Concepts exist to organise and explain the world, but they often disintegrate in the face of reality. Take the bombings in Boston: we’ve talked abstractly about “globalisation” for 30 years, but events like this show just how viciously complicated a globalised world can be. Tracing Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s toxic resentments sends us careening from Chechnya’s conflicts with Russia, to the opaque interplay between fundamentalism and a liberal society, and then abruptly off the grid into radicalised digital media. What concept could possibly help us follow this dizzying path? Certainly, ideas like Tom Friedman’s “flat earth” and “super-empowered individual” appear less than satisfying explanations of the world we now inhabit.
David Armitage’s Foundations of Modern International Thought might not seem, at first glance, to have much to say about these problems: it’s an academic book about a developing field and it makes no immediate claims for its own relevance. But Armitage’s approach is both groundbreaking as history and relevant to our collective situation, because what he’s engaged in is the historian’s project at its most ambitious and rewarding. He is trying to change the way we think about our world by going backwards—to the origins of globalisation—and showing how much we’ve forgotten since.
Armitage’s focus is the period 1650 to 1800, when the modern world was beginning to take shape. Early capitalism and primitive technology were just taking off: in 1650, war was the means to continental dominance, whereas by 1800 every smart observer knew that only states with powerful international economies could generate the public confidence, and thus the necessary loans, to fund powerful armies in the first place. It was also the period in which North and South America were discovered, depopulated and then repopulated, and parts of Asia colonised: in 1650, only Spain could be called a world empire, while a century and a half later Britain and France had fought three transcontinental wars over their colonial possessions and were in the midst of a fourth. Most importantly for Armitage’s purposes, sovereign states of the kind most of us live in today stabilised and democratised: in 1650, France and England were consolidating under absolute monarchs or dictators, whereas by 1800 England and America enjoyed representative…