Foreign Policy Blogs

Considering “The West and the Rest”

Faith in Saving, and Property Rights

This last week I watched part of Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest” series, one of two video segments exploring aspects of Western culture that have set it apart from others.

The show is visually rich, with splices of early 20th century footage and modern cityscapes, with Ferguson himself often on camera and narrating from various locales. The style is jazzed-up Ken Burns and set to a progressive soundtrack, noticeably geared to a general audience.

Ferguson speaks straight to the digital generation by presenting what he calls the six “killer apps” of Western civilization, characteristics of US and European nations that allowed them to dominate other regions of the world. These include: political and economic competition, scientific revolution, rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and work ethic.

Ferguson’s overarching argument is that many non-Western civilizations have now “downloaded,” or adopted, what were characteristically Western principles of these six areas. These six aspects that used to divide the West from the rest, Ferguson argues, are now universally pursued.

In the segment I watched, medicine is the first up. The argument follows the British and French 19th century colonial push in West Africa with large casualties of personnel in initial forays, some with 50% losses due to disease. After European bacteriologists develop a vaccine for yellow fever, the biggest killer, colonization can continue apace, with railroads and travel to the inner continent. This ability of the Europeans to adapt and conquer is compared then to French army recruits from Senegal, years later in World War I, who after being promised citizenship for their service, died in large numbers not from bullets but pneumonia. The difference is medicine, Ferguson argues, that vaccinates the chosen and lets God sort out the rest.

Important points are made about both the philosophy of civilization and medical advancement. The war’s scale of destruction and death to many observers called into question how “civilized” the European powers were. And ironically the carnage and treatment challenges brought substantial medical discoveries such as skin grafts, anti-septics, and early blood transfusions. But as to the chief argument, it seems a narrow example of how medicine separated the two civilizations.

Playing an equal role of the dominant West in this case, it occurred to me, was the French ingenuity for governance, manipulating a less advanced people into doing their dirty work. Could Senegalese researchers not have come to Europe and worked on a pneumonia deterrent? In an ideal world, yes, but history does not operate in a vacuum; imperial governance meant telling the weak subjects whom they will fight — or at least making with them a devil’s bargain. Pressing into Africa, the foreigners offered new ideas and technology and conquered the residents; however, before the Africans could make a home in France, they had to fight for France and unfortunately often die.

As an aside, Ferguson defines civilization with a moral component. He refers to the world wars as a “terrible menace.” “By 1945,” he reflects, “Western civilization did seem like a contradiction in terms.” He never directly mentions a moral component however, and, when I started to reflect, I wondered how many civilizations had depended on a moral component for expansion. National boundaries today are the result of land gained through war and conquest, which depended on governance and technology. Governance has a necessarily moral component, for domestic stability and growth, but this does not apply to one’s enemies. All empires — Russian, American, Ottoman, Persian, and Roman — have expanded simply to acquire. The moral component becomes important when one needs to sustain the empire and assimilate the conquered. As such, the “West and the Rest” Ferguson discusses seem to be from the 19th century onward, after nations were entrenched and forced to engage with each other globally.

The next “killer app” is consumerism. In this half hour Ferguson argues that on the Cold War stage between 1950 and 1989, the capitalists should have more rightly been called consumers, who valued a wide choice of goods and sought above all to express themselves through what they bought and wore. While the Communists preached a society defined by industrial production and worker solidarity, by the 1960s the West had unleashed goods and developed domestic appetites for music and clothes that were increasingly adopted by foreign countries.

Clothes, Ferguson says, had defined cultures for centuries. One differentiated a Japanese emperor, African chieftain, and Aborigine hunter by what they did or did not wear. Yet this is a chicken and egg argument. Culture, I would argue in reverse, has defined clothes. Hunters were in loincloths for ease of movement and wore animal skins for warmth. In the industrial age, there are fine suits for the managers and durable cottons for the workers. All the same, the two go hand in hand.

