Reversal of fortunes

The Central Asian World System


Reversal of fortunes
by Khodadad Rezakhani

Five hundred years ago, global warming helped create an economic down turn in West and Central Asia and facilitated the European economic rise. Today, might we have a case of reverse fortunes, allowing West and Central Asia to get back to where it was before? Andre Gunder Frank and many other economic historians have told us about “ReOrient”ing to China, and that while the Chinese economy has suffered 500 years of recession, it is only natural for it to make a come back and start dominating the world again. But can the same be said for the Near East?

Let me explain. Until roughly 1500 AD, Europe was an economic backwater. Low agricultural production, almost a complete lack of natural resources, and its geographical position - squeezed to the far west of the Eurasian landmass - meant that Europe was left out of the "World System" dominated by China and with major players in West, Central and South Asia. Worse yet, the trade that was creating and running this world system was also avoiding Europe, as there was nothing that the Europeans had that was valuable to the Asian world system.

On the other hand, agricultural prosperity, sufficient human capital, and a presence of wealth in West and Central Asia had allowed it to be a player in the same world system. Gold and Silver were mined in this region and were shipped to China to pay for the trade deficit these regions had with China -- the major industrial power. Other natural resources as well as some manufactures also helped balance the trade with China, and to a lesser extent India. The trade over the Indian Ocean was conducted by the traders from West and South Asia and so allowed these regions, which where often under the control of the Central and West Asian empires (Iran and the Ottoman Empire) to help the trade balance.

However, a series of incidents completely changed this world system and allowed for the emergence of what we know as "The Modern World System" (to quote Wallerstein's title). These were manifold. First of all, a general trend in global warming around 1200-1400 AD meant that the cold climate of Europe was made warmer, allowing for the utilization of more land to the east and north of Europe (hence European migrations to the east and Christianization of Slavic lands). This meant that the European agriculture was becoming efficient.

At the same time, a disaster like the Black Death killed 1/3 of the European population. As bad as that was, it meant that over-crowded Europe was now having a balance of population. Along with the agricultural prosperity, this meant that for the first time in its history, Europe could easily feed itself and even allow people to get away from agriculture (up to then, 90 per-cent of European population lived directly off the land). This then brought about the rise in other occupations, including scientific endeavours, exploration, and art.

At the same time, the same global climate changes caused drought, desertification, and a serious crash in the agricultural prosperity of West and Central Asia (where previously an agricultural revolution had ushered in a "golden age"). The Mongol Empire and its positive effects on the Asian economy (essentially eliminating trade taxes) had also been fragmented by this time, causing a break in the smooth trans-Asian trade (this might be too simplified, but in a way it follows Janet Abu Lughod’s idea about a pre-Modern world-system). As opposed to the case in Europe, West Asia was slowly losing its grip on trade and exchange and had to devote more human capital to the agricultural segment of its economy in order to be able to feed its population.

Simultaneously, the increased European activities resulted in an age of exploration. A major outcome of this age was the discovery of the Americas, particularly the silver mines of south America (remember Argentina?). This meant that the Europeans now had access to almost unlimited amounts of silver. Silver, at the same time, was the currency of China which had decided to replace its devalued paper and copper money with the valuable silver currency (see Kenneth Pomeranz' "The World that Trade Created"). This also meant that Europe now had access to something it previously did not have: the Asian World System. Whereas previously Europeans had nothing to fill their trade deficit with China (and thus could not get into the Chinese dominated Asian system), they now could pay for their deficit, not by manufactures or equal trade (as was the norm), but with cash: silver.

In this way, the fortunes of the West and Central Asia were changed. The empires ruling over these regions tried hard to create strategic alliances (with the Portuguese or the Dutch or eventually the British) in order to ensure their continued presence in the World System, but they were unsuccessful. There was nothing they could do to regain their lost position, and the system itself was being taken over by the Europeans who came in with pockets full of cash and bought everything. Hence the last 400-500 years, the story of development on Europe and the development of underdevelopment in the rest of the world.

Now, the global warming is back, this time causing "cooling" in West and Central Asia, as well as Europe. There is a little ice age on the horizon. The agricultural prosperity of the West and Central Asia can make a come back by increased rainfall, a halt to desertification, and a restoration of forests and plains. As soon as self sufficiency (in agriculture, which has been the wish of many for the past 200 years, even the Communist regime of the Soviet Union and its Kalkhuz system) is realised, there will be a chance to do exactly what the Europeans did 500 years ago.

There also is an added bonus. 500 years ago, being left out of the Asia World System meant that the economic pressures of this world system spared Europe. In case of a crash, which was actually happening in the Indian Ocean economy of the time, Europe was left clean and untainted. As a result, when it had enough cash to enter the world system, it was also fortunate enough not to have to deal with the economic pressures and could buy into the market afresh.

