In his new book, British historian Niall Ferguson believes he has come up with the most interesting question anyone in his profession could ask today: how did the Western nations come to dominate all the world?
The book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, also provides an answer to the question, and will be out on Indian bookshelves by Thursday. Ferguson, who specialises in economic and business history, is in the city to promote the book.
“The gaps between the West and the rest of the world are rapidly closing, and to understand the present, it is important to ask ourselves, how did the gaps get so big in the first place?” said Ferguson, 47, author of more than 12 history books, including the controversial Ascent of Money (2008) and The Pity of War (1998).
In Civilization, he explores the factors that determined how the Western world, visibly subordinate to the flourishing Oriental empires before the 1500s, managed to become the most powerful civilisation in the world in a few centuries. Using modern computer jargon, Ferguson claims the West outdid the East because they created six “killer applications” for themselves – competition (both economic and political), science, rule of law (democracy), medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.
“I wanted to create an integrated theory that brought various institutional explanations of Western dominance together in an analytical framework,” said Ferguson, who believes these six “applications” are interconnected and the West could not have had one without the other. “You have to download them all.”
Once set on a path of innovation, Ferguson claims European creativity was superior to others, and the West retained monopoly over these six institutions and ideas.
“They were not secretive about it, but somehow it was only in the late 19th century that Japan became the first eastern nation to copy the West systematically,” said Ferguson.
While he recognises the dangers that Westernisation has posed to the environment, Ferguson critiques Gandhi’s anti-West stance in his book. “Gandhi rejected everything Western, including modern medicine, which has been an enormous source of improvement in human health in India,” said Ferguson, who constructs a hopeful scenario for the future given the West’s “superior” problem-solving skills.
“It is possible that westernisation includes solving the problem of climate change and increasing the efficiency with which resources are consumed.”
For the immediate future, however, Ferguson’s predictions remain grim. “The dominance of Western civilisations is declining, and in the next two decades, I anticipate increased conflict, particularly in the Middle-East.