Book Review: “After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire” by John Darwin

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Tamerlane

Book review: After Tamerlane. The Global History of Empire. By John Darwin. Allan Lane, 2007. 592 pages (U$11.84, kindle, www.amazon.com)

A bit more than 600 years ago, in the year 1400, Tamerlane, the last conqueror to try to unify the Eurasian landmass, turned his attention to Syria and invaded Aleppo and Damascus, the latter among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Just like in Baghdad, where his soldiers stacked up the heads of 90,000 victims in 120 towers around the city, Tamerlane ordered the massacre of the populations of both Syrian cities, with the exception of artisans who were brought to Samarkand. The Turco-Mongol leader devastated a region that had dazzled European scholars due to its technological and cultural achievements, far superior to those in Europe at the time. Five years later, probably a septuagenarian by then, Tamerlane died during a military campaign against Ming China.

For John Darwin, Tamerlane's death was far more important than just the end of another imperial project. Within a century of his death, the Eurasian land mass from Portugal to China was irreversibly splintered into three different zones (Europe, "Islamic Middle Eurasia" and East Asia), and the world witnessed the rise of sea-based empires. Tamerlane was the last of a list of “world-conquerors", which included Alexander, Attila and Genghis Khan. His failure to unite Eurasia, Darwin argues, reminds us that the great constant in human history is "Eurasia's resistance to a uniform system". Asian societies have remained extraordinarily resilient for centuries, and will remain so.

Rejecting those who see the rise of the West as inevitable and at times almost mythological, Darwin argues that the course of world history has been a fitful, complex process of competitive empire building, driven as much by forces outside Europe, particularly Asia, as by the West. Empire, Darwin writes, was not a temporary and peculiar European attack on other peoples. Rather, it is the default option of human history, the principal mode through which most great states have built power. "The history of the world", he says, "is the history of empire", and there is little specifically European about it.

Still, European empires differed from previous ones due to their advanced technology, which allowed them to spread faster. This does not change the basic reality that even European colonizers were unable to fundamentally transform Asia and impose their cultures or structures. The British East India Company could not have built India's administration from scratch: Rather, it was the Mughals' revenue system that gave it the financial means to build a subcontinental raj in the century after the Battle of Plassey (1757).

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Tamerlane: History's last "world-conqueror"

Darwin's post-Western approach to global history is refreshing. The Western-centric perspective that emerged in the nineteenth century and that remains present to this day extends beyond Western thinkers to post-colonial or anti-Western writers, who tend to vastly overestimate the importance of the West in global history and who contribute to an attitudinal climate that is fixated with the West. After Tamerlane effectively "provincializes" Europe but does so without falling prey to the many post-colonial ideologies that explain every modern grievance by pointing to Western imperialism. Not everything, after all, is about the West. Paradoxically, this insight has yet to be embraced within International Relations scholarship, which tends to be far more provincial than the discipline of global history.

This becomes particularly obvious when we analyze the history of Asia under European dominance. While Western-centric historians and IR scholars emphasize either how important Western influence was to bring democracy to the region (paternalistic Western-centrism) or how it permanently crippled Asian societies (anti-paternalistic Western-centrism), the most important story is generally overlooked. “The real story in Asia in the long nineteenth century”, Darwin writes, “was one of Asian persistence, and not of Asian defeat.” China is the best example: Despite a century of partial occupation, foreign meddling, decline and chaos, the idea of China survived, and China today largely retains the same frontiers of the 1830s, when Western powers began to attack it. The same applies to countries like Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Japan, who did not cease to exist in the face of Western dominance (even though some were highly diverse and could have, in theory, disintegrated). The reasons for such resilience remain misunderstood or unexplained in our Western-centric history.

Even though Darwin does not say so explicitly, this powerful analysis has important consequences for the discussion about China's rise and its consequences for global order. While Western-centric alarmists may be right that the West's relative decline has important consequences, it may not be as extraordinary from a global historical perspective as is often claimed.

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