*This might sound like a biased statement but I can’t help but declare that western civilization is in charge of the world right now.
Perhaps it wasn’t always that way, perhaps some would argue that different region of the world is on top, perhaps someone with a conspiracy theory would say that it’s really just these dozen dudes, but I don’t want to get bogged down in that point.
Because assuming that western civilization, that I define as being led by a few countries in Western Europe and their favorite son the United States of America, is in charge of the world means that it is important to understand how and why this reality came to be.
The simple answer is geography. The slightly more complex answer is a lack of natural resources that forced certain behaviors.
The basic story of civilization is that people band together to pool resources and strengthen security. Of course the first of these goals (pooling resources) increases the likelihood that you’ll need to accomplish the second goal because your society becomes a target for others to attack once they see how prosperous you are. This is especially true when natural resources that are considered valuable are scarce.
Western Europe is geographically situated in such a way that there are no threats coming from its western border because that border is an ocean. To the north are some societies that were once competitive but ultimately waned because their geography gave them a much smaller margin for error. It’s easier to survive mistakes in the lower temperate zone than it is in the upper temperate to frigid zone. To the east are other civilizations but that have the disadvantage of being centrally located and therefore must face threats from all sides. And to the south is another major body of water. Consequently Western Europe was spared the same pressure of invasion and being taken over.
In addition Western Europe is not the largest region of the world which meant that while there were relatively fewer invasions from outside the region, there was lots of warring within the region. This fact is that much more important with regard to the relative scarcity of valuable resources. With little space and competition over resources Western Europeans honed their military, and to a lesser extent, their diplomatic skills. So when Western European countries encountered those from outside of that region they consistently triumphed with the exception of Asian conflicts and that was because of the basic numbers. Throughout the late Middle Ages European countries explored the world looking for new natural resources as a way to gain a leg up on their neighbors. When they encountered other civilizations they were able gain the upper hand because of superior weaponry (thanks to their militaristic history dictating that they advance their weaponry as much as possible). Then throughout the 19th century as industrialization became more central to society, coal (one mineral that multiple western European countries count as a natural resource) became the method of fueling the new way of life thus cementing their lead over countries in other parts of the world. As globalization became more and more a reality (19th – 20th centuries) western European countries doubled down on their advantages and maintained control of the world through diplomacy and military supremacy.
The United States is not geographically part of western Europe of course but it was founded by those with a western European heritage and took part in the same practices. In fact the geographic isolation that allowed western Europe an advantage in global competition initially is the same reason that the United States is currently on top. Through two world wars the United States was able to participate with little threat of its homeland being invaded and destroyed. Voila – after the second conflict while everyone else is rebuilding, America takes the driver’s seat.
This is not meant to disparage western civilization at all. It’s not their fault that the countries of western Europe understood competition better than those in other parts of the world. But let’s not pretend that it was their embrace of free markets, democracy, or Christianity (all reasons I’ve heard in trying to explain why western civilization conquered other parts of the world where those things are absent to a degree).
It was kill or be killed; they knew it; and they killed.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.