The rise of the West was based on luck. That has run out.
Many Westerners fret about the relative decline of the West. For over 500 years, since the successful conquest of the Americas by Atlantic Ocean facing European countries, the West has dominated the world in terms of wealth, power, influence and culture.
This domination is ending and Westerners are struggling to come to terms with their new status. There is a lot of debate as to why this has been happening: high levels of private and national debt; a social net that is too expensive; loss of manufacturing and service jobs to lower cost countries; too much free trade; not enough free trade; not enough education; wealth inequality; too high taxation; too low taxation and so forth. None of these explanations are satisfying, many are contradictory and they focus on relatively short term issues.
In this article History Future Now steps back and looks at 500 years of Western history to see if there is a more satisfying explanation for this decline.
Two things emerge from this high level view.
First, the West is not a homogenous block and its constituent countries have all declined at some point. From a historical perspective there is nothing unusual about the decline of the West.
Second, it becomes clear that the rise of the West was partially based on luck and, had circumstances been different, may never have happened at all.
If you look at the West as one homogenous group it appears to have maintained its dominance over the world for over 500 years and it now appears to be in decline. However, if you look at it as a series of heterogenous, individual, states you will see a series of distinct rises and falls. Spain rose and fell. Portugal rose and fell. The Netherlands rose and fell. France rose and fell. Britain rose and fell. Germany rose and fell. The United States rose and is falling. In each case the fall of one Western country was overlapped by the rise of another Western country, as though they were all team members in a gigantic relay race against the rest of the world. “Team West” has done very well, but the individual members all faltered after a time.
What is different today, however, is that the United States is in decline and there is no successor Western state waiting to pick up the baton for “Team West”.
If the concept of “the West” is broadened so that it is not merely a synonym for fair skinned people of a European Christian heritage and encompasses the broader intellectual concepts of Western science, medicine, law, capitalism and values, then even the rise of China could be seen as another triumph of “the West”. They could be co-opted into “Team West”.
While Westerners and the Chinese alike will probably be affronted by this concept, for different reasons, this is not too dissimilar to what happened to the Roman Empire from the mid 300s AD onwards. Germanic tribes north of the river Danube began to invade the Roman Empire and settle within its borders. What the fairer skinned Germans all had in common was a desire to be part of the darker skinned Roman Empire. They did not invade to destroy it, but rather they envied its wealth and culture and wanted to be a part of it. They stopped using their Germanic languages, wrote in Latin, used Roman law and promoted Rome’s official religion: Christianity. Over time the German tribes that invaded what is now France, Spain, Portugal and Italy would end up speaking the Latin based languages that morphed into French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and Italian. Even as late as 800 AD the German ruler of much of Western Europe, Charlemagne (Charles the Great) had himself crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor.
So when looking at the decline of the West it is important to remember that most of the major Western powers have been through their own rises and falls already. Decline is normal, from a historical perspective.
A more interesting question is how did ”Team West” rise in the first place?
The Age of Luck
The second reason for this apparent decline is that the rise of the West was as a result of a series of incredibly lucky breaks, none of which were inevitable at all. This luck has run out.
We are going to look at the rise and fall of three great Western powers over the past 500 years: Spain, Britain and the United States. Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Germany were all great powers for a while but ultimately they lacked the scope and success of Spain, Britain and the United States and so will only be mentioned in passing. Clearly, Rome had dominated the Mediterranean region from 100BC to 450AD or so. There were other great powers in Europe in the past as well. But all of these powers were essentially regional. They controlled two to three million square miles of territory at their maximum extent. What was new was the huge extent of global territory controlled by a few Western countries.
The Rise and Fall of Spain
Prior to the mid 1400s there was little evidence to suggest that the West would soon dominate the world.
But things were changing. The European states on the the western edge of Eurasia had historically been poorer than those who dominated the central and eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea and the valuable trade routes with Asia. The loss of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans and the victory of the Spaniards over Muslim Spain helped to create a new impetus to find alternative trade routes to bypass the Muslim lock on trade with Asia.
