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 take possession of, 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.
For most of its history Europe was quite a peripheral part of the world. It was an international system turned in on itself, confident in its own culture and uninterested in what was going on elsewhere in the world. 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. What these outsiders found were 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 or Tenochtitlan.
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 and eventually far further afield. And they discovered a number of commodities — spices, silk, tea, gold, and so on — which found a ready market back home. Soon the Europeans began looking for goods and for opportunities to trade. The commercial activities transformed Europe’s economy and it enormously strengthened the institutional structure of the state. It was now that the Europeans established their first permanent colonies overseas. In some areas, such as in 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,” etc. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the modernization of Europe had a number of far-reaching 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 to find people who were prepared to buy their products. 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 set out to conquer the world.
A sea route to India
Europe’s isolation from the rest of the world came to an end in the thirteenth-century CE 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 eastward as to China. [Read more: “Dividing it all up“] The Europeans were amazed at the wealth of the countries they discovered here, the power of the rulers, and all the curious objects which no one in Europe knew anything about. Returning home they would tell the tales of the most wondrous adventures. 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 objects of eastern provenance. There was, European merchants discovered, a lot of money to be made for those who could satisfy this market. It was the Italians who took the lead in this trade — Venetians and Genovese in particular. Marco Polo, the most famous among them, 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 inclement weather and the turn of the seasons. As long as the Mongol Empire lasted it was 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 associated with the caravan trade rose dramatically. Moreover, the new rulers who appeared about half-way between Europe and East Asia wanted their cut of the profits. Both the Ottomans and Mamluk Egypt put up customs and tariffs which made it far more expensive to trade.
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, away from Italy, and to the countries along Europe’s 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. 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 previous knowledge. Eventually the new world came to be known as “America,” named after Amerigo Vespucci, yet another Italian sea-captain.
Medieval Europeans had not had much interest in the world outside of their continent, we said, but there were 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 Byzantine empire and the Abbasid caliphate. [Read more: “A Viking funeral on the Volga“]. Meanwhile Vikings from what today is Denmark and Norway traveled westward, exploring first Iceland, then Greenland and finally what they called Vineland, that is “North America.”
The second exception concerns the military campaigns, known as the “Crusades.” To some Europeans — notably a few militant popes — it was unacceptable that land mentioned in their religious scriptures, and which before the Arab expansion had been predominantly Christian, 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. They conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and managed to establish small kingdoms throughout the eastern Mediterranean. At the battle of Hattin in 1187, however, they were defeated by the armies of the Fatimid caliphate. [Read more: “Salah ad-Din and Richard Lionheart“] Although the Europeans gathered for more crusades, they were never as militarily successful.
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. [Read more: “The Arabs in Spain“] In 1212, the Christian coalition won an important battle at Las Navas de Tolosa, yet it would take another 250 years before the Iberian peninsula was fully under Christian control. The last Muslim ruler — Muhammad XII of Granada, known to the Spaniards as “Boabdil” — was expelled in 1492, the same year that Christopher Colombo made his first journey across the Atlantic. The kings of Christian Spain severed the links to the centers of civilization in the East and forced both Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity at the pain of death or expulsion.
Europeans in the “New World”
This is when the Europeans for the first time came to divide the world between themselves. Or rather, when it was divided by the Pope in Rome and given to Portugal and Spain, the first European colonizers. [Read more: “Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494“] 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. In the end, despite their awesome power, the Aztec and the Inca empires were easily conquered. In both cases the Spaniards took control by means of only a few hundred men. Although a military resistance eventually was organized, it was far too little, too late. The last stronghold of the Incas fell to the Spaniards in 1572.
What the Europeans more than anything were looking for in the New World was gold. Columbus’ own descriptions of his discoveries 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. Although the Europeans did find some gold, they found even more silver. In fact, there was a mountain — Potosí in Peru — which was said to be entirely made of silver. [Read more: “A mountain of silver“]
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. This was equal to tens of millions of people. The impact on the population of the Americas was far worse than the impact of the Black death in Asia and Europe. [Read more: “The Black death“]
The new continent was full of resources that could be exploited and turned into commercial products, but as a result of the genocide there were not enough indigenous people who could do the physical labor involved. In response, the Europeans began importing slaves from Africa, often sold to them by West African kingdoms. [Read more: “Female warriors and dancing kings“] From the sixteenth-century to the nineteenth some 12 millions Africans slaves were forcibly transported across the Atlantic. Although the international slave trade was abolished in the 1830s, slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 and in Brazil only in 1888.
