To understand the present and look ahead, you must first decode the past.
This is the book I searched for in vain as a youngster in the late 1940ies. Much
later I tried my hand at it, confronting the cocksure arrogance of a
left-leaning intellectual establishment. During the cold war, Europe was a
distraught place. Democracy was out and socialism, if not communism, was in.
This mindset has now transmuted into cultural defeatism. Self-flagellation is the name of the game. Our civilization is deemed unsafe at any speed, a contagious disease without redeeming features. To weigh the pros and cons of Western imperialism and colonialism is heretical. To suggest a beneficial influence is anathema.
Niall Ferguson launches the counterattack on a broad front. He analyzes the success factors behind the rise of the West during the last 500 years. Innovation in a competitive environment was the common denominator, which in short order produced better ships and navigation, better weapons and later on better medicines. This material progress was interwoven with advances in science, education, personal freedom and general prosperity.
To cap it all we have arrived at a democratic welfare society, the envy of the rest of the world. Ferguson does not need to press the point. Following his convincing narrative, the reader can take in how the world has changed ̶ mostly for the better. We now live longer lives in a richer world with better safety and less warfare than ever before.
The author does not evade the dark sides of Western expansion, nor the terrible totalitarian backlash in our midst during the last century. Democracy persevered, but the victory was partly due to the self-destruction of Fascism and Communism. In a similar vein, the expansion of the entrepreneurial West was due to stagnation and decay in the rest of the civilized world.
Nevertheless European dynamism was remarkable and soon led to marked superiority in key areas. What then was the root cause of Western competitiveness? Ferguson is bold enough to present the obvious answer ̶ Christianity. He does not elaborate it, except by underlining the Protestant work ethic.
The history and present state of Christianity in China is one of the most illuminating sections in the book. After many false starts, protestant denominations are spreading fast. They are grudgingly accepted by the authorities; the proportion of Christians is already exceeding 10% in some areas. How this will play out is anybody’s guess, but support seems to emerge from top politicians as well as from leading intellectuals. Ferguson cites the Chinese academic Zhuao Xinping. “Only by accepting this [Christian] understanding of transcendence as our criterion can we understand the real meaning of such concepts as freedom, human rights, tolerance, equality, justice, democracy, the rule of law, universality, and environmental protection.”
The short conclusion section in the book is not entirely satisfactory. Ferguson emphasizes the sharp distinction between American religiosity and European agnosticism but leaves it at that. The long domination of the West is over, but our values have spread and are conquering the world, for better or for worse. We could justifiably declare victory and retire in peace. I do not think that is what Ferguson is contemplating. Perhaps the subject of another book?