There were two possible alternative routes to Asia. The first route was to sail south and east around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. Fortunately, by the late 1400s improved cartography, navigation skills, the magnetic compass, triangular sails, and deep water ship design gave the Portuguese the theoretical capacity to cross the Atlantic Ocean. They successfully reached the tip of southern Africa in 1488.
The second route was to head west, across an uncharted ocean, to China and Japan. This was deemed impossible as it was too far. Christopher Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was bold enough to insist that this journey was possible and the Spanish monarchy was wealthy enough to support this risky adventure. He was lucky to land on an island thousands of miles away from China, in the Caribbean.
His safe return back to Spain in 1493 transformed the Atlantic Ocean from being an un-crossable barrier to an easily crossed trade highway for Western Europe. In the same way the Mediterranean Sea was critical for trade within Roman Empire, the Atlantic Ocean became critical for trade for Britain, France, Portugal and Spain.
But mere trade was not the only lucky break. Diseases such as small pox decimated the population of the Americas, which had been isolated from Eurasian diseases for over 20,000 years when the land route to America over the Bering land bridge from Asia was flooded by the sea. Some historians believe that up to 90% of the population of the Americas was wiped out by disease. So many people died that forests reclaimed vast areas of land once cleared by Indians, sucking up giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, possibly triggering the little ice age in Europe from the mid 1500s.
This enabled a a few Western countries to dominate and monopolise the Americas in a way that was simply impossible in other parts of the world. European colonies in Africa and Asia remained fundamentally African and Asian, with relatively few white settlers.
Spain was the initial beneficiary of the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. Firstly they made money from pillaging the Aztec and Inca Empires, bringing back huge quantities of gold and silver. This one-off lucky break was followed up by the discovery of the silver mountain of Potosi in modern day Bolivia. This mountain would provide staggering amounts of silver that was melted down into the silver coins, known as pieces of eight or Spanish dollars, that formed the basis of trade for much of the world economy during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. From the 1560s Spanish ships crossed the Pacific Ocean on regular voyages, taking with them the silver coins that were highly prized by the Chinese.
Meanwhile, Portuguese ships finally managed to get round the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa and began to trade with India, China and Japan directly.
Thus the discovery of the Americas gave Spain and Portugal, who had discovered and claimed Brazil whilst trying to get round the Cape of Good Hope, a huge advantage over other historic Eurasian powers.
Spain was lucky. What were the chances that a trading trip west to China would result in the discovery of two entire continents whose populations would be decimated not by war but by European disease? What were the chances that the rapid political collapse of the Aztec and Inca empires would allow a few hundred Spanish fighters to dominate huge empires with millions of people? Or that these territories would produce gold and huge quantities of silver that were the only real commodity desired by the Chinese?
As a piece of fiction, the likelihood of these events happening is preposterous. The Spanish were at the right place at the right time. They translated this wealth into power and influence in Europe. Spain had the wealth to expand into parts of Italy and Sicily and the Netherlands.
But their luck would not last forever and they would be eclipsed by the Dutch and the English. By the late 1600s Spain’s golden age was over. In 1701, after Charles II of Spain died without an heir, a global war broke out between Europe’s major powers and their colonial settlements. After 14 years the War of the Spanish Succession was over. Spain kept much of its overseas empire but its territories in Italy, Sicily, the Southern Netherlands became independent and Gibraltar and Minorca became British possessions.
The baton of Western dominance passed over from Spain to Britain. But Team West was still in the race.
The Rise and Fall of Britain
England also went west to find a sea route to China. In 1495 John Cabot, an Italian from Genoa, arrived in England and persuaded King Henry VII to finance the cost of a crew and a single caravel ship to head west. They landed in what is now Newfoundland in 1497 and claimed North America for the English Crown.
England’s American colonies were initially a failure. The English had gone to the Americas in search for gold and silver. They found none in their Atlantic colonies. The only people who seemed to be interested in settling there it were religious refugees determined to create a semi-theocratic state in New England.
