A study of comparative international systems is by definition a historical study. There are no separate international systems to compare anymore. There is only one system — the system which first made its appearance in Europe in the late Renaissance and which later came to spread to every corner of the globe. But “spread” is not the right word. This was not a matter of a process of passive diffusion. Rather, the eventual victory of the European international system was a result of the way the Europeans first came to “discover,” and later to occupy and rule, much of the rest of the world. This is a story of imperialism and colonialism. In this, the final chapter of the book, we will tell the story of how Europe for a while at the turn of the twentieth century came to rule the world. As always, we can only sketch an outline and highlight a few aspects, but it is far better to know a little than to know nothing at all.
For most of its history Europe was quite a peripheral part of the world. It was an international system turned in on itself, uninterested in what was going on outside its perimeters. Moreover, outsiders made only occasional forays into Europe — like the Berber kingdoms in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and the Mongols in the thirteenth century. They found a few impressive cathedrals, the occasional castle, but also a lot of desperately poor people, serfs without food and without education. Before the year 1500 no European city was a match for the splendors of Baghdad, Xian, Kyoto, Tenochtitlan or Timbuktu.
Yet Europe eventually did become rich, powerful and important, and it came to have a profound impact on the rest of the world. In the early part of the fifteenth-century Europeans began to embark on sea voyages which took them down the western coast of Africa, to the Canary Islands, and eventually far, far further afield. They discovered a number of precious commodities — spices, silk, tea, gold and so on — which found a ready market in Europe. Soon the Europeans began trading on a regular basis with the rest of the world. This trade transformed Europe’s economy but it also led to a number of innovations in methods of finance and enormously strengthened the European state. It was now that the Europeans established their first permanent colonies overseas. In some areas, such as the Americas, Europeans settled permanently, but in Asia they only managed to establish small trading posts.
With a beginning at the end of the eighteenth-century, the development of an industrial economy, based on mechanical production in factories, radically changed European societies, making them “modern.” Modernization entailed changes in next to all aspects of social, economic and political life — often analyzed as a question of “urbanization,” “industrialization,” “democratization.” As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the new European economy had a number of consequences. The Europeans needed raw material for the goods they were producing and often these resources could be found outside of Europe itself. The Europeans also needed export markets for their goods. The hope was that these consumers could be found in India, for example, or in China. As people outside of Europe were to discover, the industrial revolution had also given the Europeans access to far more lethal weapons than ever previously. Armed with these new incentives, and these new guns, the Europeans conquered the world.
A sea route to India
Europe’s isolation from the rest of the world came to an end in the thirteenth-century when the first sustained contacts were established with East Asia. During the so called Pax mongolica, the “Mongol peace,” European merchants and the occasional missionary traveled as far as to China. The Europeans were amazed at the wealth of the countries they found here, the power of the rulers, and all the amazing objects which no one in Europe knew anything about. Returning home they would tell the tales of their adventures, but often it all seemed too incredible to be true. The many exotic objects they brought with them from the East — spices, tea, precious stones, china, silk, and so on — embodied these mysteries and for that reason alone they were highly sought after by the Europeans. This was not least the case for members of the elite who derived power and prestige from buying and displaying these wondrous objects. There was, European merchants discovered, a lot of money to be made for those who could satisfy this marker. It was the Italians who took the lead in this trade — Venetians and Genoans in particular. Marco Polo, the most famous European traveler who went to China, was a Venetian. [Read more: Did Marco Polo go to China?]
Yet trade with the East was a perilous business. Goods traveled slowly on camel-back across the caravan routes of Central Asia and there were a number of things that could go wrong — robbers could attack, officials could interfere, and then there was the weather and the turn of the seasons. As long as the Mongol Empire lasted it was still possible to deal with these challenges and the profits remained high. The Mongol khanates had not always been at peace with each other, but they understood the value of commerce and they did what they could to encourage it. With the end of the Pax mongolica in the fourteenth-century, however, both the risks and the costs rose dramatically. The new rulers who appeared about half-way between Europe and East Asia wanted their cut. Ottomans and Mamluk Egypt put up customs and tariffs and this made it impossible for the overland trade to continue.
In response, the Europeans began looking for alternative ways to get to East Asia. They tried their luck by ship. One idea was to go down the west-coast of Africa and to find a passage to India that way. Once these attempts proved successful, trade moved away from the Mediterranean, and away from Italy, and to the countries along the Atlantic coast. Here Portugal took the lead and it was soon followed by Spain, although the Spanish, at least to begin with, continued to rely on the services of Italian sea-captains. The most famous of these, Cristoforo Colombo, “Christopher Columbus,” had the idea that it should be possible to travel to India by going west-ward, straight into the Atlantic Ocean. He did not find India this way, but he found a new world — a Novus mundus — of which no one in the old world had had any knowledge. Eventually the new world came to be known as “America,” named after Amerigo Vespucci, yet another Italian sea-captain.