Not only germs and human beings were exchanged, but a long range of plants, fruits and animals too. [Read more: “The Columbian exchange“] Since life on the American continent had evolved independently from the rest of the world, it had a long range of unique species, and there were also many species that existed elsewhere in the world but not here. Through the global trading networks these 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.[Read more: “Carl von Linné names the world“]
As far as North America is concerned, it was originally settled by the Dutch, the English 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 various religious minorities — the so called “Puritans” — who after the English Civil War, 1642–1651 CE, took refuge in what came to be known as “New England.” [Read more: “Settlers in New England“]
In North America too European germs wiped out entire populations. Not surprisingly, the land looked empty and unoccupied. The Europeans would subsequently come to 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 the Europeans that they could make far more productive use of the land than the indigenous population of North America. It was God’s will, they concluded, that they should take charge of the New World. And take charge they did.
A commercial world economy
In a sense the European discovery of the Americas was something of a distraction. After all, it was to East Asia that they 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 Gujara, and if he only had arrived half a century earlier they would have met Chinese traders here too. [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 the Europeans came into contact with the “spice islands,” the vast archipelago of today’s Malaysia and Indonesia where assorted exotic spices were grown. The Europeans soon developed a taste for nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and mace — bringing flavor to the notoriously bland European diet. Before long European ships had continued into the Pacific Ocean too, traveling northward to China and Japan. The Portuguese established trading depots in Goa in India, 1510, Malacca in Malaysia, 1511, and in Macau in China, 1557. These were not colonies, only ports where they could trade with the locals, store goods and repair their ships.
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. Spain at the time was actually quite a poor society with an economy that lagged behind the rest of Europe, yet their discovery of silver in the Americas allowed them to ignore this fact. This allowed them to deal with a problem which always had plagued European trade with the East — there was so much the Europeans wanted to buy from the Asians but next to nothing that the Asians wanted to buy from them. Once silver started flowing from the Americas, however, the problem of trade imbalances was readily solved. The Europeans could suddenly buy anything they wanted. This infusion of silver caused a boom in international trade, and it was now that Mughal India became the richest country in the world. Before long the Spanish did not even bother to send the silver to Europe 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 they also became their greatest rivals as international merchants. The Dutch lived in a republic, and official 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. The VOC, as it was known, expanded the markets for the products which the Portuguese had discovered and connected all parts of the world into one global market-place. All over Europe similar trading companies were soon established. [Read more: “De Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie“]
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.” However, in order to give some credence to their claims, the kings needed resources, and this is what the trade with East Asia came to supply. For one thing, each trading company was given a monopoly on the trade with a particular part of the world. Or rather, these monopolies were sold by the kings and thus a good source of revenue. The kings could also borrow money from the trading companies. They had surplus cash, after all, which they needed to invest. The kings of France were notorious for defaulting on their loans but the kings of England were less extravagant. This is how the Bank of England, and similar financial institutions, came to be established. Eventually the City of London became the center of global finance.
The development of these 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. Yet in Asia Europe’s position was nothing like 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 powerful kingdoms of the East. China, India, Japan, Siam, the Mughal empire, Persia and the Ottomans were far too rich and powerful, their armies too strong, and the Europeans far too few in numbers. Instead, and much as in the Middle Ages, the Europeans continued to be awestruck by all the “wonders” they discovered in these faraway lands – the power of the rulers, the wealth of the people, the many sophisticated arts and cultural traditions. The Europeans continued to feel distinctly inferior, and for good reason.
The Seven Years War, 1756-1763, is the world war few people have heard about. It was fought in Europe, between Britain and France and their respective allies, but the war spread to other continents too. The conflict was particularly fierce in North America where both Britain and France had established communities of settlers and had strong commercial interests. The Seven Years War was fiercely fought in India too where the settlers were fewer but the commercial interests at least as strong. In both cases the conflicts concluded with victories for Britain.