Those less interested in religion found wealth by turning to privateering: ships that were given official papers from the English Crown allowing them to attack foreign shipping in exchange for a cut of the loot. Nimble English ships robbed heavy Spanish treasure ships crossing from the Spanish Main back to Spain. This was one of the reasons why Catholic Spain tried to invade Protestant England in 1588 with a vast, expensive, fleet of ships. This Armada was destroyed by freak storms and the loss nearly bankrupted Spain. England and Protestantism was saved.
England, which would merge with Scotland in 1707 to become Great Britain, would eventually become rich and powerful not thanks to the mining of gold and silver, but by the cultivation of cash crops. In 1655 the English captured Spanish Jamaica and turned it into one of the richest territories in the world, thanks to a combination of climate and African slaves, which allowed the cultivation of sugar cane and coffee: high value crops that were easy to transport.
Coffee, tea, tobacco and sugar are all addictive. In higher latitudes the distinctive seasons of winter, spring, summer and autumn help to reduce natural plant predation. In the tropics, where the temperature is relatively similar all year round and plants retain their leaves, insects, bacteria and fungi can feast on plants unchecked. So many plants evolved the ability to produce natural pesticides that either kill or at least repel their attackers. That is why so many tropical plants are poisonous.
Coffee, tea and tobacco all contain natural pesticides. They are sufficiently strong to deter or kill pests, but sufficiently weak so that their poisons act as an addictive stimulant on humans. Coffee and tobacco grew well in the tropical Caribbean islands. Since they were addictive they made the perfect cash crop for English and French landowners who wanted to sell to the European market. But the English and French labourers who moved to the Caribbean to grow these plants died in their thousands, sometimes days after arriving from Europe. Coming from a temperate climate, they had not developed resistance to tropical diseases. Without a viable workforce none of these plants could be cultivated and thus no money could be made.
Fortunately for these hopeful European entrepreneurs, the west coast of Africa had a tradition of slavery. When west African rulers defeated their rivals in battle they would enslave the defeated population. The more slaves you had the more powerful you were seen to be. West Africans had developed significantly higher levels of resistance to tropical diseases than their European counterparts. So the Portuguese, and then the English, set up slaving depots along the west African coast. West African rulers would bring captured slaves to the coast and would sell them to the Europeans in exchange for a range of European products.
The Europeans took the slaves across the Atlantic to work in the fields of the Caribbean. Jamaica would end up with a slave population that was 20 times greater than the white English population that controlled it. Sugar cane was added to the list of addictive crops and the waste molasses would be turned into another addictive substance, rum, which was processed in England’s North American colonies. Later it was discovered that cotton could be grown effectively in the southern parts of North America. By that time the slave infrastructure that would enable this plant to be grown and harvested cheaply was already in place.
Spain’s empire had primarily been based on the economic exploitation of silver. With silver it could buy pretty much anything that it wanted, making the further development of its economy less important. Portugal’s dominance in trade with India, China and Japan was eventually undermined by its enthusiasm for promoting the Catholic faith. When Dutch traders, who had little interest in promoting Protestantism, arrived in Asia they quickly became the favoured trading partners of the ruling elites. This story is not too dissimilar to how China’s policy of non-intervention in the internal politics of Africa today gives it a trade advantage over Western countries who are more concerned about human rights than making money.
Britain’s Atlantic wealth was more complicated to produce and required the development of a broader range of skills than mining silver. The trade triangle that emerged between Africa, the source of African slaves, the Caribbean (and later America), where cash crops were grown with African slaves and England, where the cash crops were processed and sold to a broad market, allowed England’s wealth to be more widely shared. Spain’s wealth was converted into lavish baroque buildings and fantastic art for a narrow ruling elite. England’s wealth was created by getting as many people as possible addicted to tobacco, coffee, tea, rum and sugar. Processing, sales and marketing were as important as growing the stuff.