Medieval Europeans did not have much interest in the world outside of their continent, we said, with two exceptions. First of all there were the Vikings of Scandinavia. The Vikings traveled far and wide and divided the world between them. Vikings from what today is Sweden traveled eastward along the large rivers of Russia until they came into contact with the Abbasid caliphate. [Read more: A Viking funeral on the Volga] Vikings from what today is Denmark traveled westward, exploring first Iceland, then Greenland and finally what they called “Vineland,” North America. In 1960, remnant of a Viking settlement were discovered on the northern tip of Newfoundland.
The second exception concerns the military campaigns, known as the “Crusades,” undertaken in order to recapture the “Holy Land.” To some Europeans — notably a few militant popes — it was unacceptable that land mentioned in their religious scriptures now were being held by Muslims. The idea was to equip a pan-European army which could win it back. Altogether seven major crusades were organized between 1096 and 1254 CE, in which hundreds of thousands of Europeans took part. For a while the Crusaders were quite successful and managed to establish small kingdoms in the Middle East. Eventually they were defeated by the Mamluk armies and forced to return to Europe.
Wars on behalf of the Christian religion continued on the fringes of Europe, both in Eastern Europe and in Spain. Lithuania was converted to Christianity in 1386 by means of armies consisting of the so called “Teutonic knights,” a military but also a religious order. In Spain, a project — the Reconquista — was undertaken to take al-Andalus from its Muslim rulers. The Christian coalition won an important battle at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, but it took another 250 years before the last Muslim ruler — Muhammad XII of Granada, known by the Spaniards as “Boabdil” — was expelled.
The European occupation of the “New World”
The year when the Muslims were expelled from Spain — 1492 — is one of the most significant in world history. The same year Columbus arrived in the New World. For many Spaniards — the soldiers known as conquistadors — the wars in the Americas were simply an extension of the wars which they already had fought in Spain itself. They often confused the natives of the Americas with Muslims and sights they saw in Tenochtitlan or Cuzco often reminded them of Muslim Spain. Yet, conditions in the Americas were of course entirely different. Despite their awesome power, both the Aztec and the Inca empires were easily conquered. In both cases the Spaniards took control by means of only a few hundred men. Both empires were loosely integrated federations and they included plenty of locals who greeted the Europeans as liberators and were delighted with the military support they received. Both empires were also far too dependent on the person of their leaders. Once the Aztec king and the Sapa Inca were gone, both empires lost their sense of direction and their ability to protect themselves. Although a military resistance eventually was organized, it was far too little, too late.
At the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494, the pope in Rome divided the world into two separate spheres of interest — one belonging to Spain, the other to Portugal. The Portuguese basically got the center of the world, as portrayed on the new world maps, and the Spaniards got the margins. Thus Africa, the Indian Ocean and Brazil fell to the Portuguese, whereas Spain received the rest of the Americas but also, for example, the Philippines. This is why people to this day speak Portuguese in Brazil but Spanish in Mexico and Peru. [Read more: Treaty of Tordesillas]
What the Europeans more than anything were looking for in the New World was gold. Columbus’ descriptions of what he had discovered contained endless references to how much gold the new continent contained. This, he knew, was the best way to get European kings to invest in more voyages of exploration. And soon the Europeans began dreaming dreams of Eldorado — a country where everything was made from gold. Although they did find gold, they found even more silver. There was a mountain — Potosí in Peru — which was said to be entirely made of silver. The only problem was that it was located high up in the Andes and it was impossible to get people to work in the mine. The Spaniards forced the locals to work as miners, under atrocious conditions, and hundreds of thousands of people died. [Read more: A mountain made of silver] Similar repressive measures were employed by the Spanish conquistadors wherever they went.
