Wednesday, September 9, 2009

European Power and Conflict

The Global System that emerged during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was uniquely characterized by its lack of a hegemonic influence.  At this point, China and India can certainly said to be more advanced and powerful than the rest of the players (and the same can probably be said for various key ports along the Red Sea and Persian Gulf); yet no one city or nation or group held dominance.  This system quickly collapsed, particularly with the disintegration of the Mongol Empire and the conflict that erupted as various warlords attempted to carve out areas of control for themselves.  Europe emerged from this period (which it entered as a backwater) as the dominant force in the world.  However, Europe has, since the collapse of the Roman Empire, been a collection of various city-states, nations, principalities and other independent collections of power, and has nearly constantly seen war and strife.  Why is it that Europe emerges from this period stronger than before while the rest of the world struggles and eventually falls behind European powers?

            One potential explanation for the survival of European power is the very fragmentation that tore apart other empires such as the Mongols.  As Europe had, since Roman times, never been a unitary state, all of the progress that had already been made to that point had been done by various actors in various states, in the midst of the conflicts that were occurring around them.  With the near perpetual conflict in Europe, there was no break to the incremental progress that had been made allowing them to reach that point.  Whereas the Mongol Empire or the Chinese Empire had only been making progress after unified empires were formed, Europe’s unique geography created a system where wars were the “norm.”  Fareed Zakaria notes in The Future of Freedom that the geography of Europe sheltered small states, while Asian geography lent itself to large empires.  Of the small regions created by the mountains and rivers in Europe, he says, “they are hard to conquer, easy to cultivate, and their rivers and seas provide ready trade routes.” (36) Of Asia, he says it is, “full of vast flatlands…through which armies could march unhindered.” (36)

            Another potential explanation for Europe’s rise through the constant state of war is also related to the lack of a single unified empire, and that is their religion, and, in this pre-Reformation time, the unmatched power of the Catholic Church and the Pope.  When Constantine moved his capitol to Constantinople from Rome, he left the Bishop of Rome.  This separated the church’s power from the state’s.  This allowed the church to play an important role in the power struggles of the continent. (Zakaria)  As seen in the earlier time through the Crusades, the various nation-states in Europe could be rallied to a common purpose if the Pope told them to.  The power of the Pope throughout Europe in a pan-national sense meant that, unlike in other parts of the world, there was a source of power that was not tied to any particular nation or empire (as opposed to Asia, where long distance power was arranged around warlords and emperors), and therefore would survive any of the strife present.

            Another potential source is an idea mentioned peripherally by Abu-Lunghard is England’s role in Europe and the world pre and post Plague.  As Abu-Lunghard mentions England’s “die-off” rate was lower than many other populated areas of the world (19).  Unlike the Empires of India and the Middle East, which were decimated by the plague, Europe had an area that was left relatively alive.  This allowed, even with the constant around the world of wars and epidemic, Europe to have an area that was relatively intact (especially since the British Isles were not normally the scene of battles, rather, British armies often fought on the Continent or elsewhere).

            None of these reasons can be the definitive answer to Europe’s rise to hegemony over the world even with its wars, indeed, many reasons may be left out, or what was mentioned above may be wrong.  However, these are several possibilities.


  1. You make some interseting points Chazz. However-

    You fail to offer a reasoning as to why Europe was able to develop inwardly faster in times of conflict and Asia was not. I agree with Zakaria's notion that Asia was better suited for large empires, but that does not explain why they could not progress during shifts or changes of power.
    You also seem to suggest that the Pope's political/nationalist neutrality had something to do with Europes rise. It is often noted, however, that until around the 19th century, the Papacy was embarrassingly corrupt and over-involved with the affairs of Catholic nations.
    Those are just my reflections, I like your writing style overall.

  2. Of course the Papacy, as well as most of the Catholic establishment was ridiculously corrupt. That's why Protestants exist. However, the Pope was still a supranational entity, that was able to withstand any conflicts or wars that erupted within Europe...not that the Pope was "good," just was able to hold power over the various factions even if they were fighting each other.

    As far as the geography goes, it is simply that many small states and the perpetual existence of some kind of war meant that was the norm for European society, and any progress made was already made in that state. This may explain why it was slower to reach the world stage, but when other areas, such as the Mongolian Empire, collapsed into conflict, that stopped the progress that had occurred under a centralized system. Progress in Europe could not be stopped this way as there was no centralized empire. I know its not very clear, but I guess the idea is that you can't take away a stability that Europe never had...

  3. I think both of your comments are very interesting and thought provoking. I just had a comment about the "stability" of the Eastern socities under a centralized system vs. Europe who you say never really had that stability. Although the Middle East, for example, was under one system at some points, it was not necessarily a completely centralized system. Especially during the era of the Seljuk Empire which led into the period of the Crusades(which definitely did not make the Middle East a stable area under one government).

    Also,after the tenth century the Islamic Empire was extremely fragmented. There was usually a single "Caliph" but he was more spiritual than political. But in practice the different regions of the empire were governed independently. In fact, different regions seized power of small territories and were really like military states competing with one another.
    In this sense, I disagree with the idea that Europe prospered because it was made up of separate entities. If this was true, the East would have also continued to grow and develop.

  4. Well, you are certainly correct in that, which is why I don't claim that stability, or lack thereof, is the only reason, or the definitive reason. Rather, it is just one of many possible reasons that may have contributed.

  5. I'm not adding anything to the existing discussion, but I think you identified three important reasons why Europe emerged dominant after the fifteenth century (as I understood them: the collapse of the Mongol empire, Europe's decentralized nature before hegemony, and the role of the Papacy).

    I think we (generally speaking) can add some more possibilities: perhaps some psychological, biological (i.e., ecological), and geological. I'm sure Abu-Lughod will expound on these possibilities, perhaps Hobsbawm as well.

  6. What do you mean by psychological or biological?

  7. I was browsing through a few books (more like looking at them on Amazon)... Many would claim that one (or the main) reason why Europe pulled ahead was because of their Protestant ethic (Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I am no fan of this view.) But there are many rebuttals to this theory, for instance, the reason why Britain was so successful in the industrial revolution was–contrary to the above– due to the "fact" that they had plentiful natural resources like (importantly) coal. A biological reason might be something like: "Europe's vast forests created a large timber economy, which powered..." Or, "European's consumed such-and-such food that made them better at––" (This thesis seems to be bordering on racism however, but it has been written about, see Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel").

  8. Well, I think the "Protestant Ethic" idea is just a bit of Eurocentrism and racism creeping into people's arguments. Also, at the point we are looking at, Protestants don't yet exist. Coal in Great Britain certainly aided in the Industrial Revolution, which, again, hasn't occurred by the 13th century. Each region involved clearly had its own advantages in various areas, so I don't think they can really be credited with the hegemony Europe established