Despite the loss of the American colonies in 1783 Britain went into the next century richer than ever before. Britain had deliberately kept its North American colonies under-developed. The production of many manufactured products had been discouraged or was illegal. The transportation of American raw materials was done by British merchant ships and the colonies had been only allowed to trade with Britain. Language, cultural and legal ties kept Britain close to its former American colonies. So when the cotton gin was invented in 1794, enabling the cleaning of cotton on an industrial scale, American cotton would be shipped to Britain where new industrial processes would convert it into high quality, low cost, cloth that would flood the world’s markets.
Britain also went about creating a new empire in Africa and in India. During the American War of Independence the Spanish, Dutch and French had sided with the American colonists. Britain defeated them and won number of Spanish, Dutch and French territories and trading posts in India and Central America. Eventually the new British Empire would stretch all the way to China with its colonisation of Hong Kong in 1841.
The Empire was tied together by a phenomenal navy and merchant marine. Raw materials flowed from all corners of the world into British ports and were transformed into high quality, low cost, manufactured products that were sent out again to the rich of the world. Britain made money from trade. From manufacturing. From investing in global infrastructure projects.
Normal British citizens also did relatively well, once the initial trauma of industrialisation had worn off. Britain had the capital to construct factories in Britain and British workers were hired to work in them. They earned enough money to buy many of the products they produced, creating a middle class that was wealthy enough to create demand for new products. By the mid 1800s London was by far the richest city in the world and Britain continued to dominate the world economically all the way up to the beginning of the First World War.
Fundamentally, however, Britain was lucky. The initial failure of its colonies actually helped it in the long run. The lack of gold and silver meant that it needed to develop its colonial economy. The fortuitous trade triangle of additive cash crops, such as tobacco and sugar, African slaves and manufacturing made it the richest country in the world. Even the loss of its thirteen American colonies was shrugged off as it built a new empire over which the sun would never set.
Finally, however, it was the the two World Wars that would be Britain’s undoing. Their luck ran out and the baton of Western dominance would be passed over to the United States, who were also incredibly lucky, but for different reasons. Team West was still in the race.
The Rise and Fall of the United States
The creation of the American Republic, through the uniting of thirteen British colonies was a triumph of English Enlightenment ideals. Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament had tried repeatedly throughout the Commonwealth period after the execution of Charles I in 1649 to create a permanent republic in Britain. Despite their best efforts they failed and the monarchy was reintroduced shortly after Cromwell’s death.
Up until 1776 American colonists were British citizens and all shared the same heritage as those living in Britain itself. As a result, the rise of the United States can be seen as merely the rise of another branch of British society, unlike the transition of power from Catholic Spain to Protestant Britain.
America’s rise was based on luck. And that luck was based on two things: North American geography and European wars.
After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the war between Britain and her American colonies, the United States still held less territory in North America than Spain and Great Britain. The newly United States of America were hemmed in between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coast. To the north was British North America (Canada), which was ruled directly by the British Crown and to the west were Indian territories that were allied to Great Britain and nominally under Crown rule. Most of rest of North America was owned by Spain, which controlled all of modern day Mexico and most of the Pacific coast all the way up to Alaska. They also controlled Florida, to the south.
Had America been stuck within those borders it would never have become a global power, with the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans providing it with a gigantic moat to defend itself against attackers and an enormous temperate continental landmass to expand into.
The young United States needed to break out from its constraints. It was greatly assisted in this by the British who betrayed their American Indian allies during the Paris peace treaty negotiations in 1783 and ceded to the US control over what was referred to as the Northwest Territory – an amalgamation of Indian lands to the east of the Mississippi in what is now mainly Ohio and Michigan. The Americans eagerly moved into this territory, despite Indian resistance. This more than doubled the size of the area of the original thirteen colonies and started to shift the colonies attention away from the Atlantic Ocean towards developing a continental empire.
The next big step took place between 1800 and 1803 when the United States doubled in size, once again, without firing a shot. After the Seven Years War, which ended in 1763, France seceded its French colony of Louisiana to Spain. In 1800 a new secret treaty between France and Spain gave Louisiana back to France in exchange for France handing over parts of Italy to the Spanish king. Napoleon Bonaparte sent a vast and expensive military expedition to Louisiana to regain control of Louisiana and the French island of Saint Dominigue (now Haiti) which had been overrun by a slave rebellion. Saint Dominigue, like Jamaica, was a source of tremendous wealth for France. The French were unable to retake the island. A third of the soldiers died due to disease, including its commander. Napoleon gave up on the Americas and sold the Louisiana territory, which hadn’t really been part of France for 40 years, to the United States for $15 million dollars.
