The Birth of Global History

Almost 1400 years before Marco Polo the Chinese discoverer Chang-Chien travelled as far west as Samarkand and Parthia (2nd century BC). His travel report stimulated trade relations along the Silk road and for the first time the great civilizations on either flank of Eurasia became faintly aware of each other. But when the Roman and Han empires disintegrated and the Dark Ages fell over Europe much of this contact was lost.

After the 8th century the Arabs initiated lively trade relations across the Arabian sea to the southern coastal states of India as recounted by the famed
Al-Masudi. Europe, however, was still isolated on account of the religious feuds between Christianity and Islam.

It was not until the 13th century when a vast Mongol empire, which spread from the Pacific to the Black Sea, finally eliminated the barriers between Europe and China. For a time the authority of the great Khan ensured that all the roads across the continent were temporarily open; the caravan routes became busier than ever and many revolutionary inventions from the Far East began to reach Europe, including the use of gunpowder, and the mariner's compass which was to release European shipping from navigation by coasting.

The overseas discoveries of the 15th century shattered the walls that had confined Europe throughout the Middle Ages and the epoch of universal history began. But although European expansion in the Age of Exploration laid the foundations for Western ascendancy over the rest of the world, the spectacular 'Rise of the West' occurred only fairly recently.

As recently as the 15th century, all of the major civilizations of Eurasia were expanding, with the exception of India. In the early 1400s, the Chinese Ming dynasty launched naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean as far as the coast of East Africa, with ships far larger than anything to be found in Europe and forces of nearly 30,000 men. Russia was at the beginning of an expansion that would win it territory across the continent all the way to the Pacific coast.

European Christendom, however, was losing territory to the Ottoman Empire. The adventures of a few Western explorers on the coasts of Africa and, later, in the Americas, did not seem to matter much in the grand scheme of things at the time.

At the same time, for most of this millennium, the predominant civilization in the world has been China. Before the mid-eighteenth century most of the world's printed books were in Chinese and its metallurgical industry was the world's largest until well into England's Industrial Revolution. For centuries before that, Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, paper money, magnetic compasses, and printing had been making an impact throughout Eurasia. The first two or three centuries of this millennium was the time when China made most of the technological advances that so affected the rest of the civilized world. However, this superiority faded when the Ming dynasty reunited China in the 14th century and concentrated more and more on cultural preservation. China became inward looking once again and experienced a gradual loss of imagination.

The Rise of the West

In Europe the rise of science in the 17th century transformed the thinking of educated men and contributed to the liberation from ancient dogmas. Intellectual pluralism became the norm. Richness, variety, vigor and a readiness to grapple with any novelty distinguished the cultural life of Europe during the 17th century. No other part of the world exhibited anything like such an advanturous spirit. For the first time, therefore, Europe began to pull ahead of the other civilizations of the Old World.

But European nations began to dominate other societies of their own size only in the mid-eighteenth century, when the British East India Company took possession of the already disintegrating Mogul Empire in India. (As was the case with the Spanish in Mexico, the conquest was really a revolt of native powers led by small European armies, who did not do most of the fighting.)

Even at that time, China was the largest it has ever been and it became vulnerable to Western pressure only during the Opium Wars in the 1840s, and when the Taiping rebellion, the bloodiest civil war of the 19th century, exhausted the already decaying Ch'ing dynasty. The Ottoman Empire was in slow retreat, but still capable of defeating Western and Russian armies until quite late into the nineteenth century. In Africa, the great European empires began to be built only around 1870 and were almost all gone by about 1960.

So far Western dominance has lasted not more than two hundred years, no longer than the fleeting hegemony established by the Mongols in the twelfth century. The emerging East Asian economies of the 1980's began to shift the balance of power once again and some historians predicted already that the Pacific might play a role in the history of the third millennium like that played by the Mediterranean in Western antiquity.

More likely, the globalization of the world economy indicates that the world could again achieve a sort of equilibrium like the one that existed in the first millenium BC. Such an equilibrium, however, would require stronger international organisations, a demand that is increasingly challenged by the only remaining superpower. Should the current trend of empire building be based on military superiority alone, instead of a universally accepted ideal, it will probably overtax the resources of even the most powerful superpower, as was the case so often with former empires.

Of course, that does not mean that 'history repeats itself' (a cliche that is as old as it is false); history never repeats itself exactly, for the political conditions, economic relationships, technologies, our knowledge, are always evolving. If there is any repetition at all it would not so much resemble a circle; it would be more like a spiral (downwards for pessimists, upwards for optimists).

To take sides depends on the answers to questions like: How will mankind deal with the looming ecological crisis; the population explosion; or the increasing gap between rich and poor, not only among nations but also within the developed countries?
How can we find a balance between democratic citizens participation which depends on national safeguards and the power of a global economy that operates outside traditional democratic controls?
How can we combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress, with the degree of social cohesion which is necessary for survival?