It is a problem that has bedevilled historians for centuries: Why did the West come to dominate much of the world over the past five centuries? How is that a plague-ridden, war-torn peninsula on the western fringe of the Eurasian land mass grew in wealth and power to an extent never seen before in human history?
As Niall Ferguson observes, a traveller to both China and England in 1420 would have been struck by the contrast between the civilized Chinese and the backward English. (Ferguson, it should be said, is a Scot.) While the Yangtze River was a superhighway of waterborne trade and travel, the Thames was a narrow channel of waterborne disease. England, he notes wryly, "was very far from the 'sceptr'd isle' of Shakespeare's Richard II – more of a septic isle." Nanjing and Beijing were cosmopolitan capitals of the world, London a provincial island outpost.
Yet by 1720, their situations had substantially reversed; by 1820, Britain was vastly more prosperous and stable, and by 1920, China was on the verge of civil war and total collapse. If life in early modern England was "nasty, brutish, and short," by the 20th century it was life in China that resembled a Hobbesian nightmare. How did this great transformation come to pass?
Scholars with the most impressive intellectual range and learning, among them Paul Kennedy, Jared Diamond and, most recently, Ian Morris, have offered a variety of answers ranging from climate and geography to religion and culture. Ferguson thinks them too pat. Instead, he offers a new explanation that is more complex and thus not as easy to define. But it does have a name: civilization.
Civilization is difficult to define because it is such a capacious idea. But that, Ferguson argues, is the point. A civilization is identifiable because it is based on a common heritage and set of characteristics, yet it is richly diverse. Unlike a nation-state or an empire, it is not ruled by one government or from a single metropole. It encompasses not only the artistic genius of the best and brightest, but also the mundane, quotidian products that make tolerable, even pleasant, the everyday life of ordinary people. A civilization, Ferguson writes, is a "highly complex human organization" in which plumbing is as important as painting. Why did Europe's progress from the 15th century onward allow it "to trump the outwardly superior empires of the Orient? Clearly, it was something more than the beauty of the Sistine Chapel."
That "something" is hard to pin down because it is actually more than one single thing. Ferguson identifies six key innovations that Westerners pioneered and gave them a competitive advantage over the "Resterners" (Ferguson's term, stemming from his division of the world into "the West and the Rest"): competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism, work ethic. Everything else, from democracy and religion to capitalism and military technology, falls under one of these categories.
If there is one thing that binds them all together, it is the fact that the nations of the West struck the right balance between state control, financial innovation and individual autonomy. The most successful Western governments provided the stability and infrastructure needed to spur innovation, allowed private capital to flourish and fund it, and allowed people enough independence to discover the world around them. The West institutionalized its strengths, mostly through good governance, which made them more or less permanent. It is an odd argument for a believer in Adam Smith's "invisible hand" to make, but it is also one made by Francis Fukuyama, another conservative intellectual, in his recent book The Origins of Political Order.
As Ferguson's dichotomous view of the world makes clear, he is an unabashed Westerner. He has little time for cultural relativism and its attempts to portray the world's civilizations as equal, a view he derides as "demonstrably absurd." The proof, he argues, lies in the cliché that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: since Japan's Meiji Restoration began in 1868, the Rest have copied the West's political and economic models. Throughout, Ferguson refers to the peoples of Europe and North America in terms of "we," "us," and "our."
Thus, Civilization is not simply a book of world history, but a primer for Westerners about their plight in a dramatically changing world. For Ferguson senses that another great transformation is under way, and that this time the West will not come out so well. Though conflict between the United States and China is not inevitable, he is clearly worried about the relative decline of the West.
The problem stems not only from China's industrial revolutions, but also lies within: the West's profligate lifestyle, indebtedness, neglect of the Protestant work ethic and dismissal of its own heritage. It is an alarmist conclusion that not everybody will find convincing. But, with Ferguson as provocative and erudite as ever, it is certainly one worth reading.
Andrew Preston teaches modern history at Cambridge, where he is a Fellow of Clare College.