The same can be said for the present situation: the West and Central Asia has been out of the world economic loop for quite a while. These regions, at least for the last 200 years, have only produced natural resources and have been net consumers of the world economy, with minimal input to economic interactions, being left out of the economic wonder of the last two centuries: industrialisation.

So, if we assume that the prediction of their future agricultural prosperity is correct, West and Central Asian regions have also the added blessing of being out of the world economic pressures and the crash everyone predicts it will experience. So, it can also repeat what happened 500 years ago and buy its way into the coming world system using the new cash: petroleum.

Further reading
Abu-Lughod, Janet. Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Frank, Andre Gunder. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. World That Trade Created. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2006.

Brenner, Robert. The Economics of Global Turbulence: the Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005, London: Verso, 2006.


more from Khodadad Rezakhani

No. It was not because of global warming.

by Anonymous reader (not verified) on

Yes, "Five hundred years ago", a major development "helped create an economic down turn in West and Central Asia and facilitated the European economic rise".

However this major development was not "global warming", it was the near total replacement of global "land-trade" with "maritime-trade" (as a result of advancements in navigation - in Europe - which had made reliable "maritime-trade" possible).

Yes, China, Central Asia, and Middle East all were major players of a land trade world system and "the trade that was creating and running this world system was also avoiding Europe".

But rapid expansion of "maritime trade" - which now was faster, more economical, and more reliable than land-trade - resulted in the abandonment of land-trade routes, and in bankruptcy and collapse of the land-trade world system.

The new maritime-trade world system, with its centers dominated by the major ports of Europe - and later America - continued its rise with progressive acquisition of wealth, science and power.


Excellent observations. As I

by Anonymous3 (not verified) on

Excellent observations. As I was driving through Europe two years ago, It also downed on me how lush and rich the soil and how green the pastures were. Even the Sheeps and cows and horses were larger than say in Iran or Tajikestan.

Guns, Germs and Steel": Jared Diamond on Geography as Power
Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News


I like the idea of referring

by hootan (not verified) on

I like the idea of referring to our region as near east. It is logical and it makes sense. So the words middle east should eliminated as they have bad meanings as created by Brits.
In a book Life as it happens the author who is Persian calls the so called middle east as MID WEST. he argues in one story that looking west if you are chinese or Japanese you see Persia and that is MidWest. Doesn't the opinion of so many chinese count? that is his argument.
Ok, let's use these terms.
and if brits want to refer to that area as mideast, they can stop at irak border and from there it becomes midwest.



by Ajam (not verified) on

Very interesting article! Of course, as mercantile imperialism eventually plaid a big part in expediting and defining the shift, its offspring -- though in a more reactionary manner -- as seen in military conflicts in the region, will try to impede such a reversal. However, in my opinion, the oil factor would play a much larger part than the climate change ever can!

Khodadad Rezakhani


by Khodadad Rezakhani on

I thank you for your input. I have to make it clear that I am not attempting this as a comprehensive explanation of world history, but just a cut of the cake. I am not sure why I also come out as having an "Anti-Western" bias? In any case, there is also a historical problem with your take, and that is the date. We might be considering the old issue of chicken and egg, but the fact is that the scientific revolution came AFTER the European age of discovery. Colonizations preceeded the rise of humanism and social democracies. Indeed, the new world was discovered under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, and Philip II, some of the most absolutist rulers in European history, and also some of the most reactionary, anti-progress rulers (see the Inquisition). I believe the economic changes where the events that caused the scientific revolution, not the other way around.


Fascinating, yet....

by Kazem Navidi (not verified) on

Thank you for your thought-provoking article.

The notion that historical macro-trends in macro-regional climates play the central role in the emergence and demise of economic and political powers seems fascinating, yet incomprehensive.

All human life obviously takes place under the big, all encompassing umbrella of minor and major changes and developments in regional and global climate. These changes, however, do not on their own and by themselves, explain massive (and often gradual) shifts in economic and political fortunes witnessed throughout human history.


Hope you are right

by Anonymous. (not verified) on

Holy moly sure hope this hocus-pocus comes to be and we all be in the easy strees for a change in the East.


leaving a bunch out

by EDS (not verified) on

Khodadad jaan you are leaving way too much out. Your bias against the west comes through loud and clear and is clouding your judgment.

The main force behind Europe's astonishing rise that left everyone in the dust was the scientific revolution. They did not start dominating the world because they now had more agricultural production they did so because they had enormously more advanced technology and system of government both of which were the direct result of the scientific revolution.

Further, while moderate climate change impacting agriculture undoubtedly has a long-term impact, its importance has simply diminished dramatically today. So has natural resources. Look at Hong Kong and Singapore for example. Two enormously overcrowded places with no natural resources that are among the richest places in the world.