GLOBALIZATION IN HISTORICAL
THE LEAD ECONOMY SEQUENCE IN WORLD POLITICS
(FROM SUNG CHINA TO THE UNITED STATES):
William R. Thompson
How we make sense of world politics and episodes of accelerated globalization
depend on our historical scripts. Validating one person's historical script ver-
sus someone else's is a highly problematic exercise. Counterfactuals, however,
can be utilized to at least suggest or reinforce the asserted significance
of different versions of political-economic history. A series of eight counterfac-
tuals encompassing the past 1000 years are harnessed to buttress the utility of
framing the development of the modern world economy around a chain of lead
economies and system leaders extending back to Sung China and forward to
the United States.
Keywords: counterfactual, lead economy, alternative history, transition.
Counterfactual analysis is credited with various types of utility (Chamberlain 1986; Fer-guson 1997a; Tetlock and Belkin 1996; Weber 1996; Parker and Tetlock 2006; Tetlock and Parker 2006; Levy 2008; Lebow 2010). For some, alternative history is entertaining. For others, it represents a challenge to conventional notions about causality. Some users believe that they can test theories with counterfactuals. Still others find their utility in probing future possibilities. I wish to employ a sequence of counterfactuals for another purpose altogether. Historical scripts in international politics that provide political-economic infrastructures for charting political and economic globalization vary consi-derably. It is not so much a matter of disagreeing about what happened in the past as it is one of disagreeing about which past events were most significant to an understanding of international relations processes. Ultimately, there may be no way to convert analysts from one historical script to another. Appreciation of what is most significant in history tends to be a highly subjective undertaking. Quite often, it seems to hinge on what sort of history we were taught in grade school. Declaring that one historical script is superior to another, then, can resemble attempting to communicate with hearing-impaired indi-viduals. There are simply too many cognitive roadblocks to overcome.
It would be highly desirable if we could put historical scripts to empirical test just as we do rival theories. But we cannot. However, there may be at least one approach to Journal of Globalization Studies, Vol. 1 No. 1, May 2010 6–28
Thompson • The Lead Economy Sequence in World Politics 7
indirect testing. If a historical script has a definite starting point and important possible turning points along the way, one way to assess the value of such a story is to impose counterfactuals on the important milestones in the chronology. If the counterfactuals stay within the rules of minimal revisions and they suggest that vastly different realities could have emerged with small twists, it does not confirm the significance of the histori-cal script. But it should be regarded as at least reinforcing the script. If counterfactuals lead to alternative realities that do not differ all that much, one would have to be a bit suspicious that the chosen turning points were all that significant in the first place.
Accordingly, I develop or harness other people's alternative scenarios for eight sig-nificant points in a sequence of systemic leadership and lead economies that have driven globalization processes for almost a thousand years. Beginning in Sung China of thththe 11–12 century and traversing Genoa, Venice, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States, the claim is that each actor (or at least most of the actors) in suc-cession played an unusually critical role in creating a structure of leadership that became increasingly global in scope across time. Along the way, a number of wars also per-formed roles as catalytic opportunities for the emergence of renewed leadership. Who won and lost these wars provides the basic fulcrum for developing counterfactual under-standings of what was at stake. If things had worked out differently, markedly different structures of world politics and globalization possibilities would have been developed. In that sense, it can be claimed that the significance of what did occur, the armature of the economic leadership historical script, has been reinforced, albeit indirectly. Counterfactuals and Historical Scripts
1Counterfactuals are said to possess a bad flavor in history circles. They are often dis-
missed as without value or worse. But historians have their own problems and we need not dwell on their intra-disciplinary disputes. Social scientists have not quite fully em-braced counterfactuals either. The two main reasons for this recalcitrance appear to be their implications for causality presumptions and their ultimate utility. Causally-speaking counterfactuals have some potential to be upsetting. We proceed on the basis of X ‘causing’ Y. When someone comes along and suggests that the Y outcome may have hinged on some minor flap of ‘butterfly wings’ or that, at best, X might have led to a half dozen different and equally plausible Y outcomes, the foundation of positivist so-cial science is seemingly threatened.
An extreme case is Williamson Murray's (2000) very brief Churchill counterfactual. In 1931 a New York City cab driver collided with Winston Churchill on a street corner and injured him. Murray goes on to suggest that if Churchill had been killed in the acci-dent that a strategically beleaguered Britain would have surrendered in 1940, turned over their fleet to the Germans who, in turn, would have conquered Europe by 1947 and gone on to fight the U.S. forces in South America. Just how these events would have come about are not explicated in the Murray scenario. But the overarching assumption is that one man stood in the way of a European victory by the Germans. Remove the one man 2and all is lost – or won, depending on one's perspective.
