"Why the West Rules - For Now" by Ian Morris (2010)
"An all-out East-West war would, of course, be catastrophic. For China it would be suicidal: the United States outnumbers it twenty to one in nuclear warheads and perhaps a hundred to one in warheads that can be relied upon to reach enemy territory. China tested an antimissile missile in January 2010, but lags far behind American capabilities. The United States has eleven aircraft carrier battle groups to China's zero (although China began building its first aircraft carrier in 2009)* and an insurmountable lead in military technology. The United States could not, and would not want to, conquer and occupy China, but almost any imaginable war would end with humiliating defeat for China, the fall of the Communist party, and perhaps the country's breakup."
Author Ian Morris is a Professor at Stanford University, specializing in (Western) History, Archaeology, and the Classics. He was born in the UK, and has written three other books.
The Good: As a survey of world history this book isn't terrible, but it does leave A LOT out, and tends to oversimplify historic episodes that are critical to its thesis. The Opium War, for example. Or the development of various methods of government in post-WWI China. At times the author's lack of knowledge with regard to his ill-defined "Eastern core" is glaring, but he does a decent job of presenting major world events in chronological order.
The Bad: When the author writes about the West (or, in his terminology, "Western core") and the East (the Eastern core), what is he writing about, exactly? As he would have it, the Western core developed from an agricultural heartland referred to as the Hilly Flanks, while the Eastern core developed from an agricultural base between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers.
But what about India? And what about the incomplete nature of the archaeological record, and the fact that the West has been so much more thoroughly excavated than the East? What about the fact that sites within the Fertile Crescent would tend to be better preserved than those in the East, an area which presently nurtures large populations and has a much shorter history of archaeological survey?
I'd have to say that India was what really stuck in my craw the whole time I was reading this book, especially given the fact that India's population is poised to overtake China's in the near future. How do you write a book like this and manage to overlook an entire subcontinent?
And then of course there is the question of what it means "to rule." Is it really just a question of having a higher standard of living? Is it the number of territories you control? The worldwide popularity of your culture, and the ideas it produces? If we are to take the title of this book is its central thesis, from the very beginning it fails to explain what it is setting out to prove: in short, what it means to rule, and why such a quality of rulership is desirable.
The Ugly: As a guide to current and future events, this book is a disaster. It says almost nothing about the current state of East-West relations, and the author hedges his bets so much with regard to predictions that this book just about makes itself irrelevant. All of the praise for this book - located conveniently inside its front cover - was either written by people whom the author has praised (and sited) in the book itself, or by those who haven't bothered to read it straight through.
But you need not only take my word for it. You can read Ricardo Duchesne's great interview of it here.
*In case you somehow missed the news, that creaky, Soviet-designed Chinese aircraft carrier is now operational.
On a side note, this book reminded me why my study of History stopped at the undergraduate level. As a work of scholarship this book is dismal. I'm sure that Professor Morris has failed students for work that was both more rigorous and more thought-provoking than this steaming pile of crap.