Control over Louisiana gave the United States control over New Orleans. Control over New Orleans gave the United States control over the Mississippi river valley, which was the only way for bulk goods to be transported out of the lands west of the Appalachian mountain range. Interestingly, Napoleon could have sold Louisiana back to the Spanish, but chose not to. He hated the weak Spanish king and his chief advisor (who was sleeping with the Spanish queen) and giving the land to the United States was likely to cause problems for both Britain and Spain in the future. Since Napoleon had decided to embark on a campaign of European expansion, this was definitely a positive spin on what had been a disastrous result for France in the Americas. This was one of the great “what ifs” in history. What would have happened had the slave rebellion not occurred at the time and had Napoleon been successful in re-establishing a thriving French presence in North America?
America’s borders remained pretty much intact until the Treaty of 1818 established the 49th parallel as the border between the British North America (Canada) and the United States. Oregon became a shared territory, giving the United States territorial access to the Pacific for the first time. In 1819 Florida and part of Colorado were added to the United States. In the meantime, Russia had established a colony in what is now Alaska. In 1824 the Spanish Empire in North America collapsed and a new country, Mexico, took its place. Texas separated itself from Mexico in 1836 and became independent.
The next big step took place between 1845, when Texas joined the United States, and in 1848, when the war between Mexico and the United States ended, bringing in California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Wycoming over to the United States. With the exception of Alaska, bought from Russia in 1867, and more nibbling away at the borders of Canada and Mexico, the external borders of the continental United States were complete.
In 1861, however, America’s luck faltered and seemed to run out. Vexed over the question of the expansion of slavery into all of the new territories acquired by the United States, the southern states seceded from the Union and became the Confederate States of America.
This was a major crossroads for the country, a mere 78 years after it had been formed. Had the split remained permanent there would have been five powers in North America: Mexico, the Confederate States of America, the rump United States of America, British North America (Canada) and Russia (Alaska). Instead, the northern rump of the United States invaded the south, determined to keep the union whole. With the North American continent thus divided it is highly unlikely that the United States would have developed into the economic giant that it would become and would certainly not have been in any position to assist in either the First or Second World War.
Which brings us to the next great piece of luck for the United States: European wars.
Over the past 500 years not a single century has passed without a major European conflict. But the First World War was particularly devastating. It was the first time that fully industrialised nations had fought each other. Millions of young Europeans were left dead and maimed. Initially isolationist, America joined the war in 1917, three years after it had started, and while their contribution was modest their involvement helped to convince German officers that German defeat was inevitable.
The Great War was a disaster for Britain. Apart from the obvious horrific human losses, it had racked up enormous debts to pay for victory. President Wilson’s call for self government for all peoples ushered in an independence frenzy and great powers like the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires ceased to exist. This same call for self government gave birth to a generation of revolutionaries that would grow up calling for resistance against British rule in Britain’s far flung colonies. During the interwar period it lost control over Canada, Australia and New Zealand. India and most of its African colonies would be lost after the end of the Second World War.
It was the Second World War, however, that was of the greatest benefit to the United States and made it the most powerful country in the world. To the detriment of Britain.
As with the First World War, America arrived late and suffered far fewer casualties than the other main participants of the Second World War. Russian, German and Japanese losses were huge. French casualties, due to a quick exit, were relatively light and British casualties, due to being excluded from the continental war until the arrival of the Americans, were also relatively light.
When the US first joined the war, over two years after it had started in Europe, Britain was the dominant ally. Within a year the balance of power had shifted, permanently. Britain had been borrowing heavily from the United States prior to the US entry into the war. By the end of the war Britain was broke and its major cities had been devastated. Britain’s last Second World War loan repayment to the US was made in 2006. Parts of France, Belgium and Holland had been destroyed. Many major German cities had been scoured off the face of the Earth. Poland, Austria, Hungary, the Ukraine and parts of Russia and been equally destroyed. Japan had been devastated. European nations shed their former colonial possessions after the war.