In the end, the European occupation of the Americas resulted in genocide. Some indigenous people were killed in military confrontations, many were worked to death in mines or on plantations, but the vast majority of people died as a result of exposure to European diseases like smallpox and measles. These illnesses had long existed in Europe, and the Europeans had adapted themselves to them, but to the people of the Americas they were deadly. It is estimated that perhaps 90 percent of the indigenous population of South, Central and North America died. Although the numbers are uncertain, this equals tens of millions of people. The impact on the population of the Americas was far worse than the impact which the Black plague had in Asia and Europe in the fourteenth century. [Read more: The Black death]
One consequence of the genocide was that there was not enough people to work for the Europeans. The new continent was full of resources that could be exploited and turned into commercial products, but there were not enough indigenous people who could carry out the actual physical labor involved. In response, the Europeans began importing slaves from Africa. From the sixteenth-century to the nineteenth some 12 millions Africans slaves were forcibly transported to the Americas. Although the international slave trade was abolished in the 1830s, slavery was abolished in Brazil only in 1888.
But not only germs and human beings were exchanged, but a long range of plants, fruits and animals too. [Read more: The Columbian exchange] Since the Americas had evolved independently from the rest of the world it had a long range of unique species, and there were also many species that did not exist here. Through the global trading networks plants, fruits and animals soon spread far and wide. This is how the rest of the world came to learn about cocoa, chilies, potatoes and tomatoes, and how the people of America came to import horses, cows, goats, wheat and other cereals. It is strange to imagine that Indian cooking had no chilies before 1492, or that the native peoples on the prairies of North America had no horses. But this was indeed the case.
North America was originally settled by the English, the Dutch and the French, but eventually it was English settlers who came to dominate. To begin with a substantial proportion of the settlers were members of religious minorities — the so called “Puritans” — who took refuge in what came to be known as “New England” after the English Civil War. [Read more: Settlers in New England] Further to the south — in what was to become “Virginia” and the “Carolinas” — English settlers established plantations where they grew tobacco, sugarcane and cotton for export.
In North America too European germs wiped out entire populations. To the European settlers, the land looked unoccupied. They would refer to it as terra nullius, Latin for “no one’s land.” Land which did not belong to any one, they argued, was there for the taking — at least as long as you left equal and enough for others. And take the land is what the Europeans did. In fact, they argued, they had an obligation to occupy it. Although the Christian God had given the earth to all of mankind to share equally, he had not intended to give it to the indolent and the wasteful. It was obvious to them that they could make more productive use of the land than the indigenous population. It was God’s will, they concluded, that they should take charge of the New World.
A commercial world economy
In a sense the European discovery of the Americas was something of a distraction. After all, it was to India, China and the “spice islands” of East Asia that the Europeans wanted to go. From this perspective the year 1498 is more important than 1492. It was in 1498 that the Portuguese sea-captain Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, on the southern-most tip of Africa, and started making his way up Africa’s eastern coast. Here the Europeans met traders from Oman, Yemen and Gujarat, and if they only had arrived half a century earlier they would have met Chinese traders too. The Chinese traded with East Africa in beginning of the fifteenth-century. [Read more: A giraffe in Beijing]
Benefiting from the monsoon winds, da Gama arrived in Kerala in southern India in May 1498, and from here Portuguese ships would soon start exploring all the ports around the Indian Ocean. This is how they came into contact with the “spice islands,” the vast archipelago of today’s Malaysia and Indonesia where assorted exotic spices were grown. The Europeans loved nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and mace. Soon the Europeans had continued into the Pacific Ocean, traveling to China and Japan. The Portuguese established trading depots — not colonies, only ports where they could trade with the locals, store goods and repair their ships — in places like Goa in India, 1510, Malacca in Malaysia, 1511, and in Macau in China, 1557.
The Portuguese were soon followed by the Spanish. In 1565, conquistadors from Mexico made it to the Philippines where they established a colony known as the “Spanish East Indies,” with Manila as its capital. The Spanish visited Taiwan too, and southern China.
Although the Spanish economy was far from productive, and lagged behind the rest of Europe, the country was rich thanks to the silver they had discovered in the Americas. This allowed them to go on something of a shopping spree. And once they paid their debts to their creditors in Europe, other Europeans could join in. The problem until now had been that while the Europeans were interested in buying any number of products in Asia, there was little the Asians wanted in return. The main export from England in the sixteenth century was wool, a commodity for which there was little demand in India. Once silver started flowing from the Americas, however, the problem was solved. The Europeans could buy anything they wanted. This infusion of ready means of payment caused a boom in international trade. It was now that Mugal India became the richest country in the world. Before long the Spanish did not even bother to send the silver to Europe first but sent it instead directly across the Pacific Ocean, straight to their creditors in Asia.
