Monday, August 3, 2015

Why did Europe Conquer the World - a book review

Why Did Europe Conquer the World?Why Did Europe Conquer the World? by Philip T. Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some people, presumably those who are not blaming the Jews or the Americans, claim that all the problems in the world are the fault of white males of European descent. There is some truth to that. One could also claim that everything good in the modern world was developed, invented, discovered by those same white males of European descent. There is some truth to that. For the past several hundred years they seemed to be the only ones actually doing anything. There is some truth to that, too, but like the other claims, there are exceptions, of course. But in general, it would seem to hold.

The question then becomes why? How did Europe, in particular Western Europe, eclipse China, India and the Ottoman Empire which at one time were the world’s largest economies and most vibrant civilizations? Why and how did a backwards, poverty stricken, highly fragmented Europe, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, go on to conquer 35% of the world by 1800 and control 84% of the world by 1913 and have very beneficial trade concessions from two of the countries, China and Japan, it did not control? Why were relatively small numbers of European soldiers able to defeat overwhelming numbers of Aztecs, Bengali’s, Ottomans or Chinese?

Some would say superior genetics. Don’t make me laugh. Others a superior culture and list gross disgusting and horrible things about other cultures. This idea was popular at the height of the British Empire. If you would like a list of gross, disgusting and horrible attributes of British and American culture, I am sure someone would be only too happy to oblige. Every culture has good and bad and we need to learn from the good and discard the bad in all cultures.

Jarrod Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies provided some of the answers as did Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000but did not answer all the questions that might be asked. Julia Lovell’s The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China, in which a few British gun ships and a small number of soldiers humiliated the Chinese Empire sent me looking for more answers. Good thing I didn’t go looking any sooner as this book was only published in 2015. Philip T. Hoffman’s Why did Europe Conquer the World? builds partly on Diamond and Kennedy though he rebuts their conclusions but answers the main question better than any other book I have read.

The answer is gunpowder technology. China may have invented gunpowder and made the first firearms but Western Europe perfected the technology over the centuries. Gunpowder technology includes everything, not just firearms but logistics, defense structures, strategy and tactics, development, administration, and training of both army and navy. Why did Europe outstrip all other parts of the world in perfecting gunpowder technology?

Hoffman describes four essentials for advancing gunpowder technology:
1. There must be frequent war. Rulers must therefore face similar political costs of mobilizing resources and must be battling for a prize that was valuable relative to the fixed cost of establishing a fiscal system and a military apparatus. There cannot be huge differences in the size of their countries or economies or their ability to borrow, although credit can allow the ruler of a small country to fight a larger opponent.
2. Frequent war, though, is not enough, for rulers must also lavish huge sums on it. Once again, the prize must be valuable, but in addition, the rulers’ political costs of summoning resources must not only be similar, but low.
3. Rulers must use the gunpowder technology heavily, and not older military technologies.
4. Rulers must face few obstacles to adopting military innovations, even from opponents.

Western Europe met all four requirements almost all of the time. From the time of the disintegration of the Roman Empire, the only business of rulers was war. No ruler in Western Europe was able to grow powerful enough that it discouraged other rulers from fighting them. Gunpowder technology was adopted as soon as it was available and improved constantly over time as it was superior to Knights in armor and archers on foot. The bayonet meant that pikemen, who protected musketeers from cavalry, could be replaced with musketeers, doubling firepower. Cannons were improved and made lighter, stronger and more portable. Every ruler learned from every other ruler; there were no secrets

Hoffman walks us through China, Japan, India and the Ottoman Empire and explains why in each case, they lost ground to the Western Europeans because they did not meet all of the four requirements all of the time. China, for example, was often at war but mostly with nomads of the Steppes. Horse mounted archers were far more effective against them than slow-moving infantry armed with muskets and cannon. (It was only in the mid-late 19th century that repeating rifles and pistols allowed the complete subjugation of the indigenous American nomads of the West). So if rulers spent resources on old technology, they were not spending it on gunpowder technology. Western Europe did not have to deal with nomads because Russia, Poland and Hungary kept them at bay.

Why was Western Europe able to continually meet the four essentials to allow it to make such huge improvements in gunpowder technology, long before the Industrial Revolution? It was not preordained, Hoffman said but rather the result of their particular political history. If any of the “Great Powers” from the 16th century on had been able to overcome the others and become so dominant there would be no more fighting. If any of the Great Powers had faced more resistance to high taxes, of which up to 90% was spent on war, things would have been different. The discussion of the political histories of the different parts of the world is crucial to understanding the why.

The author uses algebraic equations to illustrate his models. These are in appendices and can be skipped by non-economists as his narrative is reasonably clear. The research that went into this was incredibly meticulous and every chapter has expensive end notes.

If you have read Guns, Germs and Steel then How did Europe Conquer the World? is the logical next step in understanding how we got where we are today. What is the legacy of “winning the arms race” and controlling the world? Two world wars, massive poverty in many countries, in particular Africa and the immigration “crisis” as people move from relatively poor areas to relatively rich areas of the world.

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  1. It's fascinating to see it boiled down to four fundamental requirements like that. A very cool book, indeed, and the equations would be the icing on the cake!

    1. You LIKE equations? Actually they are not that difficult (for equations) and I did wade into a few of them, just to make sure I understood his narrative. I love books that answer WHY.

    2. I know; I'm a freak. I really do like equations.

  2. Sounds very interesting, but asking why just leads to more questions. The "when" seems to be nearly constant. I hope the "what" isn't more nukes. We already did that twice and it was awful. Now that I am older and have no children I worry less about it, but am still concerned for the rest of the planet.

  3. P.S. We have all 4 essentials going all the time in the U.S. What do you suppose "winning the arms race" actually looks like?

    1. No question, America over took the rest of the world in spades after WW! and especially after WWII when Europe was smashed beyond recognition. USSR, even with all eastern and central Europe, simply could not maintain the huge amounts of money needed to keep up with America.
      As to what happens next, I would not discount nucs but one hopes it is a very remote possibility.
      Our global economy is a house of cards, one of these days a disease will appear that will wipe out half the earth's population or more, climate change is upon us, whether we caused it or not, whether we admit it or not and we have a madman at the button in Russia. Did I miss something? Isn't it fun?

  4. I'm not as fearful as you Fodder. This is all about greed and the banks can't make money if an entire population is wiped off the face of the earth from a nuke. It's why we see the wars we do because banks make money selling and financing arms to all sides.

    So now there's a new weapon to add to the mix. That would be debt. Why fire a single shot when you can bring down an entire country with crushing debt and austerity? And should the trade deals pass that I'm seeing, the next conflicts will be between corporations and governments.

    1. I'm not fearful at all. What comes comes. Or doesn't. Banks can only control so much. They cannot control climate, madmen with nucs, or diseases.
      You are right about Debt as a weapon. It has been used for centuries but especially by America to expand and control its empire. Have you read John Perkin's Confessions of an Economic Hitman?