Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Onward March of Global Liberalism Stalled?

If the deepening and spread of a global liberalism was an outgrowth of Western hegemony, and a reflection of the peculiarities of the West, then the relative decline of the West, and the rise of the Rest, should mean a plateau for global liberalism.

Much depends on what is meant by “global liberalism.” By most accounts it would include:

  1. the spread of liberal-democratic states (a.k.a. “the end of history”);
  2. various liberal ideas and policies followed by them and by non-liberal states too such as open trade, open migration, war avoidance, and observing human rights; and
  3. cooperation to undertake global governance or deal with common problems.

How are these three parts of global liberalism faring?

Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner, and Steven Weber writing in the National Interest think that liberal global governance has peaked.

international institutions picked off the low-hanging fruit of global cooperation decades ago and have since stalled in their attempts to respond to pressing international challenges. The 1990s served up the best possible set of conditions to advance global liberalism, but subsequent moves toward political and economic liberalization that came with the end of the Cold War were either surprisingly shallow or fragile and short-lived.

Why is it now bogged-down?

The root cause of stalled global governance is simpler and more straightforward. “Multipolarization” has come faster and more forcefully than expected. Relatively authoritarian and postcolonial emerging powers have become leading voices that undermine anything approaching international consensus and, with that, multilateral institutions.

More here. Their piece is called “The Mythical Liberal Order” but that is some journalistic hyperbole. Really, they are talking about a stalled or stagnant liberal order.

Overall, I would say:

  • The spread of liberal-democratic states has reached a plateau. The Arab Spring is not issuing in liberal democracies.
  • Liberal ideas and policies are various so some are doing well, others are stagnating. War aversion is continuing to spread. But a taste for free trade seems to have peaked.
  • Global governance is not on an ever increasing trajectory. It may have plateaued or somewhat declined. But it does seem to muddle through.

In sum, the onward march of global liberalism has stalled – although at a high-level plateau. It does not appear to be substantially decreasing. But given the relative decline of the West, it is unlikely to increase substantially.


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Instability and Innovation

Earlier, I mentioned the “lucky latitudes” – areas neither sizzling in the tropics nor freezing in the north – which were (mostly) the zones in which foragers first turned to agriculture.

Maybe their “luck” lay in having a goldilocks climate: neither too seasonally stable (as in the tropics) nor too seasonally volatile (as in the north).

Quamrul Ashraf and Stelios Michalopoulos have looked at this issue. They conclude thus:

Farming diffused earlier across regions characterized by intermediate levels of climatic fluctuations, with those subjected to either too high or too low intertemporal variability transiting later.

Here’s a more vivid illustration of their argument:

The following thought experiment places the aforementioned effects of season-specific volatility into perspective. If the Republic of Congo’s low spring temperature volatility of 0:362 were increased to the Netherlands spring volatility of 1:453, which is in the neighborhood of the optimum, then, all else equal, agriculture would have appeared in the Republic of Congo by 5,227 Before Present (BP) instead of 3,000 BP, reducing the gap in the timing of the transition between the two countries by allowing the Republic of Congo to reap the benefits of agriculture 2,227 years earlier. At the other end of the spectrum, lowering Latvia’s high spring temperature volatility of 2:212 to that of the Netherlands would have accelerated the adoption of farming in the regions belonging to Latvia today by 1,084 years.

Yet, one anomaly appears to be New Guinea: in the tropics but with an early pristine agricultural revolution.

The basic idea is sound. Too much volatility and little new can arise amidst the turmoil. Too little and there is no reason to change one’s ways. But a “just-right” level of instability can spur experimentation and discovery.

Quamrul Ashraf and Stelios Michalopoulos (2013), Climatic Fluctuations and the Diffusion of Agriculture NBER Working Paper No. 18765

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Anthropologists as Libel Lawyers

Anthropologists are becoming the new academic version of libel lawyers. They like to keep an eye on the public discourse for any comment on primitive peoples that sounds negative. Then the writs start flying.

Recent writs have targeted:

  • Jared Diamond’s new book (it generally praises pre-state peoples, but also says they are relatively prone to violence): denounced as dangerous;
  •  Napoleon Chagnon: allegedly harmed the Yanomomo by describing them as “fierce people”;
  • a pair of economists who inquired whether there is a link between human genetic diversity and comparative economic development: deemed malicious and alleged to have  “the potential to cause serious harm … their thesis could be interpreted to suggest that increasing or decreasing a nation’s genetic (or ethnic) diversity would promote prosperity.”

Like libel lawyers, their allegations of defamation are often dubious. They see malice where none exists. But the effect, where libel laws are harsh, is a chill or censorship on free speech and fair comment.

Anthropologists should remember the basic principle: the truth is no libel.

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Ian Morris, *The Measure of Civilization*

Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fates of Nations (Princeton University Press, 2013).

I have been reading this book which is full of fascinating data on four key dimensions of social development:

  • energy capture (including productive capacity);
  • city size (as a proxy for social organization);
  • war-making capacity;
  • literacy/information technology.

Highly informative in all these areas.

Nothing is perfect, though, and two things I would have liked to be included are:

  • a measure of levels of science and technological capacity;
  • more regions – not just “the West” (which Morris idiosyncratically defines as including the Middle East) and “the East” (actually Northeast Asia).

I have a couple of conceptual disagreements with Morris.

