November 30, 2012 – Turning Points in World History: We yearn for turning points. Just as economists have predicted nine out of the last five recessions, so journalists have surely reported nine out of the last five revolutions. Every election is hailed as epoch-making. Every president is expected to have a new foreign policy “doctrine.” A minor redesign of a cellular phone is hailed by the devotees of the Apple cult as a “paradigm shift.”
The point about paradigm shifts, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” is that they don’t happen every other year. They are slow, because even when a new insight is right — dazzlingly right in hindsight — vested interests and other forms of inertia resist its adoption. The same is true for big political discontinuities. They just don’t happen that often.
In 2012 there were a whole bunch of elections, not only in the United States but also in France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and Venezuela. In China a new standing committee of the Politburo was named.
In countries like Egypt, Libya and Yemen, there was no mistaking the revolutionary character of the change as the misnamed Arab Spring continued its evolution into an Islamist Winter. But in other places the political changes hardly qualified as turning points. In France a jaded Left mounted one last feeble rally against economic reality. In Mexico the old regime, in the form of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, returned to power. Contrary to expectations, anti-European populists lost in Holland and the genial Mark Rutte was re-elected. In Russia, Vladimir Putin abandoned his pretense of being prime minister and returned to his real job as president. Turning points? Turnover and go back to sleep.
The great English historian A.J.P. Taylor said of the year 1848 that “German history reached its turning point and failed to turn.” This verdict could in fact be applied to most countries in most years.
History is like an oil tanker. It does not turn on a dime. Mankind sails forward through time in seas that are sometimes calm, sometimes stormy. At times it seems almost becalmed, at other times it can do 12 knots. Depending on who captains the ship, it veers sometimes to port, sometimes to starboard. When it changes direction, the turn is generally slow.
China is poised to overtake the United States in terms of gross domestic product (adjusted for differences in purchasing power) in 2017. If you invested in the West in 1989 you fared much worse than if you had invested in the Rest. Emerging stock markets have risen by a factor of five since 1989; the U.S. market, fourfold; Europe, less than threefold.
There are six slow-acting drivers of historical change in our time, as in most of recorded history. A common error is to focus on only one. They are:
1. Technological innovation;
2. The spread of ideas and institutions;
3. The tendency of even good political systems to degenerate;
5. Supplies of essential commodities;
6. Climate change.
The first three essentially explain why the West has lost some of its predominance. But the others remind us that, in that wonderful line often attributed to Bismarck, “a special Providence watches over children, drunkards and the United States of America.” (Credits: Original Oil Painting Shown Above by Romy Blumel, Narrative by Niall Ferguson for the New York Times),
The Master of Disaster