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Global Power: On Top of the World

October 13, 2010

From The Economist:

IAN MORRIS, a polymathic Stanford University professor of classics and history, has written a remarkable book that may come to be as widely read as Paul Kennedy’s 1987 work, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”. Like Mr Kennedy’s epic, Mr Morris’s “Why the West Rules—For Now” uses history and an overarching theory to address the anxieties of the present. Mr Kennedy warned American policymakers of the consequences of “imperial overstretch”, although it was the sudden implosion of the Soviet Union that proved the most spectacular vindication of his thesis.

For his part, Mr Morris sets out to show two things that are just as important; first that civilisations throughout history have waxed and waned, usually for reasons their rulers were powerless to influence, and second, that the West’s dominance of the past 200 years was neither inevitable nor “locked in” for the future.

Mr Morris’s refrain is “maps, not chaps”—the belief that human destiny is mostly shaped by geography and the efforts of ordinary people to cope with whatever is thrown at them in the form of climate change, famine, migration, disease and state failure (what the author describes as the “five horsemen of the apocalypse”). He argues that “history teaches us that when the pressure is on, change takes off.” According to what he calls, somewhat annoyingly, the Morris Theorem, “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways of doing things. And they rarely know what they are doing.” [More]

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