More than the Spanish, however, it was the Dutch who came to copy the Portuguese, and who become their greatest rivals as international merchants. The Dutch lived in a republic, and official at least they had no imperial ambitions, but they were very keen on trade. It was in Holland, in 1602, that the first truly multinational company — the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company, was established. [Read more: The East India companies] They developed the products which the Portuguese had discovered and connected all parts of the world into one global market-place. And there were great profits to be made. The goods the Europeans were most interested in — spices, tea, silk, hardwood, porcelain, jewelry — were all light-weight and easy to store and transport. The journey to the East and back was very long of course — taking more than a year — and there were plenty of both natural and man-made perils along the way, but a ship which made it back to Europe with a hull full of spices would still be able to make fabulous profits.
All over Europe similar trading companies were established. The English East India Company, founded in 1600, actually preceded the VOC by two years; Østindisk Kompagni was established in Denmark in 1616; Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes orientales, in France in 1664, Ostindiska Kompaniet in Sweden in 1731, and so on.
To facilitate the trade a number of financial and institutional innovations were made, and again the Dutch took the lead. In the Beurs — the stock exchange — of Amsterdam it was possible to invest in shares in a long range of different trading companies, to exchange currency, buy bills of exchange, to take up a loan, or to buy maritime insurance. The Amsterdam Beurs was a one-stop-shop for financial services and a good place to gather information and connect with business partners. Late in the seventeenth-century many of these practices were copied by English merchants.
In general, the European kings benefited greatly from the trade with the East. This was a time — in the seventeenth century — when European rulers increasingly came to call themselves “sovereign,” meaning that they alone had the right to govern their countries. A sovereign ruler had a monopoly on the right to make laws, impose justice, and legitimately to exercise violence. In order to back up these rather fanciful claims, the sovereign kings needed resources, and this is what the trade with East Asia could provide. For one thing, each trading company had a monopoly on the trade with a particular part of the world. These monopolies were sold by the kings and thus a good source of income. The kings would also borrow money from the companies. They had surplus cash, after all, which they needed to invest. The East India companies were happy to oblige, although some kings, like the French, were notorious for defaulting on the loans. The English kings were less extravagant and the financial institutions established in London — after the Dutch models — were more robust. Eventually the City of London became the center of global finance.
The monopolies held by the large trading companies were later much reviled by the likes of Adam Smith, who advocated freedom of trade and an end to all monopolies. Yet by Smith’s time — in the latter part of the eighteenth-century — this trade was already well established. This was not the case hundred and fifty years earlier. At the beginning of the seventeenth-century, monopolies served to make investments more secure and thereby to help establish markets which until this point did not exist. The revenue derived from the colonial trade, and from the commercialization of the world economy, made it possible for the state to establish its independence.
The development of global trading networks had a profound impact on the world economy and it was to have political implications too — involving European countries in colonization and empire building. But in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries Europe was still only a marginal player in Asian affairs. From the point of view of an East Asian ruler of the time, they were nothing but small contingents of traders who docked at a few ports, conducted their trade, and then left.
As a result, Europe’s position in Asia was nothing like Europe’s position in the Americas. The Dutch established a colony, Batavia, in Indonesia, and the Spanish occupied the Philippines, but there was no way the Europeans successfully could make war on the many powerful kingdoms of the East. Much as in the Middle Ages, the Europeans continued to be awestruck by all the “wonders” they discovered — the power of the rulers, the wealth of the people, the many sophisticated arts and powerful cultural traditions. The Europeans often felt distinctly inferior, and for good reason. [Read more: Dancing Dutchmen in Japan]
Independence for settler societies
The Seven Years War, 1756-1763, is the world war few people have heard about. It was fought in Europe, between two grand coalitions of states — one led by Great Britain, the other by France — but the conflict spread to all five continents of the world. The conflict was particularly fierce in North America where both Britain and France had established communities of settlers and strong commercial interests. It was fiercely fought in India too where the settlers were fewer but the commercial interests at least as strong. The war concluded with gains for Britain. The large territories which the French had settled between Quebec in the north and Louisiana in the south were taken over by the British. Here various place names still tell the story of their French heritage — Illinois, Notre Dame, St Louis, and many others.
One long-term consequence of the Seven Years War was that the European colonizers came to make themselves more independent of their home governments. These relations had not always been the best. Latin America is a case in point. Spain tried to keep some order in the empire, and stop the worst atrocities being committed against the native population, but the conquistadors were scornful of such policies and they resented Madrid meddling in their affairs. Gradually they came to think of themselves as a community with its own identity, separate from Spain. When Spain itself was occupied by during the Napoleonic Wars, 18??-, they saw an opportunity to assert themselves. How the colonies in Latin America became independent in the 1820s — Argentina declared independence in 1816, Peru in 1821, Bolivia in 1825, and so on.