One long-term consequence of the Seven Years War was that the European colonizers came to make themselves more independent of their home governments. In fact, the relations between the settlers and the motherland had often been complicated. Take the case of Spanish America. The Spanish government tried to keep some order in the empire, and stop the conquistadors from mistreating then natives, but the conquistadors were often scornful of such policies and they resented Madrid meddling in what they regarded as their affairs. Gradually they came to think of themselves as a community with its own identity, separate from the mother country. When Spain itself was occupied during the Napoleonic Wars, 1808-1814, the settlers saw an opportunity to assert themselves. Colombia declared independence in 1810, Venezuela in 1811, Argentina in 1816, Peru in 1821, Bolivia in 1825, and so on.
Something similar happened in the case of North America. In the southern parts of the continent the British had established large plantations where they grew tobacco, sugar and cotton for export. In the eighteenth-century these products proved extraordinarily successful. People everywhere around the world started smoking, eating sweets and dressing in cotton fabrics. Yet since the native population largely had been wiped out by European diseases, the settlers began importing African slaves. In total around 300,000 slaves were imported into territories which today are parts of the United States. Today some 13 percent of the population of the United States — around 40 million people — identify themselves as “African-American.”
In British North America there was consequently three distinct groups — the plantation owners in the South, the Puritan settlers in New England, and people who lived in fledgling cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. The lifestyle, outlook and values of these groups were really quite different, yet shared a resentment of British meddling in what they too regarded as their own affairs. The settlers insisted that London had no right to tax them as long as they were not represented in the British parliament, and they wanted to continue to expand westward. The settler colonies in North America declared themselves independent from Britain in 1776.
This is how European imperialism by the 1820s largely had come to seem 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 this territory was mainly a concern for merchants involved in the fur trade; there was India too, but British India was ruled by the East India Company, not by the British state. There were some Brits in Australia, but the continent was still commonly referred to as “New Holland.” The same goes for France. As a result of the Seven Years’ War, the French had lost many of their commercial outposts. The Portuguese had lost Brazil, even though they retained their trading posts in Africa and Asia. There were Dutch colonizers in South Africa, but all in all the Dutch presence in the rest of the world was motivated by commercial imperatives not by imperialism.
An industrial world economy
And yet, one hundred years later, at the time of the First World War, next to all of Africa and much of Asia were in European hands. Colonialism had returned with a vengeance. In order to understand this rather surprising turn of events, we must understand the changes that took place in Europe itself. This is more than anything the story of the industrial revolution.
At the end of the eighteenth-century, new ways of manufacturing goods were invented in Europe which made use of machines powered by steam, later by electricity, and which relied on large-scale factory production. Before long cheap, mass-produced, goods were flooding European markets. Yet the factories produced many more things than European consumers could buy and for this reason it became crucial to find new customers. New sources of raw material were needed too, resources which in many cases only could be found on other continents. These economic imperatives meant that the Europeans took a renewed interest in the world. The eventual result was a second wave of imperial expansion and the creation of an international system completely dominated by the Europeans.
This time it was the British who took the lead. It was in Britain after all that the industrial revolution had started and the trading stations and colonial outposts which remained in their hands provided them with a head-start. The British also had a navy which was second to none. Moreover, throughout the nineteenth-century, the British government was dominated by free-traders; by politicians, that is, who wanted to abolish customs duties and make sure that British merchants had access to any foreign markets they wanted. It was easy for the British to be in favor of free trade, after all, since they had an industrial capacity which was second to none.
The strategy the British pursued was always the same. They approached the ruler of a non-European country and insisted that they should be granted access to its customers and its raw materials. If the country in question agreed, the British would establish themselves there and start buying and selling. But if the country refused, they would threaten military action. In some cases the natives eventually gave in and signed a commercial treaty — often referred to as an “unequal treaty” due to the favorable terms granted to the foreigners. In other cases, the natives stood their ground, and the result was a war and an occupation.
This is how Britain, step by step, came to establish its world-wide dominance. The British, that is, had no grand master-plan for how to take over the world. Rather, one step led to another, and they were all guided by what at first was regarded as economic imperatives — foreign markets needed to be opened up; trading posts needed to be defended; British merchants wanted protection; British investments abroad had to be made secure. The political domination happened while British merchants were keeping their eyes on their profit margins.
India is a case in point. Here the British had at first only established small trading posts, but little by little they were sucked into the struggles for power which characterized politics in the Mughal empire. The East India Company made alliances with powerful Indian princes. The carrot which they dangled before them was the fact that the British could provide unprecedented access to international markets for Indian products; the stick which they wielded was the army which they had brought with them. At the battle of Palashi, 1757, the East India Company defeated the ruler of Bengal and his French allies, and the British suddenly found itself the main power-broker on the sub-continent.
