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.