Meaning of Geography Decides the Fates of Nations


By Li Shen

Looking back to that pattern, the obvious outcome is that there will be a war between China and the United States for global dominance.

Why is the West dominant now, and how long will its dominance last? Will China become the next center of the world peacefully? Stanford historian Ian Morris answers these questions in an exclusive interview with

Why do you think that geography explains why the West is currently dominant? And what’s the relationship between geography and social development?

MorrisI come to this conclusion from looking back to the long-term history of the world, realizing that the same kind of pattern kept coming up again and again through time. There are three forces driving history forward.

The biggest one is biology. Modern human beings evolved about 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. We have got great big brains with which we can look at problems and change the ways we behave. We are always looking for new ways to do things, ways to make us rich, or ways to make our lives easier.

The second force is sociology, the way that we organize our societies. We’ve gone through hunting and gathering to farming, and then to the industrial revolution, during which our pattern of getting energy has developed from wild plants [and] animals to domesticated animals and plants, and then to fossil fuels. I am sure there will be more revolutions in this field in the near future. The above two forces apply to human beings everywhere.

But the third force – geography – makes differences between societies. On one hand, it determines how the societies develop. On the other hand, the way the society develops changes what the geography means. For example, Great Britain, where I grew up, is sticking out in the Atlantic Ocean. Through most of history, this was a big geographic disadvantage, because the Atlantic is too big for people to cross it safely. But starting about 600 years ago, social development reached a level where you can across the Atlantic Ocean, and all of sudden, the ocean stopped being a barrier, but became a kind of highway linking the British and the rest of the world. Around 1500, development in west Europe was much lower than that of China. But by 1800, Europe had caught up with China. I think it’s all driven by geography changing its meaning.

In fact, the idea of a single dominating global power is going to get less and less powerful as the 21st century goes on.

You’ve said that the West’s domination may not last much longer. What makes you think this, since geography will not change a lot in the long-term future

M: We are living through a time of fast changes in the world that we have never seen before. The physical geography stays the same, but the meaning of geography is changing a lot. For example, I came here yesterday after an 11-hour flight from San Francisco to Beijing. But if I came here about a hundred years ago, I had to board a ship, and it took me several weeks to arrive in Tianjin. I would [have] thought that eleven hours in a plane was magic. It does not matter where you live in a world that is tightly connected by the communication network.

At present, we can predict that eastern development will catch up with western development through the social development index by the end of the 21st century. Maybe a hundred years from now, this actually will not matter very much. The East and the West will not mean anything anymore, because we will all live in a big well-connected world.

In your opinion, who will be the world leader in future, the East or the West? Or will our world become multi-polarized? Do you believe that a “Thucydides Trap” will occur between China and the United States?

M: As a historian, I like to see things by looking back: what did the pattern look like and how was it working before? We had a pretty clear pattern before the Industrial Revolution – the world was very multi-polarized. We had Germany and France dominating Western Europe and colonizing America, India in South Asia, and China in East Asia. And then the first country which had the Industrial Revolution – Great Britain – was able to project its power across the whole planet.

Suddenly, everything began to join together as one dominating power. And then western countries fought with each other to control the system, and it ended up that the United States came to the top.

Looking back to that pattern, the obvious outcome is that there will be a war between China and the United States for global dominance. But you’ve also learned from the past that this pattern is always changing. The world we live in now is very different from the one it has ever been before. We all know that a war between the U.S. and China will kill everybody and make everybody lose. Therefore, I do not think that war or a “Thucydides Trap” is going to happen.

The presidents of China and the U.S. announced new agreements at the just-concluded APEC summit. It’s proof that both sides are learning to manage the way to do things much better. Quite a lot of people are concerned about the ways that military and diplomatic disputes will be handled to make sure that there is not misunderstanding between the two countries. We will see more and more of that in future.

In fact, the idea of a single dominating global power is going to get less and less powerful as the 21st century goes on. More and more problems we are facing are global problems. And the old fashioned nation states can solve local problems, but they are not so good at dealing with global problems. We are going towards [a situation in which] there will be more and more decision-making outside of the framework of nation states.