To Govern the Globe: World Orders & Catastrophic Change by Alfred W. McCoy

Review by Brian Tanguay

What factors contribute to the rise and fall of empires, and what characteristics distinguish an empire from a world order? In To Govern the Globe, American historian Alfred W. McCoy seeks to answer these questions by surveying seven hundred years of human history, from 1347 when the Black Death reached Europe and wiped out 60 percent of the population, to 2021 when the United States withdrew its military forces from Afghanistan, ending its longest war. In between these events, global hegemony passed from Spain and Portugal to Britain and then to the United States. McCoy sheds light on how these world orders came to be as well as what brought about their decline. 

Alfred W. McCoy holds the Harrington Chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of numerous books including The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, and In the Shadow of the American Century. Distilling seven hundred years of history into a work of less than four hundred pages is an audacious undertaking, but McCoy delivers a coherent and very readable framing. His thesis, that empires are ephemeral while world orders are more lasting, is illustrated with maps, graphs, photographs, and a helpful chronology. By comparing and contrasting, McCoy shows why Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, created an empire but failed to establish a world order dominated by France, while Britain, through a combination of informal control, direct colonial rule, and a potent navy, exercised dominion over half of all humanity by the mid twentieth-century.

Empires require a source of energy and this is where McCoy brings climate change into his analysis. At the outset of the Iberian Age, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 275 parts per million. The key commodities of the Iberian Age were sugar and silver. Wind powered Spain and Portugal’s sailing ships, but it was muscle power extracted from conquered, captured and enslaved people that produced the sugar cane and dug the silver from the ground. By 1880, decades after Britain had outlawed the slave trade, defeated Napoleon, and begun to directly rule the Indian subcontinent, the “preindustrial” baseline of carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million. The British order ran on steam power generated from burning coal. Britain had a remarkable run at the top of the world heap, but the heavy costs of World War Two left Britain weary and vulnerable, and its mishandling of the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 signaled the end. The torch passed to the United States. Oil and natural gas supplanted coal as main energy sources. By 1958, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere measured 316 parts per million.  

The American world order has endured for more than seventy-five years. Its prevailing ethos, at least ostensibly, has been state sovereignty, human rights, and the rule of law facilitated by multinational frameworks, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and NATO. But the US also sought to maintain military superiority over its rivals and many of the benevolent ideals it espoused were belied by CIA-sponsored or instigated coups, proxy wars in Southeast Asia, Latin and South America, and the Middle East, and a series of direct military interventions. Washington’s words and deeds stood often in stark contradiction. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the US ruled supreme and seemed destined to maintain that lofty perch for decades to come. But then came 9/11 and the War on Terror, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. While Washington became mired in costly, unwinnable wars, China became the world’s factory and began capturing a growing share of the global economic pie. So rapid and relentless was China’s ascent that by 2013 it had launched its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to develop infrastructure in Eurasia, with the intention of tying this potentially massive market to China. China’s furious industrial development also had a significant climate impact, and not only within China. 

Cracks in the American order appeared several years before Donald J. Trump entered the White House in 2017, but Trump’s misguided go-it-alone, America First policies accelerated the weakening of American leadership. In Trump’s reckoning, the international frameworks so carefully constructed and nurtured over decades was indicative of American weakness, not strength. Trump criticized NATO, withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accords, scuttled the Iran nuclear agreement, and attacked the World Health Organization. As if that wasn’t enough, Trump derided traditional allies and embraced authoritarian figures from Egypt to India. These diplomatic blunders created an opening for China to exploit. Based on his analysis of Beijing’s actions, McCoy predicts that by 2030 China’s economic output will exceed that of the US by a whopping forty percent. If this proves accurate, and if China continues to augment its military power, in particular its naval power, the US will be hard-pressed to maintain the global network of military bases that is critical to US hegemony. Ever increasing military spending isn’t compatible with a decreasing share of the world economy; something will have to give.  

The decline of the American world order carries consequences. For all its contradictions and shortcomings, hubris and missteps, the American order has been marked by liberalism, open markets, international law, and alliances. McCoy believes that a world order led by China might be illiberal and possibly even more reluctant to lead on climate change than Washington. If carbon dioxide levels continue to rise as predicted, we could see measurements as high as 550 parts per million by 2050, with sea level surges that might imperil Shanghai, Saigon, Mumbai, and Bangkok, unleashing a torrent of refugees numbering in the hundreds of millions. McCoy cites a World Bank report published in 2018 that estimated that as many as 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be displaced by 2050. How will the world deal with a refugee crisis of such magnitude? 

McCoy is humble enough to acknowledge the pitfalls of predicting the future, particularly with cataclysmic climate change in the mix. But it seems reasonable to conclude that if we are to survive sea level rise, extreme weather events, and a massive tide of displaced people, more global cooperation will be needed, not less. McCoy’s argument is meticulously footnoted and his sobering conclusions appear firmly grounded in data. The past may not be the best predictor of the future, but as McCoy notes, “the past remains our best means of understanding the present and our only viable guide to the future.”