First, I am not sure that an index of social development (welcome as it is) will entirely do what Morris claims it can, namely resolve what Morris calls “the why-the-West-rules debate” – his term for the “rise of the West” debate. This is because the debate is not just about why the West “rules” (has more social power or more social development) but also about why the West pioneered all sorts of unusual arrangements. Why did the West have so many accomplishments, successes, and innovations in areas not directly about power?

Second, Morris says (here and in his previous book Why the West Rules–For Now) that social development was initially kick-started by the geography of the “lucky latitudes”: 20°-35° north in the Old World and 15° south to 20° north in the New World.


But note how the lucky latitudes vary so much between Old and New worlds. Note also that the two leading edges of social development (Morris’s “West” and “East) move northwards from the Middle East out of the lucky latitudes to Northwest Europe and Northeast Asia. The rise of the North or, in Morris-like terms, “why the North rules” is a major puzzle, yet there is no “why-the-North-rules debate”.

I am sure I will be returning to consult and learn from this book again.

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Primoridal, Perennial, Modern

Nationhood is in part primordial (deriving from attachments to group and homeland that evolved in prehistory); some nations are perennial (in that they arose in medieval times and have a long continuous existence); and nationalism is also modern in that it has spread like wildfire in modern times.

This is true of other things.

The system of states is primordial in as much as people have always been divided into separate groups; perennial in that there is a long continuity stretching from the medieval European multistate system to today’s; and modern in that it has been reshaped by the winds of modernity.

Civilizations are also in part primordial (arising from the divergent populations that evolved in prehistory), but also perennial (today’s civilizations arose in antiquity), but also modern (for modernity has brought great changes to all civilizations).

In these ways, prehistory matters, ancient history matters, and modern history matters.


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Fresh Thinking on World History

The prevailing idea of world history in the academy is nicely enumerated by Daniel Little. He lists six desiderata:

The first is to be vigilant about making Eurocentric assumptions about development and change. Whether in the domains of politics, economics, or culture, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that Europe set the model for developments in key areas of historical change.

“Eurocentrism” is indeed the primary foe of the fashionable world historian. But the problem with this is that the West did pioneer modernity, economic growth, science, and political democracy, among other things. The West was in many ways peculiar, and modern history is in large part Europe-centric. It is time to get over the antagonism towards “Eurocentrism” and towards the West.

A second is to expect variation rather than convergence. There are many ways that human societies have found to solve crucial problems of coordination, order, production, and the exercise of power. Global historians need to be alert to the development of alternative institutions of politics, economics, culture, or social cohesion in different locales. In particular, it is important to take note of divergences as well as parallels in the political and economic development of great civilizations like those of India, China, Southeast Asia, or West Africa.

Yes, there are some divergences among those non-Western civilizations. But this paragraph curiously omits to mention the West. The West has been the most divergent of all, the most peculiar. The greatest amount of variation in world history is not among those non-Western civilization, but between them and the West.

Third, it is important to avoid the conceptual schemes of nationalism and states. “France,” “Indonesia,” and “India” are places with diversity and internal variation, and they each followed distinct rhythms of consolidation as states and nations.  It is often more revealing to look to regions that cross the boundaries of existing states; we learn much by looking at the dynamics of change in regions that are smaller than nation-states.

No, I do not think that histories of particular nations and states should be avoided. This idea betrays a simple, and unsupported, anti-national bias.

Fourth, the way in which we consider historical time sometimes needs more critical reflection … world historians need to be open to considering temporality on a range of scales — from the months of the Terror to the decades of contention that preceded and followed the French Revolution, to the century and a half that separated the French Revolution from the Chinese Revolution.

I would add that even longer temporal scales that a century are sometimes illuminating. Why not consider scales of millennia too?

Fifth, the global impact of environmental factors needs to be given the emphasis it deserves. Climate change, exhaustion of woodlands, extension of mining and extraction — all these processes and factors influence human activity at a range of levels, and their impact needs to be assessed carefully on the basis of historical and physical data.

Environmental history certainly deserves some emphasis – but what it really deserves is a more careful assessment of just how significant it really is. Perhaps less important than currently thought.

Finally, world historians need to pay particular attention to the mechanisms of influence through which places exchanged cultural and economic material in the long centuries from the development of substantial Mediterranean trade in the ancient world to the shipping lanes of the contemporary world. Trade, the diffusion of ideas through cultural contact and migration, the effects of the book trade, the military logic of colonialism, the advent of organized long-distance communication and travel, the creation of international governance institutions — these mechanisms of social exchange constitute many of the pathways through which global integration occurs, and their dynamics are worthy of close attention by historians.

The study of inter-regional exchanges is one of the main subject-matters of contemporary world history. But possibly too much attention has been paid to this phenomenon. World historians have successfully shown that globalization and interdependence are long-running affairs, not just novelties of the present. It may be time to consider other topics as well.

Overall, Little’s is the voice of the satisfied status quo: the way things are among world historians is very close to the way he would like them to be. We need a voice for change. We need some fresh thinking.


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Polling Opinon on Immigration

Protests, demos and tumults are almost unknown in Singapore. But recently people there staged a demo. Their discontent was against immigration.

Turns out that in many countries immigration is not exactly popular. The opinon polling firm Ipsos has surveyed a range of countries. This is from their Global Advisor site:


In none of these countries does a majority think there are too few immigrants. Poland comes closest with a plurality of 41% saying it has too few.

There are plenty of countries in which a majority thinks there is too much immigration, including such non-Western places as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, and South Africa.

Why South Korea and Japan have such large contingents of “don’t knows” I myself do not know. Perhaps the issue is much less salient there.

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