Something similar happened in North America. In the southern parts of the North American continent the Europeans had established themselves as owners of large plantations where they grew cotton, sugar and tobacco for export. These products proved extraordinarily successful in the eighteenth-century. People everywhere around the world started smoking, eating sweets and dressing in cotton fabrics. Here too the indigenous population was dramatically decimated and the owners needed people who could work on them. The settlers began importing slaves from Africa. In total some 300,000 slaves were imported into territories which today are parts of the United States. Slavery itself was abolished only in 1865, in the wake of the American Civil War. Today some 13 percent of the population of the United States identify themselves as “African-American.”
The ethos an lifestyle of the southern plantation owners were really quite different from that of the Puritan settlers in New England, and both of these groups had little in common with the inhabitants of cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. What they all had in common, however, was a resentment of British meddling in what they regarded as their affairs. They insisted that London had no right to tax them as long as they were not represented in the British parliament, and they wanted to be able to conduct international trade on other than British-registered ships. Another bone of contention concerned relations between the settlers and the remnants of the indigenous population. The British authorities sought to limit the expansion westward in order to protect the native Americans from abuse. This the settlers regarded as unacceptable. The settler colonies in North America declared themselves independent from Great Britain in 1776.
In the 1820s European imperialism largely seemed a thing of the past. People in Britain would look back wistfully on the days when they had had an empire. There was still Canada, to be sure, but that was mainly an outpost for the lucrative fur trade; there was India, but rule here was far from consolidated and it was in private hands anyway — British possessions in India belonged to the East India Company. Australia was still officially referred to as “New Holland,” but the Dutch presence here was limited. Something similar can be said for other European countries — they had settled in a few particular locations — like the Dutch in South Africa — but all in all their presence in the rest of the world was motivated by the requirements of trade not by a policy of imperial aggression.
And yet, one hundred years later, at the time of the First World War, next to all of Africa and most of Asia was in European hands. Great Britain had created the largest empire the world had ever seen (although the Mongol empire of the thirteenth-century still is the world’s largest contiguous empire — that is, the largest empire with an interconnected landmass). In the British empire, the saying went, “the sun never settles.” In order to understand this rather surprising development, we must understand the changes that were taking place in Europe itself.
An industrial world economy
At the end of the eighteenth-century, new ways of manufacturing goods were invented which made use of machines powered by steam, later by electricity, and which relied on large-scale production in factories. As a result of this so called “industrial revolution,” it was suddenly possible for the Europeans to produce many more goods and to do it far more efficiently than ever previously. Before long cheap, mass-produced, products were flooding European markets and soon the Europeans began looking for new markets overseas. They needed more natural resources for their factories too — resources which in many cases only could be found outside of Europe. These economic imperatives meant that the Europeans took a renewed interest in the world, and the eventual result was a second wave of imperial expansion and the creation of an international system completely dominated by European countries and European examples.
This time it was the British who took the lead. It was in Britain that the industrial revolution had started and the trading stations and colonial outposts which remained from the first wave of imperial expansion provided them with a head-start. The British also had a navy which was second to none. Throughout the nineteenth-century, the British government was heavily dominated by free-traders; by politicians, that is, who wanted customs and tariffs to come down and British merchants to be able to access any markets they wanted. It was easy for the British to be in favor of free trade, after all, since they, at least in the first part of the nineteenth-century, had by far the most powerful industrial capacity.
The strategy the Europeans pursued was always the same — and again the British took the lead. They approached the leaders of a non-European country and insisted that they should be granted access to its markets. If the country in question agreed, the Europeans would establish themselves there and begin buying and selling. If the country refused, the Europeans would threaten military action. In some cases the recalcitrant foreigners gave in — and the result was a commercial treaty, often referred to as “unequal treaties,” which granted European traders favorable terms. In other cases, the foreigners would stand their ground — and the result would be a war and a European invasion.
This is how Britain, step by step, came to acquire a world-wide empire. The British historian John Robert Seeley once argued that Britain acquired their empire “in a fit of absent-mindedness.” This is an exaggeration to be sure, but it points to the fact that there was no grand master-plan to take over the world. Rather, one step led to another, and they were all guided by what was regarded as economic imperatives: foreign markets needed to be opened up; trading posts to be defended; British merchants wanted protection; British investments abroad had to be made secure.
