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This brings us to the question of whether, in the long run, China will accept the international system as presently constituted or seek a fundamental change in that system. It is an impossible question to answer with any certainty because we are still at such an early stage of China ’s rise. Since 1978 China has progressively sought to become a fully-fledged member of the international community and has gone to considerable lengths to reassure the West that it is a ‘responsible power’, as it likes to describe itself. John Ikenberry, an influential American writer on international relations, has argued that:

The postwar Western order is historically unique. Any international order dominated by a powerful state is based on a mix of coercion and consent, but the US-led order is distinctive in that it has been more liberal than imperial — and so unusually accessible, legitimate, and durable. Its rules and institutions are rooted in, and thus reinforced by, the evolving global forces of democracy and capitalism. It is expansive, with a wide and widening array of participants and stakeholders. It is capable of generating tremendous economic growth and power while also signalling restraint — all of which make it hard to overturn and easy to join. [42]

Ikenberry argues that the present American-created international order has the potential to integrate and absorb China rather than instead being replaced in the long run by a Chinese-led order. This is a crucial barometer of what the rise of China might mean. Hitherto, the arrival of a new global hegemon has ushered in a major change in the international order, as was the case with both Britain and then the United States. Given that China promises to be so inordinately powerful and different, it is difficult to resist the idea that in time its rise will herald the birth of a new international order. It is a question I will return to towards the end of the book.

PART I. The End of the Western World

Until the second half of the eighteenth century, life was conceived of largely in terms of the past. The present was seen as no more than the latest version of what had gone before. Similarly, the future, rather than being a separate and distinct idea, was regarded as a repetition or re-creation of the past. In a world in which the overwhelming majority worked on the land and where change was glacial, this is understandable. Material circumstance and daily experience complemented a philosophy and religious belief that reproduced and venerated the past. The values that counted — in everyday life, art, literature — were those of experience, age, wisdom, hierarchy and tradition. Change was acceptable and legitimate as long as it did not threaten the cherished ideas of the past. Even the Renaissance and the Reformation, two great efflorescences of European life, were, as their names suggest, couched in terms of the past, despite the fact that they contained much that was forward-looking and novel. [43] Scholars of Renaissance Europe believed that the learning of classical antiquity was being restored even while they were busy transforming the very manner in which people understood history. [44] From the sixteenth century, this retrospective way of thinking gradually began to subside, not just in Europe but also in China, India, Japan and the Islamic world, though the process has been best chronicled in Europe. The growth of scientific knowledge, the expanding influence of the scientific method, the spread of secularism, and the burgeoning importance of the market and commerce slowly eroded the idea that the present and the future were little more than replays of the past.

From the late eighteenth century, a fundamentally different outlook began to take root with the arrival of modernity. Instead of the present being lived as the past, it became increasingly orientated towards the future. From change being seen as so many variants of the past, it acquired a quite new power and promise as a way of making a different future. A new set of words and concepts became the bearers of the values that were intrinsic to modernity: progress, change, modernization, reason, enlightenment, development and emancipation. There was growing conflict between these attitudes and those — such as tradition, custom, heritage, experience and conservative — associated with the old modes of thinking. The modernity-tradition divide became a new central organizing principle of social life.

The coming of modernity cannot be considered in neat chronological terms like the reign of a king, or the period of a dynasty, or the duration of a war, or (though with less precision) the boundaries of an industrial revolution. Its inception cannot be given a date, only a period; while there appears, as yet at least, to be no obvious end but more a process akin to perpetual motion. It was the onset of industrialization that marked the arrival and diffusion of modernity and, rather like the ever-expanding universe, modernity has relentlessly kept on moving ever since. According to Göran Therborn, modernity marked the arrival of ‘an epoch turned to the future’. [45] Christopher Bayly argues that modernity should be seen as an open-ended process, ‘which began at the end of the eighteenth century and has continued up to the present day’. [46] If modernity was a novelty at the time of the British Industrial Revolution, it has since become a compelling and seemingly omnipotent narrative, sweeping all before it, with the ‘new’ exercising a magnetic attraction on the popular imagination from North America to Europe, from China to Japan. The extent to which so many contemporary conflicts are fought out between ‘progressive’ on the one hand and ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional ist’ on the other underlines the degree to which the language of modernity has insinuated itself into the bloodstream of societies.

The decisive moment for modernity was, and remains, economic take-off and the coming of industrialization. This is when the new mentality — the orientation towards change and uncertainty, the belief that the future will be different from the past — slowly moves from being the preserve of a few elites to eventually infecting the psyche of the entire population. The locus of economic activity shifts from the field to the factory, and that of residence from the countryside to the cities. Every aspect of human life is progressively transformed: living standards, family structure, working conditions, skills and knowledge, self-organization, political representation, the relationship with the natural environment, the idea of time, and the perception of human existence. Like modernity itself, and as its key driver, the industrial revolution unleashed a process of economic transformation which continues unabated to this day. [47]

Even though one can trace some of the origins of the modern in Europe back to the sixteenth century, the decisive period of change was the nineteenth century, when industrialization swept across north-west Europe, the economic power of European nations was transformed, the modern nation-state was born, and virtually the entire world was brought into a global system dominated by Europe. The merging of all these trends marked a qualitative shift in human organization. This was the period when modernity began to acquire a global reach, and people aspired to be modern and to think of themselves as modern — from dress and ways of being named to the possession of objects like fob watches and umbrellas — not only in Europe and North America, but also even amongst elite groups, though not amongst the masses (with the exception of Japan), in Asia and Africa. [48]


[42] G. John Ikenberry, ‘The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive?’ Foreign Affairs, January/February 2008, p. 2. Also Ikenberry, Liberal Order and Imperial Ambition, pp. 7–8.


[43] Göran Therborn, European Modernity and Beyond: The Trajectory of European Societies, 1945-2000 (London: Sage, 1995), pp. 4–5.


[44] C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 11.


[45] Therborn, European Modernity and Beyond, p. 3.


[46] Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, p. 11.


[47] Mark Elvin, ‘The Historian as Haruspex’, New Left Review, 52, July-August 2008, p. 101.


[48] Ibid., p. 10.