There is a simple theory of the Great Man lurking in this tale. We do not usually base our social science theories on singular individuals. The 1945 outcome is most usually explained, most briefly, by the observation that the winning side had access to
Journal of Globalization Studies 2010 • May 8
a great deal more material resources than the losing side. In retrospect, if not inevitable, the Allied victory was highly probable based on this asymmetry of power. To be told that much of that asymmetry made little difference and that it all hinged on a taxi driv-er's error a decade or so earlier is downright irritating, if not disturbing. So, not only do counterfactuals complicate our ability to test theories by requiring potentially the con-struction of many possible rival hypotheses (what if Roosevelt, Stalin, or Eisenhower had died, Rommel been triumphant in the North African desert, or Hitler had been more successful as an artist?) that would be exceedingly difficult to test, they also undermine the possibility of reasonably parsimonious theory construction. World War II engaged many millions of people quite directly. The presence or absence of just how many dif-ferent individuals might have made some difference? Since most of our theories exclude specific personalities, how are we to proceed? If counterfactuals such as Murray's were the rule, we could literally paralyze ourselves attempting to cope with their analytical implications. Not surprisingly, the easiest solution is to simply evade counterfactuals altogether.
There is, however, at least one way in which counterfactuals might play a useful role in the study of world politics. Analysts of world politics (and globalization) share no common understanding of the history of their subject matter. I do not mean to suggest that there is disagreement about whether a World War I occurred. Rather, there is an extensive disagreement about what time periods matter for developing a theoretical understanding of international relations. For the hardest-core realist, historical time pe-riods are not all that critical. Any should do equally well because nothing much has changed. Liberals focus on integrating tendencies toward greater interdependence and ththus are apt to start with the late 19 century globalization upsurge, even though earlier
globalization upsurges are readily discernible. Others dispute the value of 1494, 1648, 1815, or 1945 starting points for ‘modernity’ in international relations. thA late 15 century starting point keys on the French drive into Italy as an act usher-ing in a period of increasing Western European systemness thanks, in part to the Spanish resistance and the long Habsburg-Valois feud that became a regional armature of con-thflict for the next century and a half. A mid-16 century starting point emphasizes a lega-
listic transition from empires to states as the central actor of international politics. The post-Napoleonic 1815 is usually meant to capture the significance of emergent in-dustrialization for altering the fundamental nature of international relations – or, if not
its nature at least its form. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 is a sa-lient turning point for some who stress the distinctions between nuclear and pre-nuclear 3international politics.
The adherence to multiple starting points need not matter much. Yet it seems to do so. Analysts who start at different points in time tend to adopt vastly different perspectives on what world politics is about. No doubt, there is more to these disagreements than simply different preferences for starting points. But the fact that analysts have much dif-ferent historical scripts underlying their analyses seems less than coincidental. The Lead Economy Sequence (Sung China to the United States)
There are, to be sure, non-trivial reasons for initiating one's international relations histor-ical script at one point or another. Nuclear weapons, industrial revolutions, and system-
Thompson • The Lead Economy Sequence in World Politics 9
ness are not to be treated lightly. But another way of looking at these more recent points is that they are simply that – more recent transition points – in a longer term process that
changed fundamentally a millennium ago. Weapon innovations, industrial productivity, and systemness are also related to the earlier transition point. The argument is not that the earlier transition point is necessarily more significant than more recent ones. Rather, the point is that the nature of world politics underwent a fundamental change 1000 years that turned out to have rather major structural implications for world politics. None of the more recent transition points have eliminated the significance of the earlier point. They are, on the contrary, under-recognized by-products of the earlier fundamental tran-sition in systemic processes.
What happened a thousand years ago to transform the basic nature of world politics? The Chinese, ruled by the Sung Dynasty, created the first ‘modern’ economy, characte-
rized by monetarization and paper money, extensive commercial transactions on land, via canals/rivers, and on sea, maritime technology that involved multi-masted junks guided by advanced navigation skills unlike anything known elsewhere, unprecedented iron production fueled by military demand, and the development of gunpowder weapo-nry. Without going into the details of economic innovation, the Sung appear to have been the first land-based state to transcend the limitations of agrarian economies via rad-ical innovations in a host of economic activities ranging from agriculture through manu-facturing to energy and transportation. In this respect, China, roughly a thousand years 4ago, deserves the appellation of the first modern economy.
While this breakthrough has major implications for economic development, what does it matter for world politics? The answer is that it is the origin of a sequential process in which a lead economy emerges as the primary source for radical economic innovations that drive productivity, transportation, and commerce. Earlier states had ma-naged to monopolize various types of innovation before but there was no continuity to the process. Innovations were both less radical in general and more isolated in time and space. What took place in Sung China initiated a process that can be traced through the next millennium and is still very much with us in even more developed and complex form. th thGiven its considerable economic lead in about the 11– 12 century, Sung China
might have been expected to inaugurate movement toward an increasingly Sinocentric world system. It did not. In contrast to the image that we now possess of continuity in Chinese imperial predominance in East Asia, the Sung accomplished many of their breakthroughs in a competitive and threatening East Asian multipolar system. That East Asia contained multiple powerful actors a millennium ago may have contributed to the Sung economic breakthrough in transcending agrarian constraints. Military threat cer-tainly encouraged iron production for armor and weapons and gunpowder applications. The inability to trade overland due to the hostility of neighbors may well have encour-aged maritime developments. Yet this same threatening environment proved to be over-whelming. The Sung first lost North China with its ore and saltpeter deposits that were critical to iron and gunpowder production to the Manchurian Jurchens. South China was theventually overrun by Mongols in the 13 century.