The country which Seeley most obviously had in mind was India. Here the East India Company had engaged in trade since the early seventeenth-century. Here too they had at first only established small trading posts, but little by little they were sucked into the struggles for power which characterized much of the latter part of the Mugal empire. The East India Company made alliances with powerful Indian princes. The carrot was that they could provide unprecedented access to international markets for Indian products; the stick was the army which they had brought with them. At the battle of Palashi, 1757, the East India Company defeated the leader of Bengal and his French allies, and the British became the power-broker in the sub-continent. Little by little they gobbled up the independent kingdoms.
At the same time it would be a mistake to exaggerate Europe’s superiority — at least as far as the first half of the nineteenth-century goes. Many locals defended themselves well. Often they had access to military technology which was no worse than that of the Europeans. They had superior knowledge of the terrain, of course, and the Europeans were always hampered by the long supply-lines and the distances they had to travel. It was obvious quite early on that the Europeans had overextended themselves. Thus, even as the colonial empires spread, there continued to be reversals. The British lost wars in Burma, in Afghanistan, against the Asante and the people of Benin. [Read more: The first Anglo-Afghan War] And in 1857 — during the Indian Uprising — they came very close to being thrown out of India. The British empire was often compared to a oak tree planted in a flower pot. The branches were too big for the root system.
Meanwhile the French began their colonial conquests in North Africa. Parts of Algeria were occupied in the 1830s and eventually incorporated into the French state. French people who wanted to go overseas did not have to go to America, they could go to Africa instead. But here too the Europeans met with ferocious resistance and it took the French more than ten years to conquer all of Algeria. Since they often were unable to defeat their enemies outright, the French employed barbarian tactics — killing women and children, and destroying crops, fruit-trees and animals. This is in fact the general pattern of European colonial warfare in the nineteenth-century. Since the Europeans often had far smaller armies than the locals, and could not defeat them in a regular war, they staged military confrontations designed to spread terror. The idea was to strike once and strike hard, and thereby to convince the local to give up all resistance. After the uprising in India in 1857, the leaders of rebellion were tied to the mouths of cannons and their bodies were shot right through with cannon balls.
The big prize for British merchants was China. The country had some 350 million people — “a third of mankind” — and they were all, the British convinced themselves, eager to buy British-made products. The only problem was that the Chinese authorities only allowed trade in the one city of Guangzhou, “Canton,” in the south, and only for part of the year. This, to the British, was not nearly good enough. In particular, the British wanted to be able to sell opium. Opium was the solution to perennial problem of what to offer the Chinese in exchange for all the products the Europeans wanted to buy from them. Opium was grown in British-held India, and before long the exports to China were booming. But opium was illegal in China, and when the Chinese authorities tried to stop the trade, the British went to war – the First Opium War, 1839-42, and the Second Opium War, 1856-1860. China lost both wars and was eventually forced to open all its ports to foreign trade. The international system of East Asia, with China at its center, was no more. From being the “Middle Kingdom,” China became a peripheral player in a Eurocentric world.
The Japanese market was pried open in much the same fashion, although here threats were enough, and it was the Americans who took the lead. In 1858, the Japanese were forced to allow access to five ports for foreign merchants and ten years later, in 1868, the Tokugawa regime was toppled by a group of daimyos from the south of the country. After close to a thousand years of neglect, the imperial institutions were dusted off and the emperor reinstated as the nominal ruler of the country. The Meiji era had begun.
The apotheosis of colonialism
As a result of the industrial revolution, and the relentless pace of economic development, the Europeans gained a new sense of self-confidence. This radically changed their view of the rest of the world, and of Asia in particular. From the first faltering contacts in the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth-century, Asia had been admired and looked up to; it has been the exotic East of immense wealth and cultural sophistication. Now, however, Asia became an object of scorn. The problem was that Asia and failed to develop in the European fashion. A country like China, the Europeans now decided, was “stagnant,” “stuck in the past,” it made no progress and “had no history.”
In order to give the semblance of scientific validity to such claims, many Europeans made references to biology. Misreading and misunderstanding Charles Darwin, they decided that the different “races” of the world were locked in an inescapable struggle. The Europeans had proven themselves superior, they decided, and thus deserved to rule the world. Other, “inferior races” were to be their servants, and the lest developed people of all would inevitably be destroyed. This, the Europeans decided, was implied by the logic of human history. To help history along, they carried out genocides against the people of Tasmania, Tierra del Fuego, the Herero of Namibia, and many others. [Read more: The Herero genocide]
The nineteenth-century had, as far as European history goes, been quite peaceful. There were some wars, but nothing like the wholesale destruction that took place in the twentieth-century. In the last couple of decades of the nineteenth-century, however, the mood changed. Italy and Germany were unified. Germany’s unification was officially declared at Versailles, after the Germans had defeated the French in a war. Germany was clearly on the rise. They wanted a bigger say in international politics. This was true for the Italians too. A new aggressive form of nationalism was spreading. They were all looking for a way to assert themselves.
