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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 208-210

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Book Review

The Rise and Fall of World Orders

The Rise and Fall of World Orders. By TORBJ√ėRN L. KNUTSEN. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press; Distributed by St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. x + 324. $72.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Critics complain that professional historians are mere fact grubbers, toiling away to produce volumes of detailed information of little interest to anyone except the members of tenure and promotion committees. At the same time--particularly in times of crisis or change--however, there exists a large popular market for books that profess to explain the course and meaning of history, that is the meaning of all those grubby facts. Arnold Toynbee's widely sold but rarely read Study of History is one of the most famous works of this sort. Paul Kennedy's more recent Rise and Fall of Great Powers is another. In the aftermath of the Cold War (which ended rather differently than Kennedy suggested it would), other scholars (Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, for example) have published important books explaining the course of history in the near future. One might think that because the collapse of the USSR, when and how it came about in particular, was a surprise to almost everyone, historians and nonhistorians alike, it would serve as a warning to those who want to chart the future by examining the past. Such is not the case.

Using the cycle of great wars of the last five centuries as the key to understanding the course of history, a cycle proposed by Robert Mowat in 1928, Knutsen examines the history of the past 500 years in terms of five world orders that have existed sequentially. These are: "the sixteenth-century Iberias, the seventeenth-century United Provinces, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Great Britain" (p. 5). The final one in this series is the "American world order which emerged from World War II" (p. 7). In his view, "Each world order is here conceived of as a pattern of periodicity or a cycle and seen in terms of the three simple phases of growth, stagnation and decline" (p. 7). These world orders are not simply reflections of political and economic power because the states that led these orders possessed "normative [End Page 208] power" (p. 10), that is, each of them stressed "the universal application of its values. It represents good values and norms..." (p. 12). Each of the dominant states in the past 500 years has, so he argues, passed through the same cycle of rising and falling, a cycle embedded in the historical data itself. Furthermore, he suggests that the past provides a template against which we can measure the place of any dominant state, such as the United States, in its inevitable life cycle.

What can the historian make of all this? It is easy to criticize the accuracy of particular data or to criticize the specifics of the proposed cycles. For example, were the great sea empires of the early modern world really world orders in the sense that he uses the term? Does not Knutsen overestimate the hegemonic power of the Dutch or even the Spanish? On the most fundamental level, are there really cycles and rhythms embedded within the historical record and, if so, can we use them to determine where we stand in the course of history?

Knutsen recognizes that those who would predict the future have often failed, as Kennedy did. He points out that Huntington's argument, that intercivilizational wars reflecting ethnic and religious differences, not the interests of nation-states, would be the wave of the future, has not come about. Finally, he stresses that Fukuyama's Hegelian notion of the end of history can not be proved or disproved until there is sufficient data available, that is, until it is possible to write the history of the post-Cold War era at some point in the future. At one level, however, Knutsen would ultimately seem to be in Fukuyama's camp, that...