I recently reviewed Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order by JC Sharman for the Asian Review of Books. Sharman argues, quite convincingly, that Western superiority over Asia, in particular military superiority, and the successes supposedly arriving therefrom, have been greatly overstated.
Seeking to turn conventional wisdom about Western global expansion on its head, Sharman argues not only that the reasons normally given for it don’t hold up, but that this “victory” was largely illusory.
His primary target is the “military revolution thesis”, which runs, in essence, that because Europeans were so busy fighting each other, they became good at it, yielding “superior military power: better weapons, and better organizations for using them.” Yet until well into the 18th century, with the major exception of the Americas, Europeans made nary a dent in the places they expanded to, at best holding some coastal ports and often only with sufferance of the suzerain.
Although Sharman extends his analysis beyond to the present day
Europeans didn’t win in the end: their empires fell, and their military capacity shriveled. Even the United States has experienced more defeats than victories against non-Western forces over the last half-century…
his discussion of the earlier period overlaps that of la ruta de la plata which is not, of course, a story of European domination.
The most interesting overlap in Sharman’s analysis with The Silver Way is his discussion of historical narratives and how they affect present-day understanding, in particular how
a tendency to string together Western victories from Cortes and da Gama to Plassey in 1757 to the nineteenth century to produce a false story of four centuries of Western dominance.
For Sharman, the eurocentric narrative arises from the application of a considerable amount of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning and projecting conditions backward from a post-Industrial Revolution period to the early-modern period. The Silver Way argues, conversely but similarly, that the Anglo-American narrative that conflates globalization with political of economic liberalism is the result of omitting the history of Asian trade in the early-modern period. He concludes:
Moving away from the conventional story of Western puts our current circumstances in a new light… The questions we ask, and fail to ask, about history change our views not only of where we have come from, but also where we are, and where we are going.