Much of the reason was due to economic changes. Economic historians sometimes talk about “the second industrial revolution.” This was the rapid transformation of the world economy which took place in the last three decades of the nineteenth-century. New inventions and discoveries — electricity, chemical processes, steel and petroleum — allowed factory production of a vastly bigger scale than ever before and the new railroads created vastly larger markets for the goods produced. The industrial economy had soon transformed European societies — people started moving into the cities, working for a wage in a factory, sending their children to the new public schools, and so on.
The second industrial revolution led to a renewed demand for natural resources and to export markets for all the goods that the new European factories produced. The self-assertive nationalism, moreover, was expressed in a search for colonies. Colonial possessions became a symbol of great-power status, and the new European nation-states often proved themselves to be very aggressive colonizers. France added West Africa and Indochina to its growing empire, and Germans and Italians too joined the race once their respective countries were unified. Meanwhile the Russians pushed into Central Asia and the United States pushed westward across the great North American plains towards the Pacific Ocean. This is how it happened that, by the time of the First World War, most parts of the world were in European hands. There were some scattered exceptions to this rule — China, Japan, Siam, Persia, but also Ethiopia and Nepal — but in these ostensibly independent countries too the Europeans had a very strong presence. [Read more: Countries that never were colonized]
It was now that Africa for the first time came into focus as a continent to explore and exploit. The Europeans had been trading with Africa since the fifteenth-century but much as in Asia, their presence had been limited to small trading ports along the coast — in today’s Ghana, for example, at the time known as the “Gold Coast,” or in today’s Cote d’Ivoire, the “Ivory Coast.” The only exception was the southern-most part of the continent where Dutch farmers had settled. Meanwhile the Europeans know nothing about the inner parts of the African continent. This changed in the course of the nineteenth-century as European adventurers and missionaries went on voyages through the jungles “discovering” this mountain or that river, often supported by “national geographical societies” in their respective home countries. The search for the “sources of the Nile” attracted particular attention.
In the footsteps of the adventurers and the missionaries came agents of large trading companies, European soldiers, settler and colonizers. The Europeans found gold and ivory, but also diamonds and copper, palm oil, cocoa, bananas and other “colonial produce.” It was clear there was money to be made. Little by little Africa was divided up by the Europeans, and although the African kingdoms often defended themselves successfully — we have already discussed the way the Asante and the people of Benin resisted European aggression — the Europeans always returned with larger and larger armies. It was in order to regulate this “scramble for Africa” that the various countries with colonial designs on Africa met in Berlin Conference in 1884. [Read more: The Berlin Conference] The conference was a very civilized affair. The Europeans met around a large map of Africa and divided the various pieces between them. No people from Africa were invited to attend. That people in Africa might have a view on how their continent was divided never crossed anyone’s mind.
When we today think about the colonial era, it is always this second burst of colonial expansion that we have in mind. In the last decades of the nineteenth-century the Europeans — and the Americans too, actually — really did come to rule next to all of the rest of the world. Their methods were ruthless, exploitative and degrading. There were many wars and some genocides. The atrocities were backup up by ideas of European superiority based in the alleged science of race biology. At the same time we should remember that the apogee of colonialism only lasted for about fifty years. In terms of world history, this was a very short parenthesis. Already in 1914, by the time of the First World War, the Europeans found themselves busy with other matters, and in 1945, by the end of the Second World War, colonial empires were an anachronism. Europe was devastated by the war and colonies had become an expensive luxury.
I’ve started working on this, but it’s not quite finished yet …
It was not imperialism as such that spread the European international system to the rest of the world. Colonialism, after all, is the very opposite of the European model of a state. A colonized state is not sovereign, has no self-determination.
From Adam Smith’s point of view, and the point of view of free trade, it was something like an intellectual mistake. The wealth of a nation is not determined by what it has but by what it can produce. No hoarding.
The colonies were dependent on the European states. As different from sovereignty as you could imagine. The graduation argument. Non-European societies as growing up. The paradox of sovereignty — you can be whatever you want to be as long as you first become one of us.
