Tigers Burning Bright: But Does the East Have All the Answers?
The current British presidency of Europe has not apparently gone down very well. Much muttering, at the way in which Turkey’s candidacy has been pushed through, about British obduracy over the budget, and in the background no doubt also about British involvement in Iraq. To save the reputation of our presidency, the Prime Minister tells his colleagues – ‘partners’ (there is an awful woodenness to this language; there is more to come) – that they have to come to terms with the growing competition from China and India. This is obviously fair enough. Both countries have enormously expanded their trade and foreign services, and if these huge countries can truly turn the corner, then we face very serious competition indeed.
If so, this will be an enormous revolution, though perhaps deserved. If you know anything about western history in the era of the First World War, the attitudes of imperialists (the word has to be used) are an embarrassment. Lord Curzon, when he was Viceroy of India, announced in 1904 that the British should rule there ‘as if for ever’. They thought of themselves as the new Romans. Within two or three decades Gandhi could call the British Empire millions of acres of bankrupt real estate. But in 1900 the common coin of European discourse was that the West had all the trumps, and the only serious debate was as to why. Race ? Protestantism ? There have been some excellent studies, as to the superiority of western technology (the one for which I have the highest admiration is David Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations, a book which got from me the compliment of being read at a session, in bed, much as I had read The Count of Monte Cristo at the age you read that book. Landes knows the Levant at first hand and understands that not everyone wants to be American).
The fact does remain that the West, somewhere around the time of the Crusades, in the eleventh century, just proved to be superior when it came to gadgets, and when the Venetians and their Norman allies sacked Constantinople in 1204, it was because they knew how to treat leather in such a way as to make it non-combustible by ‘Greek Fire’ — a mysterious compound which burned all other comers. The Byzantines could not believe it, because the westerners were either greedy two-dimensional money-makers or thugs. But Constantinople collapsed, and the great church of the Pantocrator, burial place of the Comnenoi, now has, from its days of greatness, only a tiny fragment of gold inscription (the building was uneasily converted into a mosque, the Zeyrek, and a brave effort at reconstruction is now going on). Landes wrote another book, as to how western technology produced the clock, whereas no-one else’s could. Even in 1914, if you had an appointment with an Ottoman dignitary, you had to specify the time, the lunar or solar calendar, or even the year.
All of this made for much arrogance on the part of the West, and it is a very good thing that the examples of ‘the tigers’ have arisen, to show a return of ancient non-western civilizations – Ottoman, Chinese, Indian. German commentators who lament the passing of the ‘Miracle’ – Arnulf Baring or Lothar Spaeth, say – worry about this: will there be a German pavilion in some future Korean industrial exhibition at which anything of any interest will be on display and will anyone serious bother to attend the relevant Minister’s press conference ?
Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea present, indeed, extraordinary stories. In 1960 South Korea’s chief export was wigs; the Taiwan story is as remarkable. But there are some question-marks. In the past, city-states shot up, showing outstanding creativity. The obvious case is in Italy, where (the expression, like much else in the ‘globalisation’ context is crude but unavoidable) capitalism was invented – the word ‘cheque’ comes from the Italian for ‘blind’. The problem with these city states is that money forgets and poverty remembers. Amalfi, Pisa, Siena, even Florence herself – one generation makes the money, and the next gets involved abroad; the next becomes high and mighty, and then is simply defrauded, as Edward III defrauded the Frescobaldi of Florence at the time of the Hundred Years War. Meanwhile, there are resentful poor people in the grand city-state, and among the rentiers a degree of self-hatred (Savonarola, again in Florence, burning the pictures and encouraging the mobs is an instance). In the late-Latin Tag (Tertullian) fex urbis lex orbis: ‘the shit of the town is the law of the world’. Rulers could hire Swiss thugs – a memory is still there with the Swiss Guards of the Vatican – but other Swiss thugs would descend, and by 1650, Italy had collapsed.
Holland is a rather similar example of a ‘tiger’ burning out after four generations. The very expression, ‘high and mighty’ reflects the hoog moogend of the Estates-General’s title (there are other instances when ‘Dutch’ is used pejoratively) but the third generation made the usual mistakes, and by 1730 Amsterdam was grand rentiers, idle shipyards, and mob. Holland was only really saved because of the English connection. She was large enough, and defensible enough: she had what might be termed a mass of manœuvre; she was also taking in migrant Scots, who learned from the Dutch. European history has, in other words, its tigers, but envy sees them off after a generation or two, as thugs, internal or external, take over. As Orwell put it, the castle defeated the knight, gunpowder defeated the castle, the cheque-book defeated gun-powder — and the machine-gun defeated the cheque-book.
