The Forgotten History of Pre-Western Global Order

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Before European Hegemony

Book review: Before European Hegemony. The World System A.D. 1250-1350. By Janet L. Abu-Lughod. Oxford University Press (OUP), 1991. 464 pages. U$ 19.91 (amazon.com)

What will global economic order in the Post-Western World look like? One key element that is already emerging today is, of course, its post-hegemonic and profoundly multipolar character: No single country or region dominates the globe economically, nor is any likely to do so in the next decades. In this context, it is notable how little we know about the global economy prior to the rise of the West, which shared some characteristics with the one we are entering today. Understanding the system that preceded Western dominance may thus be useful to comprehend what lies ahead. With this argument in mind, Janet Abu-Lughod explores the world economy between A.D. 1250 and 1350, providing a fascinating glimpse into the Pre-Western World.

Global trade, the author shows, was far more advanced at the time than is commonly assumed. Contrary to most scholars who believe that there was no global economic system prior to the West, Before European Hegemony shows that the only element that kept pre-Western order to be completely globalized is that it did not include the Western Hemisphere. More importantly, the European economy had no leading role in creating a global economic system, but merely joined a preexisting one. Europe, Abu-Lughod says, was "an upstart peripheral to an ongoing operation." Most symbolic, perhaps, was the Mongol leader Genghis Khan who, after arriving in present-day Hungary in 1225, decided not to conquer Europe, but to attack China, which he regarded as more important.

Furthermore, the similarities of the trading partners in different parts of the world far outweighed their differences. Western scholars often explain the "Rise of the West" by stressing the supposedly unique characteristics of Western capitalism. However, the author shows that Asian, Arab and Western forms barely differed from each other. In the same way, Abu-Lughod insists that Christianity has only very limited explanatory power in explaining the West's capacity to project its power on a global scale starting in the 16th century.

Yet if Europe was so similar to the rest, why did it pull ahead? The author responds that, rather than a set of unique civilizational factors, Europe was able to use a rare window of opportunity that emerged as several non-Western empires entered temporary disarray -- just like Europe after the disintegration of the Roman Empire. This was partly due to their mutual destruction, as was the case with Arab Asia, which was laid to waste by Tamerlane, the Turko-Mongol conqueror, in 1400. The economic difficulties faced by Asia -- partly due to the closure of Chinese seaports ordered by the Emperor -- led to the breakup of a previously sophisticated system. Much of it was gone by the time Portugal, a new player, entered the Indian Ocean soon after 1500. The Portuguese would have hardly been able to so effortlessly project power in the Indian Ocean had they arrived there a century or two earlier. Even though this seems plausible in principle, her argument that the European desire to plunder was different from all other players and thus explained how easily existing order was affected is controversial, particularly considering the Mongol invaders who cared little about global rules and norms.

Mosul1
Mosul, in present-day Iraq, in the late 13th century, at the time under Mongol rule

Still, Before European Hegemony is a remarkable work in several ways. First of all, the book transcends Western-centrism even in small, often overlooked details. For example, Abu Lughod describes the Middle East, India and China as the "Old World core", which sounds counterintuitive to many readers. Secondly, the book is free of the often distracting ideological debate that marks so many works of scholars who seek to undermine Western centrism. Finally, the book is the result of a tremendous amount of primary research, thus presenting genuinely new information which can help us reinterpret global history at the time.

Abu-Lughod's book was widely praised when it was first published 25 years ago, but the current discussion about China's rise will yet again spur interest in her book, this time in a different context. As the age of Western dominance may come to a close in the coming decades, future global historians are likely to reject the common claim that global history "began" around 1500 -- exactly when European powers began to conquer other regions. Rather, with Western hegemony seen as merely one relatively short episode of global history (around 1850-2050), interest may surge in global history before the rise of the West. A more multipolar order may thus, paradoxically, lead us to a greater understanding of global history, which was far less Western than commonly assumed today.

Looking forward, the author rightly points out that new orders rarely emerge from scratch or destroy existing structures completely. Rather, the old parts live on and become the materials out of which restructuring develops when formerly peripheral players become central actors in the new system. A glance at the creation of Post-World War II order confirms this: Rather than being a completely novel organization that broke with the past, the UN can very much be seen as an adaptation of existing structures, such as the League of Nations. In the same way, China -- a country that seems certain to occupy a more prominent role in a more multipolar post-Western global order -- is unlikely to undo the rules, norms and structures that exist today. Rather, it will modify them according to its interests, yet building on the past -- just like any great power with system-shaping capacity, such as the United States, has done before.

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