Cycles of History: Review Essay on Alfred McCoy's "To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change"

Magnus Fiskesjö

The famous Southeast Asia historian Alfred McCoy has published an important new book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change on world history, and where it is heading with China as an aspiring new world empire.

McCoy is known for his research on heroin in Southeast Asia, including the famous book Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972) on how the CIA manipulated the global drug trade during the Vietnam War. He has recently also written about American torture during the War on Terror, and his current project is a series of portraits of America's top spies in Southeast Asia during the Cold War.

In his new book on world orders, McCoy's main point is that China today is a resurgent empire, taking its place in a succession of previous empires and world powers. He thus places "China's rise" in its proper historical context, in Asia and the world. 

I applaud this. But I am also baffled by how McCoy reached these (justified) conclusions without referencing the social science that deals precisely with catastrophic changes, collapsing empires, and world orders, namely world system theories. This blind spot is fascinating, and I will return to it in a moment. 

But first a word about McCoy, his central insight about China as empire, and the revealing reactions so far. 

In his dazzling historical review, McCoy shows how all powers that achieved truly world-wide domination in recent centuries first dominated the Eurasian continent: Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, the United States, and now China. He entertains various theories as to why they all focus on the Eurasian "world island" — itself a concept that goes back to the British geographer Halford Mackinder in the early 20th century. McCoy shows how every world power worthy of the name has taken hold of this world island, to succeed in dominating its competitors.

This is what China's leadership is deliberately working on today, not least via its gigantic Belt-and-Road program that McCoy analyzes. Its Chinese-dominated trade and infrastructure (railways, roads, ports, and so on) make China the center of the same world-island. It breaks down the dominance of the US, whose power is also eroded by the sheer burden of its military (ancient Rome, anyone?). Not least, the US wasted huge resources in Iraq and Afghanistan — McCoy even declares China the ultimate victor in the long Afghanistan war.

McCoy's argument is impressive, compelling, and his writing is captivating — both the historical chapters on empires past, on China's new-era strategy, and in the final chapter that speculates on how the global climate crisis might affect the course of events. I won't recapitulate it all. 

In the US, McCoy is seen as a left-leaning historian, critical of the US and its conduct around the world. But now he has painted a true picture of China, and that may be a problem for left-leaning US academics and journalists. Many of them tend to describe their own country as "Empire," with a capital E — as the center of evil world capitalism. It is near-impossible for them to think of China or Russia as empires.

Many leftist intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere are still unable to re-evaluate today's deeply authoritarian China and Russia, despite how they have embraced a harsh capitalism, abandoned their "revolutionary" past, and now both behave like the worst kind of revanchist imperialists (China against the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Tibet, etc.; Russia against Ukraine, and so on). Extremist leftists sometimes even act as their cheerleaders (at times, alongside the extreme right!); meanwhile, the moderate left hesitates while clinging to its old worldview, with the USA as the stronghold of evil, with a diffuse "Global South" as its antithesis. Some of them still think this would include China: At least they are “non-white” opponents of the horrible USA?

When his book came out, McCoy was invited to Democracy Now, a US moderate-left radio and television station (that is, a station which, unlike the extreme left, still appreciates democracy as a political system), for several interviews. In one of them he talks about his main ideas; in another, we witness how the journalists struggle to absorb McCoy's central message that China is definitely an "empire" seeking world domination — one that is already well on its way to this goal. He is very clear about what this will mean: 2030, [...] U.S. global power has eclipsed [and] shifted to Beijing on the Eurasian landmass, and they are the new global hegemon, constructing a new kind of world order, far less concerned with human rights, far less concerned with law, a kind of transactional world order of mutual convenience.

And that's where the interview was cut short! 

The depiction of China as a new-age empire without democracy or human rights is clearly a wake-up call for us all, not just the left. Many have perhaps wanted to applaud China taking over from the US — but now they are forced to consider whether things like democracy and international law were perhaps good ideas after all. What happens now, if all that is replaced by "Might is Right" under an authoritarian China? 

In his book, McCoy also brings in the role of the UN, a positive novel feature of the current world order — but one that is currently rapidly eroded by China, with the help of Russia as well as by authoritarian Islamic states. They all seem to prefer reverting to the age-old model of Might is Right. 

The book is about how empires succeed each other in history, and we seem to be stuck in this, as today's events seem to repeat the pattern with China as a new and different world power aspirant to the throne. 

I agree, but wait — this is exactly the stuff of world system theory! How could McCoy as a social scientist completely leave out that approach? 

