The old Europe is dead. The Europe that conquered the old world, and colonized the new passed away with the Second World War. The collection of nations that once thought nothing of stationing troops or intervening anywhere in the world recently couldn't even muster the will to intervene in a disintegrating Yugoslavia to stop genocide. A new Europe has yet to emerge from the corpse of the old -- instead the implosion continues as a drive to unity (Common Market, the euro currency, etc.) is driving the political agenda, with Britain, once the greatest imperialist state and winner of the last round of European competition, resisting the most.
Why did Europe become so dominant? Three cultures had the means to dominate the world -- Europe (Christianity), Islam, and China (Confucianism). Yet only Europe went on to explore and conquer the world. Each had the necessary sailing and military capacity. China and Islam seemingly just lacked the will or drive. China built the greatest sailing fleet of all time but couldn't keep enough interest in the outside world to discover and dominate it. Islam preferred armies to fleets for conquest, but for a time dominated two oceans: the Mediterranean and the Indian. Europe came from behind to overshadow the other two.
The most striking difference between Europe and the other two was Europe's lack of Unity. China had only one permanent state with the emperor as head. Islam had different power centers and great peoples that changed with time, and wars within Islam occurred between these centers and peoples as one rose to power over the others, but there was a belief in unity and overall a unified Islam until recently. Europe on the other hand was marked by permanent warring states all the way back to its warring tribes, before even rudimentary nations appeared. These nations were built along tribal boundaries, took root, and became permanent features of not only the political, but also the social and economic landscape as well.
I think it was this permanent competition between the different European states that led to Europe ascendancy. The Christian concept of linear time -- that is that the world progressed over time and the world of the future would be different than the world of the past, also gave an impetus to change and improvement that was lacking in China and Islam where time was perceived to be cyclical, with the same flow of events occurring over and over and thus the world of the future would be just like the world of the past, only the wheel of time would have turned more. So the European ideology was one of permanent rivalry with change a fact of life, where China and Islam had an ideology of one people against the rest of the world where nothing much changed.
China and Islam made more rapid progress than Europe initially, with much stronger political structures, much more robust economies and more scientific progress, but they both stagnated and came to fulfill their own prophecies of unchanging life. Europe on the other hand, kept building and improving its political structure, its economies, and its science. Nations wanted every competitive advantage over their rivals and knew that such advantages would be rewarded.
European wars in the early part of this millennium could be quite devastating, but as time went on they became more a struggle for power and strength, and devastating a conquered land did not make you stronger. Wars became a way to gain an advantage over a rival, and dominating other parts of the world also became a way to gain strength. The world was systematically explored and conquered by Europe so that the European nation doing so would gain economic and military advantages over its rivals.
China's voyages of exploration were to demonstrate to the other parts of the world what China already knew: That China was the center of the Universe and the only center of civilization: the wealthiest, strongest, and the smartest nation. China's idea of conquering another nation was to show up and provide such gifts that the other nation would simply realize its own inferiority. This became such a drain on the Chinese treasury that exploration was abandoned, and ultimately ships themselves were proscribed.
Islam never really even got started. While Portugal was exploring down the western coast of Africa, Islam was exploring down the eastern coast. Only Islam's explorations didn't lead to much more than a series of enclaves on coastal islands that were centers for the slave trade. Because of malaria and other diseases to which neither Europeans nor Arabs had any immunities, neither Islam nor Europe was ever able to have colonies on, let alone conquer any part of, the sub-Saharan mainland of Africa before the nineteenth century. The fact that these voyages were mainly carried out by individual Islamic traders meant that they never rounded the Cape of Good Hope and discovered more that east Africa. However, the European voyages were carried out by the Nation of Portugal, and so the Portuguese succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope and discovering not only the east coast of Africa, but India, the East Indies, and a direct overwater route to China itself.
Ultimately, I think Europe had a drive that was lacking in the other two cultures simply due to the fact that any discovery, whether in geography, economics, science, politics, whatever, would provide a benefit to both the ruler of a country and its people. In China and Islam, it soon became clear than most discoveries would not change a thing for either the ruler or the people. And this was due to the permanent competition between permanent nations in Europe.
Where Europe eclipsed China and Islam, The United States of America has eclipsed Europe. America, while a child of Europe, is different in that it competes within unity. Where Europe's competition was between monopolistic states, America competes within a pluralistic society. America has fought but one civil war, and it was essentially over principles. Europe has fought many civil wars, both between nations and within nations. The trouble for Europe was that while in it's midlife its wars did not cause much destruction, its last two especially were devastating. The political and military strength of the nations involved were such that rather than one side quitting when it was clear it had lost the advantage (as had happened in the past), both sides fought on past exhaustion to ruination. After World War II, Europe has essentially decided that the old way of European rivalry would not work, and has been trying to remake itself in the image of its successor: America. Thus the drive for a single market, a single political entity for foreign affairs, a single currency even.
The Soviet Union was the last spasm of European imperialism. It combined the classic European desire for foreign dominance to fuel a monopolistic domestic economy in order to compete with its rivals. Its failure has only succeeded in validating the American model which defeated it. Its collapse will only increase the European drive to remake itself in the American model.
The big question is will Europe be able to overcome the centuries of rivalries, the different languages, customs, etc. and sucked in its quest to unify, or will its differences be too great. And if Europe is unable to unify, what will it do instead? Only time will tell.
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This page last updated 14 November 1998.
Contents copywrite Kevin Murphy 1998. All rights reserved.