The East Asian threat environment and outcomes in combat between the Chinese and their rivals set back the early Chinese lead in economic productivity and military
Journal of Globalization Studies 2010 • May 10
innovation. It did not extinguish the innovations altogether but it did accelerate their dif-fusion in a western direction. Mongol armies co-opted gunpowder and Chinese engi-neers and spread the military innovations throughout Eurasia. The success of Mongol imperial domination created an opportunity for some Europeans (Venice and Genoa for the most part) to control the western ends of increased Eurasian east-west trade. Accom-panying this increased trade were a number of ideas about technological innovation in maritime commerce and manufacturing that helped stimulate subsequent navigational and industrial revolutions in the Mediterranean and in western Europe. The technical ability to escape the Mediterranean and sail around the world was further encouraged in various ways by the indirectly Mongol-induced Black Death, the demise of the Mongol empire, and increasing problems in engaging in trade on land in Eurasia in the absence of a singular imperial regime. Portugal was encouraged ultimately to stumble into the Indian Ocean as a means of breaking the Venetian-Mamluk maritime monopoly on 5Asian spices coming into European markets.
Venetian, Genoese, and Portuguese innovations in developing maritime commercial networks and infrastructure (boats, bases, and governmental regulation) were impressive but were based on limited resource bases. The political implications of a sequence of lead economies took on a more overt appearance as the sequential lead moved on to the thth thth17 century Dutch, the 18– 19 century British, and the 20 century United States.
Perhaps the most overt consequences were in the outcomes of repeated attempts to take over the European region. The lead economies by no means stopped single-handedly the ambitions of the Spanish, the French, and the Germans through 1945. But they were cer-tainly significant as coalition organizers/subsidizers/strategic leaders, concentrations of economic wealth, conduits for extra-European resources, and developers of tactical and weaponry innovations in the military sphere. Without the lead economies, markedly dif-th thth thferent outcomes in the warfare of the later 16– early 17, later 17– early 18, later th thth18– early 19 and the first half of the 20 centuries are not difficult to imagine. It does
not seem an exaggeration to state that our most basic understanding of the ‘reality’ of
world politics owes a great deal to the lead economy sequence that began to emerge in Sung China a millennium ago.
A corollary of this generalization is that the 1494, 1815, and 1945 transition points were dependent to varying degrees on the Sung breakthrough. The movement of the French into Italy in the 1490s reflected the general deterioration of the late-medieval Italian lead over the rest of Europe thanks in part to Italian city-state control of the west-ern distribution of Eurasian east-west trade. That is, the French moved into a decaying thItalian city-state subsystem and not when it was still thriving earlier in the 15 century.
The British-led Industrial Revolution, culminating in a number of production break-ththroughs in iron and textiles in the late 18 century and on was dependent on informa-
tion developed earlier on the other end of the Eurasian continent. Such a statement does not imply that the European industrial revolution could not have occurred in the absence of earlier Chinese developments – only that it did not have to do so. The 1945 revolution in military technology embodied in nuclear weapons, of course, was also a resultant of the interaction of the earlier gunpowder revolution and the later industrial revolution.
A case can therefore be made for strong linkages among contemporary (read ‘mod-
ern’) world politics, economic development, and military weaponry that can be traced
Thompson • The Lead Economy Sequence in World Politics 11
ththback to Sung China in the 11 and 12 centuries. Where do counterfactuals fit into this
bigger picture? Basically, they reinforce the importance of this interpretation of the his-tory of world political economy while, at the same time, emphasizing the fragility of historical contingencies. But even the fragility underscores the significance of a histori-cal understanding of the continuing evolution of world politics. Contemplating what might have been gives us all the more reason to pay attention to what did transpire. A third value of counterfactuals is that they help to defeat the deterministic complaint so often levied against systemic interpretations. Things did not have to work out the way 6they did. A variety of other, alternative trajectories are conceivable. Yet the plausibility
of alternative realities does not detract from the fundamental fact that a historical trajec-tory or path was traveled that was critical to both the development of world political sys-temness and some of its most important structural features.
Eight counterfactuals follow. Others are imaginable. Indeed, the potential number of alternative turns are rather numerous, if not infinite. But the eight that have been devel-oped place maximum attention on the Sung to United States historical script and its possible twists at most of the major potential turning points. Note that each successive counterfactual is rendered less likely if preceding counterfactuals had actually materia-lized to alter the future.
Counterfactual no. 1: The Sung did not need to have lost North China to the Jur-
chen steppe warriors (see, for instance, Yates 2006). They had allied with the Jurchen initially to defeat a mutual enemy, the Kitan empire, later called Liao. In the process, the Jurchen realized how vulnerable Sung areas were to attack and, after Liao was defeated, turned to raiding their former allies. The initial goal was t