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Voices Of The Millennium: Rapid Global Shift Of Ideas Characterizes Last 1,000 Years

The following interview with Oxford University historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is part of RFE/RL's occasional series: Voices of the Millennium. The series presents recognized thinkers considering the major trends in international political, artistic, and technological development which helped to shape our world as we approach the year 2000.

Four years ago, British scholar Felipe Fernandez-Armesto undertook an ambitious task: to discover what distinguishes the past millennium from the one before and the one to come. He presented his findings in a book entitled "Millennium." RFE/RL's correspondent Charles Recknagel contacted Fernandez-Armesto in London by telephone to speak with him about his work.

Prague, 12 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, this millennium may be most remembered by future historians as a time when ideas and resources began moving with increasing speed and ease between distant parts of the world.

He says that the increasingly global exchange of ideas enabled peoples far removed from one another to build upon each others' achievements at a pace not seen earlier. For him, the result is that the medieval world that began this millennium resembles far less the modern world of our time than it did the classical world which existed for several thousand years before.

In his book "Millennium," Fernandez-Armesto tries to discover how this cross-fertilization took place. He finds the answer in another defining characteristic of our millennium: an increasing alternation among the world's civilizations as to which temporarily leads and most influences the others.

The historian says that through the course of the last 1,000 years this power to influence --or what he calls "initiative"-- first rested with the Chinese. Then it moved to the Islamic civilizations and then on to the Europeans. Each people in turn created ever wider empires, expanding the transfer of ideas and resources not only within Eurasia but ultimately including the New World as well.

Fernandez-Armesto says that this rapid shifting of initiative puts the present millennium in sharp contrast with the previous one, when only a single civilization, the Chinese, exercised a strong and constant influence upon its neighbors. Fernandez-Armesto says:

"In the millennium before ours, the state and the civilization which had most influence on the world was China and that situation was almost constant throughout the millennium. In the present millennium, the power of some human groups to influence others, what I call initiative, has shifted with increasing rapidity and the continuity of the domination of China in the world, the cultural hegemony of China in Eurasia, has come at least to a temporary halt and it has been replaced by a period, a brief period so far, of Western initiative. That has been the trajectory of world history in the course of the last 1,000 years if one had to give a brief characterization of it."

Fernandez-Armesto says that as this millennium opened, China was still the leading source of ideas and technology in Eurasia. But during the first half of this millennium the initiative shifted to the Moslem world, which by the year 1000 was the most widely dispersed civilization seen up to that time. The Islamic civilization stretched from Spain to India, giving rise to a flowering of linked, yet distinct cultures in North Africa, the Mideast, Iran, northern India and Central Asia.

The historian says that the Islamic world revived much of the classical knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome and combined it with learning from Asia to transmit it both across the Islamic world and into Europe. He characterizes this role as a cultural transmitter as Islam's greatest impact on its European and Asian neighbors. Fernandez-Armesto says:

"So far, the role of Islam in world history has been as a civilization of transmission rather than as a civilization of origination. The ideas and techniques the preservation of which the modern world owes to Islam were originally Greek or Persian or Indian or Chinese ideas and because Islam occupied a central place, a kind of crossroads position in Eurasia it had privileged access to those ideas and became a channel of communication of them from one end of the densely populated middle belt of the old world to the other."

But the historian believes that Islam began to lose its place as the world's most important center of initiative when European seafarers mastered ocean travel in the second half of the millennium. With that innovation, ideas and technology were free to travel around the ocean rims. The history of much of the last 500 years is dominated by the global spread of Europe's power until by the end of the last century its holdings, collectively, represented the largest cultural empire yet created.

Fernandez-Armesto says that the European initiative is most often associated with the industrial revolution and its ultimate transfer to non-European states, as well as the transfer of European social ideas and values. But he noted that one of its most far-reaching, and less obvious, impacts on the shape of the world was to also redistribute what are today some of the world's most important crops from South America to much of the rest of the globe. Among these are, most importantly, potatoes, corn and tomatoes, as well as cocoa and tobacco.

As the millennium closes, the European empires have collapsed in the wake of two world wars. And despite the West's continuing dominance of the world's economy, Fernandez-Armesto believes the ever-passing baton of initiative now again is moving eastward to Asia.

The historian makes this prediction based on two observations. One is that Asian countries have successfully built upon the European initiative of industrialization and are gaining competitive advantage by combining it with their own social values. Those values include a work ethic rich in self-discipline and a system of family values which keeps social welfare costs low.

The second observation is that the direction of what Fernandez-Armesto calls colonization has changed at the end of the millennium from west to east to the reverse. He says that as Europe's wave of colonization has receded it is now East Asians who most migrate abroad to seek work, carrying with them ideas and practices which will transform their host countries. Fernandez-Armesto says:

"Although our own cultures are going to remain distinctive, they will be transformed above all by the most powerful agent of change that there has ever been in world history and that is colonization. The real vectors of change, the real transmitters of culture, are people. Over the last couple of hundred years or so white colonization has transformed much of the rest of the world. But that's been a relatively brief episode and it is now over. We are now seeing a reversion to a much more normal state of affairs in which it is East Asia, you know, that pullulating mass of people, that throws out the widest ranging, furthest reaching and the most numerous colonies."

Fernandez-Armesto says that, just as the Muslim and European worlds exported religious, economic and political values which greatly affected parts of Asia in this millennium, we can expect a similarly strong reverse transmission of the eastern heritage in next. How those values blend into our own societies, he adds, will go a long way to determining how our descendants will live in the next centuries.