The Spoils of a Single-Minded Focus on War
Between 1492 and 1914, Europeans conquered 84 percent of the globe, establishing colonies and spreading their influence across every inhabited continent. This was not inevitable. In fact, for decades, historians, social scientists, and biologists have wondered: Why and how did Europe rise to the top, even when societies in Asia and the Middle East were far more advanced?
So far, satisfactory answers have been elusive. But this question is of the utmost importance given that Europe’s power determined everything from who ran the slave trade to who grew rich or remained mired in poverty.
One might think the reasons for Europe’s dominance obvious: the Europeans were the first to industrialize, and they were immune to the diseases, such as smallpox, that devastated indigenous populations. But the latter reason alone cannot explain the conquest of the Americas, since many young Native American warriors survived the epidemics. And it fails to explain Europe’s colonization of India, since the Indians had similar immunity. Industrialization also falls short as an explanation: the Europeans had taken control of more than 35 percent of the planet even before they began to industrialize. Of course, the lead Europeans took in developing the technology of guns, armed ships, and fortifications was critical. But all the other major civilizations in Asia had the same gunpowder technology, and many of them also fought with guns.
So what did contribute to Europe’s success? Mostly, it derived from the incentives that political leaders faced in Europe—incentives that drove them not just to make war, but also to spend huge sums on it. Yes, the European monarchs built palaces, but even the huge Chateau at Versailles cost King Louis XIV less than two percent of his tax revenue. The rest went to fighting wars. He and the other kings in Europe had been raised since childhood to pursue glory on the battlefield, yet they bore none of the costs involved—not even the risk of losing their thrones after a defeat. Leaders elsewhere faced radically different incentives,, which kept many of them militarily weak. In China, for example, emperors were encouraged to keep taxes low and to attend to people’s livelihoods rather than to pursue the sort of military glory that obsessed European kings.