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The big question: Why did the west dominate history for so long?

For centuries 'the west' exercised global dominance without parallel in history – but what were the conditions that allowed a small cluster of nations to control swathes of the world for so long? Four historians offer their expert opinions...

Published: December 12, 2016 at 1:22 pm
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Arne Westad: “Europe has always been culturally, religiously, and – most importantly – politically diverse”

For most of the time since the dawn of human civilisation, Asia has been in the lead, economically and technologically. Exactly when the ascent of Europe and its cultural offshoots began is hotly debated. Some see its roots in antiquity (highly contestable) or the Renaissance (more plausible, but doubtful – a comparison between Ming China and Tudor Britain is not necessarily to the latter’s advantage). It is more likely that western predominance started with the industrial revolution, and may be ending with the information revolution.


If one accepts this timeline, the rise of Europe was based on access to resources (especially energy) and technologies. The former advantage was to some extent a fluke – the fact that coal could be found reasonably close to the surface in parts of Europe has little to do with the Europeans – but the development of technology was not. It is quite possible that a system of contending states, and weakening religious governance, was a factor in creating space for innovation and markets. Spin-offs from military technologies and organisation also furthered research and state development. This form of modernity was found only in Europe (or, rather, in parts of it), and goes a long way towards explaining European predominance since the 18th century.

The concept of ‘the west’, though, is problematic. Talking about ‘north Atlantic societies’ makes more sense. Large areas of Europe were not particularly advanced, at least compared with parts of Asia or Latin America, until the middle of the 20th century. In contrast, some parts of Asia had markets and infrastructure that competed quite well with those of the Europeans until at least 1900 (and, in the case of Japan, long after that).

If ‘the west’ is taken to mean Europe and its offshoots in the Americas and Oceania, it has always been culturally, religiously, and – most importantly – politically diverse. The Soviet Union was in this sense part of the west, though many non-Europeans were quicker in adapting to US-led globalisation than the Russians remain to this day.

Arne Westad is ST Lee professor of US-Asia relations at Harvard University, and an expert on contemporary international history and the eastern Asian region.

Local resources and technological advances (here, at a Krupp factory in Germany) fuelled western dominance – but other regions are catching up. (Getty Images)
Local resources and technological advances (here, at a Krupp factory in Germany) fuelled western dominance – but other regions are catching up. (Getty Images)

Kathleen Burk: “Imposing political control requires military and sometimes naval power”

When considering this subject it’s worth thinking about what’s required to rule. Governing foreign lands requires a plenitude of money and a sustained will to wield power. The weapons required are military and economic power, and the ability to project them, supported by the control of communications. The power of political and economic ideas are much less important. ‘Rule’ comes in many guises. Conquering and imposing political control requires military and, sometimes, naval power. Overwhelming economic dominance requires financial and commercial power plus possibly military backup. However, economic control is stronger over the medium to long term if the use of force is restrained.

For centuries, western powers had the predominant ability to project power by land, sea and, later, air. From the early 18th century, Russia conquered a land empire and maintained control through overwhelming military power and the use of railways. By the 17th century, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, the French and the Spaniards all possessed the necessary experience and resources for oceanic conquest. Such strength normally trumps a huge population: consider the British in India, the Belgians in the Congo, and several western powers in China.

Having achieved political power, military and police power can be used to maintain it, especially if combined with divide-and-rule tactics – supporting elites against the rest, always the British preference, or backing one side in internal conflicts. Weapons wielded in maintaining economic power include the ability to mobilise and control finance – buying allies and paying bribes – and, with the modern international finance system, the power to choke off access to funds. Vital to both is the control of communications, an example being the British dominance of international cable traffic for a number of years.

Japan was the one country in either Asia or Africa that had, at least in part, the requisite strengths to wield power: military and naval power, including fully trained and equipped military forces able to defeat a western army (in the case of Japan, that of Russia); control over sustainable sources of finance; possession of rapid communications, internal or external; and internal cohesion. Japan remained independent. Hatred of the foreigner was not enough to save the other countries of Asia and Africa from western domination.

Kathleen Burk is emeritus professor of modern and contemporary history at University College London, specialising in Anglo-American relations and 20th-century history.

Hakim Adi: “What might be referred to as the domination of Europe might more properly be seen as the rise to dominance of the capitalist economic system”

The question assumes that ‘the west’ has dominated for an incredibly long time – but of course it hasn’t. Even if the start of western – that is to say, European – dominance can be dated from Europe’s simultaneous maritime connections with Africa, Asia, and America in the 16th century, that is no more than 500 years. Indeed, it is doubtful if the countries of western Europe could be said to have dominated any other continent by the end of the 17th century, except perhaps for America where it is estimated that Europeans (and the diseases they brought with them) accounted for the deaths of up to 90% of the indigenous American population.

Whatever the case, 500 years cannot be considered a very long time in human history; to give one obvious example, the history of pharaonic Egypt was at least five times as long. Of course, we live in a particular era, and the Eurocentric arrogance of that era might suggest a certain permanence.

What might be referred to as the domination of Europe and its diaspora might more properly be seen as the rise to dominance of the new capitalist economic system. This emerged first in western Europe, and unleashed tremendous productive forces on the world, but it was based on the global exploitation of the majority of the world’s people by a few. However, compared with other preceding economic and political systems it cannot be said to have lasted very long, either. The future of capitalism also appears uncertain. If its dominance continues, it looks likely to pass to China and the ‘east.’

It’s also the case that history has already witnessed the first stages of the emergence of a new economic and political system, which its advocates refer to as socialism. That new system first appeared a century ago but its emergence suggests that both western dominance and the exploitation of the many by the few might soon become history. In short, domination by the few in the west has not lasted so very long – but long enough.

Hakim Adi is professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester.

Margaret MacMillan: “The dramatic effects of the industrial, scientific and technological revolutions meant that western nations were stronger”

The truth is that, in terms of world history, western dominance has been relatively short – and now looks to be coming to an end. Until the end of the 18th century it was not even possible to talk of one part of the world dominating the other. There were important regional powers – France in Europe, China in Asia – but none that could plausibly claim hegemony over the world. Communications were too slow and technology too imperfect for any nation, no matter how powerful, to project its power around the world in any sustained fashion. True, some European powers had far-off colonies, but they had to rely on local forces and alliances with local rulers to maintain them.

Even 200 years ago, the west – if by that we mean the powers of western Europe and then the US – was not significantly richer nor more advanced than the rest of the world: think of the Ottomans, Qing China, the Mughals. Much of North America and sub-Saharan Africa remained beyond the control of western powers. In Asia, Japan and Thailand remained independent.

In the 19th century the west won the edge that it is now losing again. The dramatic effects of the industrial, scientific and technological revolutions meant that, until the rest of the world caught up, western nations had better guns, more productive economies and superior medicine. The first sign that the tide was turning came in 1904–05 when Japan, which had met the western challenge by reforming its society and economy, defeated Russia. Nationalist movements worldwide took heart. Two great wars exhausted the European powers and, in the aftermath of 1945, the empires vanished. True, the US was a superpower, and remains strong, but its margin over the rest of the world – especially in economics – is no longer as great.

So, in terms of human history, the west hasn’t dominated for very long. The Roman empire lasted much longer. And in recent decades ideas, techniques, even fashions have been flowing into the west as much as they have the other way. Next time you eat Thai food, listen to music from Africa, use a phone designed in Japan or drive a car made in Korea, ask yourself: who is dominating whom?

Margaret MacMillan is a professor of international history at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is History’s People: Personalities and the Past (Profile Books, 2016)


This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016


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