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 ferociously, and often they had access to military technology which was no worse than that of the Europeans. In fact, it was obvious quite early on that the Europeans had overextended themselves. Thus, even as their colonial empires spread, there were plenty of embarrassing reversals. The British lost wars in Burma, Afghanistan, against the Asante and the people of Benin. And in 1857 they came very close to being thrown out of India. The British empire was enormous to be sure, but Britain itself was tiny. The empire was like an oak tree planted in a flower pot. In the end the root system could not support such vast branches.
Meanwhile the French began their colonial conquest of North Africa. Parts of Algeria were occupied in the 1830s and eventually incorporated into the French state. For that reason French people who wanted to settle 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 what they proudly described as barbarian tactics — killing women and children, and destroying crops, fruit-trees and animals. In fact, this was more than anything the general pattern of European colonial warfare in the nineteenth-century. [Read more: “The European destruction of Yuanmingyuan“] Since the locals often could not be defeated in regular man-to-man combat, the Europeans staged military confrontations designed to spread terror. The idea was to strike once and to strike hard, and thereby to convince the locals to give up all resistance. This is what the French did in North Africa and the British in India. [Read more: “The Indian uprising“]
Yet the big prize for European merchants was China. The country had some 350 million people — “a third of mankind” — and they were all, the Europeans were convinced, eager to buy their products. The only problem was that the Chinese authorities only allowed trade in the one city of Guangzhou — known to the Europeans as “Canton” — and only for part of the year. To the British in particular this was not nearly good enough. [Read more: “George Macartney at Qianlong’s court“] They wanted access to China for their cotton fabrics and their silverware but in addition they wanted 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 by the British East-India Company in British-held India, and before long the exports to China were booming. The only problem was that the sale of opium was illegal in China. 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, including the trade in opium. The traditional international system of East Asia, which had had China at its center, was no more. [Read more: “The tribute system“] From being the “Middle Kingdom” and the country responsible for keeping heaven and earth in harmony with each other, China came to be dominated by foreigners and turned into a peripheral player in an international system controlled by Europe.
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. Japan had since the early seventeenth-century had only limited intercourse with the rest of the world, and all official trade was restricted to only one city, Nagasaki, in the far south. [Read more: “A Japanese international system?“] However, in the summer of 1853 the American Matthew Perry appeared in Edo harbor on-board a steam-driven gunboat, demanding that Japan open up its markets. Initially at a loss for what to do, the Japanese began making concessions, and eventually their policy of seclusion unraveled. An important force behind the change in policy were the assorted daimyo, the local rulers, especially the ones in the south of the country who clandestinely had carried on a successful trade with China, Korea and the Ryukyu islands. [Read more: “The Ryukyu islands as the center of the world“] The changes set in motion led to an overthrow of the Tokugawa government in 1868. Soon Japan too found itself engulfed by the European international system.
The apotheosis of colonialism
As a result of the industrial revolution, and the relentless pace of economic development it unleashed, 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 by the Europeans. This was the exotic East of immense wealth, with rulers of unlimited power and societies of unsurpassed cultural sophistication. However, in the first part of the nineteenth-century, next to overnight, Asia became an object of scorn. The problem was that Asia had failed to develop in the European fashion. A country like China, the Europeans now decided, was “stagnant” and “stuck in the past”; it made no progress and could as a result not be said to have a proper history.
In order to give the semblance of scientific validity to such claims, many Europeans made references to biology. Misreading Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, originally published in 1859, 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 over all the others. The “inferior races” were to be their servants, and the least developed people of all would come to be destroyed. This was implied by the logic of human history. To help history along, the Europeans carried out genocides against the people of Tasmania, Tierra del Fuego, the Herero people of Namibia, and many others. [Read more: “Le système Bugeaud“]
The nineteenth-century had, as far as European history goes, been quite peaceful. There were some wars to be sure but nothing like the wholesale destruction that was to take place in the twentieth-century. In the last couple of decades of the nineteenth-century, however, the mood began to change. A new, more aggressive, form of nationalism appeared and one country after another began looking for ways to assert itself. Italy was united in 1861 and Germany in 1871. Both countries — Germany in particular — were on the rise and they both wanted a bigger role, and a bigger say, in international affairs. One way to assert oneself was to acquire colonies. Colonial possessions became a symbol of great-power status, and the new European nation-states often proved themselves to be very aggressive colonizers.