I popped this question to him, after we invited him from Madison, Wisconsin, to lecture at my own university, Cornell. I should have guessed the answer: Like many other scholars, McCoy knew only Immanuel Wallerstein of all the world system scientists, and did not consider him particularly relevant, despite Wallerstein’s famous—and broadly correct—analysis of the post-Columbus world as a single integrated capitalist world-system, a structure with a center exploiting its peripheries, in a relation which influences and shapes each element.

McCoy and many others seem to have missed that a long list of other historians, political economists, archaeologists, and anthropologists have developed world system theory in highly productive ways. 

Above all, Andre Gunder Frank and others raised the question: “500 years or 5000?” (Gunder Frank & Gills, 1994; see also Gunder Frank & Gills, 2000), successfully demonstrating how world systems have succeeded each other as part of cycles that have been going on ever since the Sumerians and Egyptians created the first world systems, often known as empires or as civilizations, in various formats.

There has been much debate over issues such as whether we should talk about a single world system ongoing since the Sumerians, or world systems in the plural; and about just how special the post-Columbus capitalist world system really was, compared to the preceding ones. 

Yet the key insights about cycles of history manifested in the rise and fall of empires, still stand — as does the inevitable corollary that world systems (power centers with an economic base and exploited peripheries) have risen, flourished — and withered — on all the continents of the earth, from the Olmecs in Central America to the Angkor emperors’ Asia empire. 

Accordingly, we are talking about general historical processes — obviously highly relevant for McCoy's project on China's new empire and world order. Also, leading world-systems scholars of political economy like Andre Gunder Frank and Giovanni Arrighi (2007) actually have directly addressed China's rise in this theoretical context (although Arrighi, himself a leftist, unfortunately speculated that Chinese capitalism would somehow be a kinder, gentler, less extractive version! — an expression of naive hope, that has not aged well). 

Clearly, the world-systems scholarship on China should have been engaged. 

Why the oversight? Note that these key insights about the global and longue duree aspects of the cycles of empires actually were already present in the work of the Annales historian Fernand Braudel, the forefather of world system theory who later gave the name to a research center at Binghamton University, where Wallerstein worked — and yet, like many others in his day, Wallerstein got stuck in the "West and the Rest" paradigm of his time, which sure seemed to be the truth of the day — until today, that is. 

We find a clue to why this is, in the work of another scholar who did not get stuck in that paradigm: the anthropologist Jonathan Friedman. His ingenious contribution (together with Kajsa Ekholm-Friedman) was to link the insights about the cycles of history to anthropological concerns about how identities are made. Identities are not neutral and disconnected from their wider context. They are formulated in, and shaped by, the social context of the world system cycles in which we find ourselves, even as we imagine that we ourselves are in charge (see e.g. Friedman 1994 ).

This is a very productive theory, not least for understanding today's China. It becomes easy to grasp if one imagines a British gentleman at the height of the British Empire, singing "Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves" in the deep conviction that he himself is part of the pinnacle of humanity, and everyone else is a barbarian. His self-image (identity) and beliefs can obviously not be separated from the success of the empire and its relation to its exploited peripheries, but must be analyzed together with these factors and partly as a direct product of the situation. 

It is the same with today's hapless Brexiteers still singing the same song. We notice the inertia of such beliefs, long after they become oxymorons; this is also seen in many Americans believing they will always be number one, the West above the Rest — oblivious to the cycles of history. 

We see the exact same self-righteous belief engendered in China today, reinforcing a Chinese "Great Again" rhetoric that itself resurrects imperial-era concepts ("peaceful China" etc.; see Fiskesjö 2005; 2017). This is the ideological dimension of China as empire, backed by rising economic dominance on several continents, and by its rapidly expanding war machine. 1 Note: A somewhat different Swedish-language version of this discussion is to appear later in the Swedish magazine Kvartal.  


Selected References

Democracy Now. "Historian Alfred McCoy Predicts the U.S. Empire Is Collapsing as China’s Power Grows." Video, Nov. 16, 2021.

Democracy Now. “’Russia & China, Together at Last’: Historian Al McCoy Predicts Ukraine War to Birth New World Order.” Video, March 21, 2022.  

Arrighi, Giovanni. Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Verso, 2007. 

Fiskesjö, Magnus, "The Legacy of the Chinese Empires: Beyond ‘the West and the Rest.’" Education About Asia 22.1 (2017), 6-10.

Friedman, Jonathan. Cultural Identity and Global Process. London: Sage, 1994. 

Gunder Frank, Andre & Barry K. Gills, eds. The World System: Five Hundred Years Or Five Thousand? London & New York: Routledge, 1994.

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

Gunder Frank, Andre, & Barry K. Gills. "The Five Thousand Year World System in Theory and Praxis." I: Robert A. Denemark, Jonathan Friedman, et al, reds. World system history: the social science of long-term change. London & New York: Routledge, 2000, 3–23 (and here: )