There is a much more serious question, as to whether the great civilizations of India and China are making the sort of return to the world stage that Japan made a century and more ago. It is worth asking: why ? One answer might be that, with those ancient civilizations, something quite simple got in the way – their alphabet. No chance of mass literacy. The fax machine really started to develop (its paternity is disputed) once the Japanese used it, since it could convey characters as a type-writer could not. The language of to-day is mathematics, and that emancipates Chinese and Indians, who have shot ahead in the last decade or so. This is clearly the great economic question of our times, and it is entirely right that the British, with so much more experience of the outer world than other Europeans, have been raising it. There are of course extraordinary developments in China, as the most casual observer can note (textile manufacturers in Turkey are in wild alarm). Shanghai is back to the days of the old Bund and for some years now, India, long-considered the last victim of Old Labour, has been producing good statistics. Fifteen years ago, Francis Fukuyama published the American optimistic book of the decade, when he pronounced that the world was moving towards market-economy-plus-democracy, a phenomenon which, he thought, came about when the GDP per head reached some figure above six thousand dollars. Is such optimism, in the longer term, justified ?
In the short term, matters are impressive. But there are question-marks. In the first place, how many times have the claims for a radiant future been made before, for instance in the case of Brazil which, in the 1920’s, looked for a seat on the governing body of the League of Nations? At the same time, one of the claims made by Lloyd George for coming to terms with Communist Russia was that she represented a huge potential market, a notion advanced again and again, to the point of weariness: and how many lenders sank money into that morass. A French commentator, Alain Besancon, likes to cite Flaubert’s banker, Dambreuse: ‘he would have paid in order to sell himself’. China is still a Communist country, and we know from bitter experience since 1990 how very difficult it is to disentangle people from the legacy of Communism. In that system, you could survive only by pretence or worse, and if there were honest people, they were very expensive. The Communist Party itself recognized, from time to time, that, in the attempt to create Utopia, it was destroying the seed corn, and from time to time it would let up, and allow people to get on with their lives.
The first such experiment – it even involved using the expressions glasnost and perestroika – occurred in the early Twenties, when Lenin staged a ‘New Economic Policy’, legalized small private workshops, and went for Gold Loans in the West. Lloyd George cooed as to the potential market, as did German banks, and both Germans and Americans subsequently gave money and personnel to Stalin. Result ? Megalomania, starvation, tyranny. We might all accept that the products of China, an ancient, sophisticated civilization, would adapt to capitalism, but Communism is a different matter. There was a fatal difficulty about economic reform in the old USSR, that it attracted short-term profiteers, the ‘Nepmen’ as they were called, and of course they became unpopular.
One of the worst seems to have been Armand Hammer, who had a concession from Faber-Castell to make pencils, and at the end, when NEP was closed down, did a deal by which he took out from Russia, questions unasked, carpets, pictures and the like, with which he established a business in New York, which was his base for subsequent explorations in oil and much else.
Who knows when Chinese Communism will respond to the present position, and exploit the grievances that are building up in the interior as Shanghai booms, and moves back towards its position in the 1920’s? And even if it is finished, Communism has an isotopic half-life, its artefacts to be touched only with heavy protective clothing – as the Europeans discover, even when they encounter small and manageable places, such as Estonia or Slovenia. That Fukuyama optimism, far from stupid, needs to be relativised. That economics can be separated from politics is an Anglo-Saxon illusion, the product of (again) Orwell’s lines of grey battleships. Is the present-day state of China the last and greatest version of the New Economic Policy, or is Fukuyama its presiding spirit ?
The danger of instability is now such that Europeans might be best-advised to have a bit more confidence in what, for all of the alarms, is still an extraordinarily prosperous and creative neck of the world’s woods. Judged from a British perspective, ‘Europe’ is maybe a bit of a bore. Judged from a Turkish one, not so; not so at all. In a sense, she is even settling Lothar Spaeth’s alarums and excursions by herself developing as (more woodnness) ‘a global player’. That is where by all the evidence she is heading, if the problems to east and south can be contained. The days when Russians could call her ‘the sick man’ are well and truly over – literally so, in that Russians die at sixty, Turks at seventy. She is large enough to contribute much (and Istanbul itself is already something of a ‘tiger’, accounting for almost half of the entire economy). She has not that Communist past which wrecks honesty and industry. Europe herself may be, as Spaeth sees Germany, tired and old, but she has on her doorstep a country that is not, its foreign trade growing fast, and representing a species of globalisation that is under control. Maybe it is not, now, very much in Turkey’s own interest to link up too closely with Europe as at present constituted. But it would certainly be in Europe’s.
Norman Stone is Professor of Modern History, Koç University and former Professor of Modern History at Oxford and director of the Russian-Turkish Centre, Bilkent University, Ankara. His The First World War, in the Random House ‘Modern Library’ series, will be published in 2006, and his The Origins of the New World War wıll appear shortly thereafter.