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. The only exception was the southern-most part of the continent where Dutch farmers had settled. Meanwhile the Europeans know nothing whatsoever about the inner parts of the continent. This gradually changed in the course of the nineteenth-century as European adventurers and missionaries went on voyages through the jungles, often supported by “national geographical societies” in their respective home countries. And in their footsteps 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 in getting these products back to markets in Europe.
Little by little Africa was divided up by the Europeans, and although the African kingdoms often defended themselves successfully, the Europeans always returned with larger and larger armies. It was in order to regulate this “scramble for Africa” that all powers with colonial aspirations met at a conference in Berlin in 1884. [Read more: “The Berlin Conference“] The meeting, by all accounts, was a very civilized affair. The participants gathered around a large map of Africa and divided the various territories between themselves. Yet no actual Africans were invited to attend. As a result of this agreement, the British colonized much of western, eastern and southern Africa and the French much of West Africa. Germany got Tanzania, Italy got Libya and Somalia, and Leopold, the Belgian king, got Congo as his personal possession.
Elsewhere in the world the French added Indochina to its growing empire and Britain occupied Burma and Malaya. 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, but in these ostensibly independent countries too the Europeans had a strong presence. [Read more: “Countries that never were colonized“]
When we today think of the colonial era, it is generally this second burst of colonial expansion that we have in mind. In the last decades of the nineteenth-century the Europeans — and we can include Americans here — 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 the occasional genocide. The atrocities were backed 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 is only a 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 utter anachronism. Europe was devastated by the two world wars and colonies had become an expensive luxury. Things were once again about to change.
Independence and statehood are most conveniently measured in terms of membership in the United Nations. The United Nations today has well over 190 member states. This number is to be contrasted with the 57 independent states who joined the organization before the year 1950. Something has happened, in other words, since the time of the founding of the UN — the number of independent states in the world has increased four-fold. This is the story of decolonization — the story of how the former colonies, ruled by European states, made themselves independent.
By 1945, we said, colonialism had become an anachronism. Colonies were a net drain on the resources of the European countries and colonialism had little public support. Although there certainly were individual business interests which gained considerably from the arrangement, the European countries as a whole did not, at least not by the 1950s. This was particularly the case where there was determined, local, resistance to colonial rule. And as they came to realize to their chagrin, when faced with a local enemy bent on fighting for independence, the Europeans would sooner or later always lose. The locals were fighting on their won turf after all, and the Europeans were very far away from home. Maintaining an empire under such circumstances would have required a commitment which simply did not exist.
Starting in the late 1950s, and accelerating in the 1960s , one former colony after another made itself independent, and by 1970 there were few colonies left. Today the Malvinas islands in the South Atlantic is a British possession but the locals are adamant that it should stay that way. Much the same goes for the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the West Indies which are counted as parts of France, not as colonies. In the Pacific, an independence movement has fought the French in Nouvelle-Calédonie, but the island remains French. Equally, there are no calls for independence for Hawaii, although the country was independent before its annexation to the United States in 1898.
The process of decolonization began in an unlikely place — the island of Saint-Domingue in the West Indies, a French colony and the country we today know as Haiti. [Read more: “Revolution in Saint-Domingue“] In 1791, inspired by news of the French Revolution, and fed up with being exploited for their labor, a vast rebellion broke out among the slaves on the plantations, and in 1804, the country declared itself independent. A similar independence struggle began in India in 1857. British rule in India was always fragile and depended heavily on the collaboration of local elites and on the loyalty of the indigenous army. When Muslims and Hindu soldiers joined forces and rallied behind the institution of the Mughal emperor, the British found themselves in a hopeless situation. Eventually the British reasserted their power, but it was a close call. [Read more: “The well of Cawnpore“]
This is not to say that the struggle for independence was an easy process or that the Europeans gave up without a fight. Well into the 1950s, for example, the French believed they could defend their possessions in Indochina. However, at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954, the French army was decisively defeated. From this time onward, the United States gradually came to take over responsibility for what in the 1960s was known as “the Vietnam War.” Yet the United States too was decisively defeated by the Vietnamese and its armies had to leave Indochina in 1975. Another bloody conflict fought by the French took place in Algeria. Here a sizable group of European settlers, counting well over one million people, had considered Algeria their home for several generations and Algeria was also officially regarded as a part of France itself. Yet an armed uprising began in 1954 which ended with independence for the country in 1962. The British, meanwhile, were fighting guerrillas in both Kenya and Malaya, and here too the conflicts were bloody, but here too the independent movements eventually won.