But this was not how the European state and the European way of organizing international relations came to spread to the rest of the world, at least not directly. After all, a colonized country is the very opposite of a sovereign state; the colonized peoples had no nation-states and enjoyed no self-determination. It was instead through the process of liberating themselves from the colonizers that the European models were copied. The Europeans would only grant sovereignty to states that were like their own; the only way to be an independent state was to become an independent state of the European kind. To create such a state was consequently the project in which all non-European political leaders engaged. Thus, once they had become independent, all new states had their respective territories and fortified borders; their own capitals, armies, foreign ministries, flags, national anthems and all the other paraphernalia of sovereign statehood. Whether there were alternative, non-European, ways of organizing a state and its foreign relations was never discussed. Whether it made sense for the newly independent states to try to live up to these European ideals was never discussed either.
How it became more and more impossible for the European states to pay for the empire. There is quite a scholarly discussion regarding whether European countries actually benefited from the colonies. There is no doubt that some individuals did, notably the owners of companies that could extract various resources. But there were also high costs associated with military defense. This was true already during the Indian Uprising. [Read more: The Indian Uprising]
During the First World War the Europeans had their minds on quite different things. There was an enormous destruction in Europe, not least of human lives. The position of Great Britain and France was actually extended as a result of the outcome of the war. They took on former German colonial possessions as “protectorates.”
Nationalist movements started in India at this time, and soon elsewhere too — Vietnam and the rest of Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, throughout the Middle East. Indian National Congress.[Read more: G.K. Chesterton on Indian nationalism] Revolutionary movements in China and the Ottoman Empire sought to renegotiate relations with the European powers.
It was instead the way in which the rest of the world came to be decolonized that determined their future. They became independent on European terms, and in this way they also perpetuated their status as inferiors in the international system. There was next to no one among them who could live up to the requirements. This was a source of great worry to members of the English School: were these states really going to be able to become trustworthy members of the international system?
The problem of “failed states.” But what is it really that has failed. Why impose a certain foreign system on a country which is singularly badly suited for it and then blame the country in question when things go wrong?
The future of the international system
The question is how to go on from here. The question is how the story will continue. At the time of decolonization the Europeans were convinced that their way of organizing international politics was the only alternative. They were also convinced that it constituted a great improvement on the international systems which previously had existed elsewhere in the world. Learning about these alternative, non-European, systems in this book, we might decide to question that conclusion. Or, if nothing else, we can compare what we have today with what existed previously.
A fundamental problem with the European international system is that it is so inherently violent. The idea of sovereign states who determine their own fates, and look after their own interests without regard for others, has been an unmitigated disaster. There are few years in Europe’s history of the last four centuries when there has not been a war in one place or another. In the twentieth-century alone some 80 million people died in wars between sovereign states, and tens of millions more perished in genocides which the principle of sovereignty made possible. As long as the idea of sovereignty persists, it is difficult to see how these kinds of disasters can be avoided.
But perhaps the problems caused by sovereignty are about the go away. Today we are living in a world which is becoming increasingly globalized. Borders seem to matter less and less; walls are coming down all around us and bridges are being built between far-away cultures and societies. We are trading and exchanging with each other at an unprecedented rate — swapping goods and services but also ideas and lifestyles. We are becoming more and more civilized while our cultures are becoming increasingly alike. As always, the spread of civilization goes together with cultural destruction.
There are many who worry about such a world — a fully globalized world without walls and cultures, and where sovereignty is a thing of the past. How can we make a life for ourselves, they wonder, if we belong to no place in particular and have no unique identity? People who worry about these things often argue that we must rebuild our walls, close our borders, and protect ourselves from what is coming towards us from the outside. The question is what the consequences will be of such a reaction. Will not higher walls lead to more misunderstandings, less trade and more wars? Will we not save our culture while losing our civilization? Will we not simply repeat the mistakes of the twentieth-century? No one, surely, will want to do that. Once was one time too many.
If this book has taught us anything, it is surely that this is a false choice. The choice is not between perfect sovereignty and no sovereignty whatsoever. It is not a choice between walls everywhere and no walls at all. The choice only looks that way as long as we look at the world from the point of view of the European international system. Yet, and as we also have have learned, the European international system is actually quite extreme. Most other international systems have made compromises that are far more appealing. By learning about these other international systems we can learn how these compromises were achieved. In this way we can perhaps come up with new and alternative ways in which to imagine our future.
So what is your favorite international system? Was there one part of the world, and one time, where the walls were just the right height but the bridges were sufficiently many? Where human beings had a strong sense of a home yet were perfectly open to the challenges that contacts with foreign cultures allow? A time when people were secure in their identities yet also prepared to question themselves and to change? Was there ever a time when self-determination could be combined with prosperity and peace? If you have not found your favorite international system yet perhaps you should read the book again.