Tuesday, 28 August 2012

One small step for mankind

The reports of the death of Neil Armstrong have read at times like an obituary for the United States, or at least a lament for the passing of the "American century". In retrospect, the brief window between the first  moon landing in 1969 and the last in 1972 can be seen as the highpoint of American power, straddling the end of the Bretton Woods post-war economic order in 1971 (when the US ended the convertibility of the dollar to gold) and preceding the oil crisis of 1973. Many of our current woes appear to stem from this point and the consequent neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not mark an inexorable American triumph, driven by free markets, defence spending and Reagan's "morning in America" schtick, so much as the inevitable death rattle of Stalinism. It's already a cliche that China will overtake the USA in GDP as well as Olympic medals within a decade or so.

But the Apollo programme itself should give us pause for thought. The Saturn rockets it relied on were developed under the guidance of Wernher von Braun, who had masterminded Germany's rocket research under the Nazis and the development of the V2 during WW2. One could argue that the 20th was the German century, in terms of that country's pivotal role and impact on others. Had it not been for two calamitous wars, the USA's ascent to hegemony might not have happened.

That may appear an overly Eurocentric view today, but there was no doubting the centrality of Europe in the middle years of the last century, if only because of the psychic focus of the Iron Curtain. Simple geography has always meant that the broad area of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the Pillars of Hercules to the Straits of Hormuz, has been at the centre of world affairs, acting as a hinge between Eurasia and Africa. China and India may be growing powers, but they remain relatively disadvantaged by their peripheral position, and their flanking move to buy up land in Africa won't fundamentally change that.

In time, we may look back on the 20th century and see the dominant story as the growth of the global South, which is perhaps best throught of as everything below the Tropic of Cancer. In 1973, Arno Peters produced a new map of the world that adjusted Mercator's projection to give greater prominence to the southern land masses. Though he also proposed a new meridian, to provide a more symmetrical view, it's notable that this still went through Europe, specifically Florence.

Returning to rockets, it's worth remembering that the Americans didn't just inherit the technology from the Germans, they also inherited an ambition for (extra-)territorial expansion and even colonisation, which lives on today among some politicians. Though the Moon was claimed for "all mankind", it was the Stars and Stripes that was planted in the Sea of Tranquility. There are some who claim that the Apollo mission was primarily about developing better ICBMs and military satellites than the USSR, and that no one seriously envisaged colonisation of a dead rock whose mineral wealth is of dubious value, however the technology of manned spaceflights is so divorced from missiles that this was never any more credible than the whole "it was faked!" theory. The Americans simply thought going to the Moon would be cool. You'd think they might have learnt from Britain's suicidal obsession with planting a flag at the South Pole. The Chinese and Indians now seem determined to make the same chauvinistic mistake.

And that perhaps is why the 20th won't be remembered as the American century. Between 1945 and 1975, they had a glorious window of opportunity to genuinely benefit mankind (and thus themselves), but they blew it on anti-communist paranoia, a stupid and expensive war in Vietnam (which led in part to the convertibility watershed in 1971), and a self-indulgent spectacle that ate billions. Imagine if all that money and talent had been diverted to something really useful, like clean power or public health.

Armstrong's passing has naturally featured his most famous utterance, and the debate about whether he did omit the indefinite article before "man". Perhaps the semantic discussion should focus on whether he actually got the nouns the right way round.


  1. The first large-scale trading economy was set up by medieval Muslims and was centred on the Indian Ocean. This system was destroyed by the Portuguese, and the Europeans replaced it with a trading system centred on the Atlantic Ocean. Why can't China and the Asian Tigers in turn create a Pacific-centric global economy?

  2. There were large-scale trading economies well before Islam, most notably the Roman Empire, whose trade routes stretched from Ireland to India. The Indian Ocean was not overwhelmingly significant in terms of East-West trade, as many goods travelled overland from China and Northern India to Constantinople/Istanbul.

    The Portuguese did not seek to substitute an Atlantic trading system for that in the Indian Ocean, but rather to provide an alternative route to the spice islands of Indonesia via the Cape of Good Hope, thus avoiding the Arabian Sea and the expensive (and risky) overland transhipments via the Near East (controlled by Muslims in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, but by Venice and Genoa in the Eastern Mediterranean).

    The opening-up of Atlantic trade, which was to benefit Spain, Britain and the Netherlands more, was a secondary outcome. Portugal had rounded the Cape in 1488, four years before Columbus reached the Americas. At the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1494, they ceded Spain control of the Western hemisphere (essentially the Americas with the exception of NE Brazil) in exchange for a free hand in the East (i.e. Africa and Asia). Portugal didn't see the Atlantic as an alternative to the Eastern trade, but as a better route to it.

    Trade will always be most vigorous where peoples meet and distances are short. This is why the trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe, Africa and Asia via the Med & Middle East will always be more active than the Pacific. Though the latter is booming, both from trans-ocean trade, such as white goods from East Asia to the Americas, and rim trade, such as raw materials from Australia to China, it isn't going to pull the centre of gravity away from Eurasia, any more than the discovery of America sent Europe into a tailspin.