Blue jeans, Ferguson more pointedly shows, were symbols of individualism, a trait that was anathema to Communist ideals governing a large part of Asia. Introduced with a counter-culture subtheme in the 1940s and 1950s, blue jeans over time became sought after goods for millions in the Eastern bloc and Soviet Union. Whichever “jeans” narrative one wished to espouse — the rugged cowboy, the protester, or the rock’n roller — simply their availability frightened Communist authorities enough to pass laws against them. On their own, jeans did not foment a revolution, but they were a touchstone for the pent-up expression and yearning for economic choice among populations deprived equal access to such goods.

Most people these days, Ferguson argues, dress Western. But is that really the case? In business circles certainly, only because Western banks and enterprises have long controlled most of the production. Students from the developing world have necessarily had to assimilate going to universities in the US and Europe, and then pursue careers, wearing host nation clothes, in those environments.  Yet one simply needs to go outside non-Western capitals to experience native dress. Moreover, as the global population and economic balance shift to Asia, “Western dress” may prove on the wane.

Ferguson concludes his presentation describing a work ethic differentiated as uniquely Western, a descendant of the Protestant work ethic that seemed to have played a role in the transfer of wealth after the 1600s from Spain and Italy to England and Germany. Thrift and hard work seemed the key traits that led to unprecedented wealth creation. The US eventually became the last-frontier nation to benefit, with its multi-denominational Protestant congregations that found salvation through “good works” rather than the simple faith of its Catholic cousins.

Ferguson then compares the work ethic and its religious cohort, through several centuries of Western growth, to the present day, with the shortened European work week and paltry numbers of churchgoers. Stagnation in Europe, he argues, seems to have been accompanied by dwindling faith.

While Europe and the US have collectively squandered their thrift, evidenced by the recent economic turndown and record debt, US church membership continues to be steady if not rising. Asian nations, and particularly China, not only are now industrial heavyweights but in an ironic dovetail, Protestant faith in this region is also booming. Combined with longer work hours and the generally higher savings rate, Ferguson concludes, the foreign influences that China has for centuries tried to prevent have taken root and may even spur its prosperity. The Chinese Communist Party now mandates three requirements for sustainable economic growth: property rights, law, and morality, all “killer apps” that had separated the West from the rest.

Ferguson himself appears in the same jaunty blue shirt and light khakis in China, Senegal, and a WWI battlefield; prone to overdramatic punctuation of arguments straight into the camera, one does wonder who is on stage here — the history or the teacher. Yet Ferguson shows why he is a conceptual innovator and gives viewers a different take on history with novel storylines, colorful examples, and drawing unexpected parallels. Any parents concerned with their teenager’s TV viewing should be happy to recommend this series.

The overall thesis, that the “rest” are catching up to the West by adopting Western political and cultural values, is a relatively simple proposition and, a critical voice might argue, is not exactly going out on an analytical limb. On the surface, this seems to be the case; one of the last scenes shows Ferguson on a Shanghai balcony while the camera pans casino lights and luxury cars. He appears to be arguing for convergence — the idea that all nations are gradually moving toward one optimal system of government and economic relations.

And so we step into one of the most vigorous contemporary debates — the direction and nature of the future world order.

The splash of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History in 1992 was that the Western democratic, free-market model, having just knocked out its longtime socialist/communist rival, was now the ideal system and hence the search for better governance would “end.” Ferguson indirectly posits that this is where the future lies, along the lines of Western-created systems.

Others do not see international trends so conveniently. Charles Kupchan, in his recent publication No One’s World: The West, the Rising West, and the Coming Global Turn, allows that other major civilizations have benefited from the Western model but that the nature of those adopted approaches may be fundamentally different. China and Russia, for example, are well into state-capitalist systems, with reforms carried out top-down through state authority. Moreover, the Islamic world and its binding together of mosque and state, with perhaps more democratic leanings now in the Arab world, may evolve into a new form of government altogether.

Predicting the future is an exercise bounded only by the imagination and time constraints of the participants. For the time being however, let us remember that Ferguson’s six “killer apps” — political and economic competition, scientific revolution, rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and work ethic – have made undeniable contributions to the civilizational canon.



Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason spent April and May 2014 in Central Asia researching religious extremist groups. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Jason previously served as a trainer for US military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.