Before the Rise of the West
Book review: International Orders in the Early Modern World. Before the Rise of the West. Edited by Shogo Suzuki, Yongjin Zhang, Joel Quirk. Routledge, 2014. U$92.85 (www.amazon.com)
Journal of Global Affairs (Routledge)
Published online: 13 Oct 2015
From its origins, international relations theory has been a Western enterprise with other parts of the world largely ignored or analyzed through parochial and often inappropriate conceptions. One of the key problems is that most scholars of global history do not consider the importance of events prior to 1492 (when Colombus "discovered" the Western Hemisphere) and 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia). In "No one's world" (reviewed here), Charles Kupchan writes,
By the end of the nineteenth century, Europe’s major powers had asserted either direct or indirect control over most of the globe. As they did so, they also exported European conceptions of sovereignty, administration, law, diplomacy and commerce. In this sense, Europe not only eclipsed and dominated the rest of the world, it also established a global order based on uniquely European values and institutions. Europeans effectively replicated at the global level the founding principles of their own regional order.
This typical Western-centric view embraces a common, though highly distorted interpretation of history, based on a questionable meta-narrative: Western people were agents of progress, carriers of new and usually enlightened ideas, that helped generate progress elsewhere.
In a welcome attempt to offer an alternative perspective, Suzuki, Zhang and Quirk have organized a book collecting a number of remarkable essays that examine the historical interactions of the West and the non-Western world prior to the rise of what is today commonly called "Western order". The analyses emphasize the central role of non-European agency in shaping global history, and stand in stark contrast to conventional narratives revolving around the ‘Rise of the West’, which tend to be based upon a stylized contrast between a dynamic ‘West’ and a passive and static ‘East’.
There is no question that the rise of the West strongly contributed to the creation of a globally connected economy. However, a closer analysis reveals that global trade 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, Abu Lughod’s Before European Hegemony (reviewed here) 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.
For centuries, European traders were obliged to operate within local structures of political authority and the rules and norms that undergirded them. Such was the case with the Chinese, Japanese and Mughal Empires. The Dutch had no alternative but to follow Japanese diplomatic protocol, which was designed to reinforce the existing hierarchical order, with the Dutch following procedures that identified the Japanese as occupying the pre-eminent position in the hierarchy, and the Dutch as ‘outer barbarians’.
As the Mughal Empire was established, in the mid sixteenth century, European traders accepted subordinate positions, just like other local Indian rulers. In doing so, they accepted the sovereignty and legitimacy or the Mughal rulers – representing, thus, the existence of an international system with accepted rules and norms prior to Western dominance. Europe’s contribution, in that sense, was not inventing global order, but merely adding the Americas, until then excluded, to a pre-existing body of global rules and norms.
“The millennial balance of the ecumene among the civilizations of the Middle East, India, China, and Europe”, says William McNeill (1963: 653), “did not decisively collapse until about the middle of the nineteenth century.”
Europeans often engaged with non-European political and economic actors before 1492, and even their dealings with Asians or Africans after that were often dictated and negotiated on the basis of European weaknesses and limitations. Contrary to what is commonly believed, even at the height of imperialism, in the mid 19th century, much of the world remained outside of direct European control. Western powers rarely controlled African territories in their entirety, but often depended on negotiated local partnerships. That also means that institutions like the slave trade were far from an autonomous European enterprise. Rather, the practice strongly depended on partnerships with local African leaders who collaborated with the West, often on equal terms. For example, in Ouidah in modern-day Benin, French, English and Portuguese all built quarters, yet, as Law writes,
there was never any question that the European establishments were in the final analysis subject to local control, rather than representing independent centres of European Power. This was explicitly addressed in the policy of the Hueda kings of forbidding fighting amongst Europeans in the kingdom, even when their nations were at war in Europe.
Indeed, Western-led world order, since its inception, was less about forcible imposition of European preferences and agendas, but about complex negotiations and compromise, affecting norms on both sides. Similar things can be said about Great Britain’s colonization of India, which was much more the product of the pursuit of personal gain (on both sides) than a long-term strategy devised in London. The idea that Great Britain was morally obliged to bring Western norms to India was invented much later.
International Orders in the Early Modern World thus offers fascinating insight into periods of time that are usually neglected by mainstream books on global history, and it deserves to be read widely.