This is how the European international system eventually came to spread around the world. This is how the European way of organizing international politics became the universal norm and the European type of state the only viable political unit. This was a result of colonialism, yet colonialism itself is not actually to blame. After all, a colonized country is the very opposite of a sovereign state; colonized peoples have no nation-states and enjoy no self-determination. It was instead through the process of liberating themselves from the colonizers that the European models were copied. After all, the Europeans would only grant sovereignty to states that reminded them of their own. The only way to become an independent state, that is, 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. All independence movements wanted their respective territories and fortified borders; their own capitals, armies, foreign ministries, flags, national anthems and all the other paraphernalia of sovereign statehood.
In far too many cases, the newly independent states failed to live up to the European ideals. The political institutions were too weak, the economy was not developing, or not developing fast enough, and often there were highly valued commodities — gold, diamond, oil — over which men with weapons were prepared to fight. And in next to no case was there the kind of “nation” which the establishment of a European-type state seemed to require. The new national leaders — often educated in the schools of the colonial powers and trusted by them as “one of theirs” — had no nations that they could lead. Instead nations had to be “built” — constructed, assembled and imagined — but this, in many cases, turned out to be an impossible task. The outcome were a long series of “failed states,” states, that is, which have failed to live up to the European standard. Whether it made sense for the newly independent states to live up to European standards in the first place was unfortunately never discussed. Whether there were alternative, non-European, ways of organizing a state and its foreign relations was never discussed either. The precolonial history of the the non-European world was never allowed to play a role in the world of independent states which came to be established. [Read more: “Chesterton and Gandhi on Indian nationalism“]
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. The European version of an international system allows for sovereignty and self-determination, and thereby for democracy and liberal rights. These, no doubt, are good values and unique achievements. However, learning about non-European alternatives to the European international system, we might nevertheless decide to question that conclusion. Or, if nothing else, we can compare what we have today with what existed before the European international system came to take over.
A fundamental problem with the European international system is its inherent and devastating violence. The idea of sovereign states who determine their own fates, and look after their own interests without regard for others, has had disastrous consequences. 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 perished in wars between sovereign states, and tens of millions more died in genocides which the principles of sovereignty and non-interference made possible. As long as the idea of sovereignty persists, it is difficult to see how these kinds of disasters can be avoided. By contrast, several of the non-European international systems we have learned about in this book were less war-prone — although certainly none of them was entirely peaceful. Moreover, although sovereignty has not been an official principle of an international system anywhere except in Europe, there has in practice been a lot of scope for self-determination. The various political entities of East Asia were independent although they at the same time were dependent on the Chinese; the emirs of Central Asia were independent although they ostensibly all were a part of the Abbasid caliphate. There is no contradiction here, although it might seem that way from a European perspective.
But perhaps the problems caused by sovereignty are about to go away. Today we are living in a world which is becoming increasingly global. Borders seem to matter less and less; walls are coming down all around us and bridges are being built even 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 all becoming more and more civilized, we could say, while our respective cultures are becoming increasingly alike. As always, and never more so than now, the spread of civilization goes together with widespread cultural destruction.
There are many who worry about such a world — a fully globalized world without walls and cultures, where sovereignty is a thing of the past. How can we make a life for ourselves, one may wonder, if we belong to no place in particular and have no unique identity? People who worry about such things often argue that we must rebuild our walls, close our borders, and protect ourselves from what is coming towards us from the outside. Yet the question is what the political, economic and social 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, and defend our sovereignty, while losing our civilization?
However, 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. Or between being a member of a distinct culture or of a global, uniform, civilization. That only appears to be the choice 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, and many other international systems have made compromises that are far more appealing. There are all kinds of international institutional arrangements which allow both independence and coordination, a strong sense of self and a strong sense of community. By learning about these non-European international systems we can learn how their institutions operated and 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.