Richard Reeves

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In 1982, Richard Nixon told me he thought that by the middle of this century the world would be dominated by Asians, primarily Chinese. He reminisced about a conversation with China's leader, Mao Zedong, in which Mao said 300 million Chinese would be willing to die for that goal -- and 300 million Americans would not.

Nixon was a gifted global analyst and a racist. During a two-hour conversation, he said a confrontation was coming -- probably economic rather than military -- and that "yellow" (his word) Asians were simply genetically superior to Caucasians. The job of a Western leader, he continued, was to hold off that confrontation for as long as possible.

Almost 30 years later, a new book, a fascinating book, "Why the West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future" by Ian Morris, a professor at Stanford University, tends to push that deadline back about 50 years to 2103.

Morris creates a Social Development Scale that produces a graph showing that the West has effectively ruled the world since it turned to science in the 15th or 16th century and solidified that rule with the discovery and development of fossil fuels in the mid-17th century. After that, basically until now, Europeans and Americans were free to roam the world in coal- and steam-powered ships capable of blasting away the essentially medieval defenses of places like Shanghai and Tokyo.

But now, if current trends continue (they could speed up), the "East" line will cross and pass the "West" in 2103.

There was, as Morris emphasizes, nothing preordained about Western dominance. After all, he argues, the East, Orientals and Arabs, dominated the world from about the mid-sixth century to the 12th and beyond. What if the Chinese had discovered coal or the Arabs had found their oil first? But that did not happen.

So? Morris quotes a Malaysian lawyer: "I am wearing your clothes. I speak your language. I watch your films. And today is whatever date it is because you say so."

I cannot explain everything about Morris' Social Development Scale any more than I can football's BCS system, but the overall theory is that the curve represents a group's ability to master its physical and intellectual environment. Here is what they need, according to Morris:

"Energy capture" -- the ability to turn coal into steam powering ships and trains;

"Urbanism" -- the ability to organize complex environments;

"Information processing" -- figuring things out;

"Capacity to make war" -- basically the ability to get what you want from people who don't want to give it to you.

That last is obvious, I suppose. But Morris does point out that whereas we, the West, dominated with gunpowder and the internal combustion engine, future conquerors might use robotic or cyber weaponry.

This is a long and complex book, but it ends with something any Westerner should understand. The author makes the point that we misquote or underquote Rudyard Kipling. Here is what he wrote:

"East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, ...

"But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

"When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth."

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