So when the war ended America was the only major industrial power that had not seen its physical infrastructure destroyed by the war. All of its commercial rivals were in ruins and were bankrupt. Thousands of Europe’s most talented scientists had fled to the US in the run up to the Second World War and after the war. The Manhattan Project was dominated by German, Danish, Italian and Austrian scientists, many of whom were Jews who had fled Nazi persecution, and was based off European scientific breakthroughs in physics and chemistry. The US and Soviet space programme was dominated by German scientists and engineers and based off the German V2 rocket programme. American post war jet engines were based on German Luftwaffe designs.
During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s the US enjoyed a golden age where its products were sold throughout the world. Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics, once dominated by Europeans, started to be won in the US. European Jews, who had boosted Europe’s scientific and cultural outputs, became American Jews and would come to dominate American media, finance and science. US also enjoyed tremendous levels of income equality. One man employed in a factory could support a family of five or six. Strong unions kept worker’s wages high. They could do this because the US had no real competitors. Everybody didn’t just want US products. They needed US products.
So the US had been very lucky. The Lousianna Purchase from France had allowed it to double in size and the collapse of the Spanish Empire had allowed it to take over former Spanish territories in the south and west. With an entire continent to colonise America had a critical mass of land in a temperate climate with few external enemies to challenge its supremacy. Two destructive Europe-centric conflicts, the First World War and then, most importantly, the Second World War, had destroyed America’s industrial competitors and had enabled it to capture new markets as Europeans shed their colonies. Nazi persecution of European Jews gave it, not Germany, the atomic bomb.
But then, by the 1970s, America’s luck began to run out and its started its slow decline. The war dividend was over. Germany and Japan had gone through a period of high growth as they rebuilt their cities and their factories. Fearful of their militaristic past they focused on conquering foreign markets through products, not by means of war. London reclaimed its position as the centre of global finance. American manufacturers, who had been able to produce high volume-low quality products for years suddenly found themselves on the back foot as companies like VW and Toyota started to sell high quality, low cost products not just in their home markets but also in the US. One American market after another was taken over by foreign companies. Workers were laid off and unions could not help. Unions could get away with fighting for high wages and job security when there were no foreign competitors. A union vote for high wages and job security in a world full of cheaper, better competitors was a vote for corporate suicide. Women entered the labour force in larger numbers, not because they were motivated by feminism or equality, but because their husbands’ wages were dropping relative to expenses or they had been laid off. Women were forced into working.
The war dividend was also over for the other victor of the Second World War, the Soviet Union. Its rise had also been a relative one. It could dominate a war devastated Europe. It was harder to dominate a resurgent Europe.
Unlike with the transfer of power from Spain to Britain to America there is no new member of Team West waiting to pick up the baton and to keep the West ahead of the Rest.
Looking to the Future
Spain, Britain and America dominated the West and the rest of the world for 500 years.
But what about the traditional reasons for the rise of the West? What about the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, Parliamentary Democracy and the rule of law? What about better European technology and a better military? All were extremely important. All were major enablers. You can’t just rely on luck. You need to do something with it.
What this article argues is that Spain and Britain’s dominance would not have happened without their discovery and domination of North and South America. America’s transition to global dominance would not have happened without Europe’s vicious internecine warfare in the twentieth century. They were lucky.
Which raises an interesting question about the future. Has the Age of Luck run its course?
The answer is “yes”. For now.
The world is completely mapped. There are no huge hidden continents that can be discovered, exploited and monopolised by two or three powers.
A devastating war or disease outbreak has the potential to alter the balance of power. But as we have seen, it only took Japan and Germany thirty years to catch up with the US, even after being completely destroyed during the Second World War.
As a result, the future is unlikely to see any one country dominate the world so comprehensively, like Spain, Britain and America once did.