of all—geography.

UN Photo/Martine Perret
UN Photo/Martine Perret

To understand why our world is changing, we have to look back all the way to the end of the last ice age and then trace history forward to our own age. This is no small undertaking, but it remains the best method we have.

When the world warmed up 15,000 years ago, geography dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where complex societies could develop. This was because only a few regions had the kinds of climate and landscape that allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated; and farming could only arise in these places.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay toward the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call Southwest Asia. It was here, around 9000 BCE, that farming began, spreading outward across Europe. Western Eurasia became the richest part of the world.

Farming also started up independently in other areas, from China to Mexico, but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. Farming took longer still to get firmly established in regions like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where domesticable wild species were rarer still and deserts, mountains, or forests limited their spread from the earliest centres of farming. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but Western Eurasia long retained its early lead, producing the world’s first cities, states, and empires.

In the 1st millennium BCE—the age of Socrates, the Buddha, and Confucius—Western Eurasia was still the richest and most developed part of the world. But by this point, a great paradox had become clear: geography determines how societies develop, but how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world’s empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World’s great empires—from Rome in the West to Han China in the East—all came apart as population movements along the steppes spread disease and chaos, but these political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th century AD, while the West never did so. For more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on earth, and the East pulled ahead of the West.

East Asian inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 their ships could cross the oceans and their primitive guns could shoot the people on the other side. But then the East’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.

Western Europe—sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centres of action—had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s oceangoing ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus. Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of ‘Goldilocks Ocean’, neither too big nor too small. It was big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; but it was small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily. The Pacific, by contrast, was far too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California—just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was Western Europeans, rather than the 15th century’s finest sailors—the Chinese—who discovered, plundered, and colonized the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology. As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th century in what we now call the Enlightenment.

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed Western Europeans into mechanizing production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

But the transforming power of geography did not stop there. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the resources of North America, changing the meaning of geography once again. The USA, until recently a rather backward periphery, became the new global core. And still the process did not stop. In the 20th century the American-dominated global economy in turn drew in the resources of Asia. As container ships and jet airliners turned even the vast Pacific Ocean into a puddle, the apparently backward peripheries of Japan, then the ‘Asian Tigers’, and eventually China and India, were transformed into even newer global cores. The ‘rise of the East’, such a surprise to so many Westerners, was entirely predictable to those who understood that geography determines how societies develop, and that how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

The main lesson to draw all this history is that tinkering with exchange rates and legislating against outsourcing will not stop the shift of wealth and power from West to East. The great question for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working: it is how to manage the process.

The shift of the world’s center of gravity to Western Europe in the 19th century and from Europe to America in the 20th triggered the biggest wars of all time. Tens of millions died because the rulers of great powers in relative decline did not understand why the tide of history seemed to have turned against them. Our own century looks even more alarming. China’s GDP will probably overtake the USA’s by 2030, and if present trends continue its military spending will catch up before 2040. The assertiveness China already shows in Asia and Africa is just the beginning. But compared to earlier leaders, today’s statesmen do have one great advantage: they can see the broad shape of history. They have no excuse for thinking they will stop the long-term transformation of geography with short-term fixes like currency manipulation.

The single greatest challenge for the 21st century is to prevent the rise of the East from being as violent as the earlier rise of the West.

About the author
Ian Morris
Ian Morris

Ian Morris is Willard Professor of Classics and Professor of History at Stanford University, and author of Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

Further reading

Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) see

WIDER Angle newsletter
February 2011
ISSN 1238-9544

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