Niall Ferguson doesn’t hide the fact that he means for his latest work of meta-history to take its place on the global bookshelf next to the rise-and-fall works of Edward Gibbon, Kenneth Clark, Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, Samuel P. Huntington and Paul Kennedy.Civilization” tackles the big questions: What is a civilization? Why do they decline? Why, for the past 500 years, have Europe and the United States dominated everyone else? And — here’s the payoff — is the West now destined to take a back seat to Asia?

Surely there was nothing foreordained about the West’s economic, scientific, cultural or military superiority, as Ferguson reminds us. At various times, the Chinese, Aztec and Ottoman civilizations boasted the world’s highest standards of living, the best infrastructure, the fiercest armies, the largest cities, the most productive fields, the longest lifespans, the deepest understanding of the natural world, the best technology, the wisest rulers.

And yet beginning in about 1500, it was Europe, led by England, that began to pull ahead, to break out of the Malthusian trap that, up to that point, had sentenced most of humanity to short lives lived in poverty. Ferguson’s thesis — not entirely original — is that Europe’s success came not as the result of any natural advantages but because it was able to develop just the right mix of political, legal and social institutions that made it resilient enough to withstand the inevitable plagues, natural disasters, failed leaders or just plain bad luck.

The book, ostensibly, is organized around what Ferguson considers the six most vital of those institutional arrangements:

Competition, meaning a decentralization of power among nations and within them, necessary to create the right environment for capitalism;

‘Civilization: The West and the Rest’ by Niall Ferguson (The Penguin Press)

Science, whose discoveries laid the basis not only for the Industrial Revolution but also for overwhelming military advantage;

Property rights, which provided a framework for the rule of law and laid the foundation for shared political and economic power;

Medicine, which led to a dramatic rise in life expectancy;

A consumer focus to economic life that fueled demand for modern industrial products; and

A work ethic that provided a moral framework for savings, investment and hard toil.

This topic and this structure play to Ferguson’s skills as an economic historian known for the breadth of his knowledge, the clarity and pithiness of his prose, and the originality of his analysis. His knack is for translating academic history into accessible concepts and concrete examples, setting them in the grand sweep of history and making them relevant to our present-day circumstances.

Always the intellectual provocateur, Ferguson also means to challenge the insidious dogma, now ascendant on university campuses, that holds that the “triumph of the West” was nothing more than a self-centered fiction concocted by European and American scholars to justify centuries of brutal colonialism and oppression. And while he stops short of arguing that the West’s decline is inevitable, he warns that it has become a real possibility that could unfold rather quickly.

While the basic outline of Ferguson’s argument is sound, the book itself is something of a disappointment. It reveals the strains on an ambitious academic who has churned out nine books in 13 years, all while hosting five series for British television, holding down two appointments at Harvard — one in the history department and one at the business school — and part-time fellowships at Stanford and Oxford, and writing a regular column for Newsweek. For the past eight years, he has also been working on a biography of Henry Kissinger.

The result of this prodigious over-scheduling is a book that is a mishmash of disconnected and sometimes contradictory riffs held together by faulty logic, inapt metaphors and clever turns of phrase. Instead of presenting himself as the well-read and widely traveled polymath he genuinely is, Ferguson comes off as an intellectual showoff who couldn’t be bothered to edit his own ideas.

The chapter on science, for example, opens with the rout of the Ottoman armies from the gates of Vienna in 1683 after they had laid siege to the capital of the Hapsburg empire. Ferguson wants us to ponder how the application of science to weaponry provided the West with a crucial military advantage over the rest of the world. Yet despite his entertaining stroll through the court of Frederick the Great, a lengthy discourse on the military precision of the Prussian army and a brief history of the secularization of Turkey in the 20th century, it’s hard to recall what the point is. Surely it is not the connection between science and weaponry, inasmuch as there is but a single passing reference to Napoleon-era howitzers.

In the chapter on property rights, Ferguson contrasts the different approaches taken by England and Spain toward their colonies in the New World. For England, North America became not only a source of raw materials, but a place where thousands of politically enfranchised citizens could go to stake a claim to land and begin moving up the social and economic ladder. In the Spanish south, by comparison, where there was a single-minded focus on extracting gold, silver and other natural resources, it was hardly surprising that almost all the land was held by the king, with most of the work done by subjugated natives and slaves imported from Africa.

Having made his point, convincingly, Ferguson can’t resist embarking on a long, rambling discourse on different rates of miscegenation in the United States and Brazil, complete with bar charts on the differing racial makeup of the two societies. What lesson this holds for the success of a civilization remains a mystery.

Even more bizarre is the chapter on the role of medicine in the rise of the West, in which Ferguson manages to pretty much avoid the subject of health care almost entirely. Instead, he hops from Napoleon to the revolution of 1848 to France’s management of its colonies in Africa. In his mind, this leads naturally to an exposition of Germany’s experiments with eugenics in its African colonies, from which a direct line must therefore be drawn to Nazi genocide in Eastern Europe. It was no mere coincidence, Ferguson assures us, that Hermann Goering, Hitler’s confidante and the head of the Nazi Luftwaffe, was the son of the German high commissioner in southwest Africa.

Ah, so that explains it!

In the chapter on work, Ferguson claims that the primary cause of Europe’s declining work ethic is the decline in Europe’s religious faith, which at one point he appears to blame on John Lennon. And applying the same logic, drawn from the sociologist Max Weber, he argues that the seeds of China’s economic miracle were planted by generations of Protestant missionaries who taught the Chinese the value of literacy, thrift and hard work. He even has a map to prove it.

The high point of “Civilization” may the chapter on the importance of consumers in fostering economic progress — something that Marx never foresaw, Henry Ford never forgot, Hitler and Stalin never understood, and Japan and China came to embrace. “Perhaps the greatest mystery in the entire Cold War,” Ferguson writes, “is why the [Soviet Union] could not manage to produce a decent pair of blue jeans.” But even this line of inquiry is badly muddied. I have no idea whether it is true, as Ferguson asserts with great authority, that the research into body sizes done by the uniform division of the U.S. military during World War II laid the foundation for the boom in off-the-rack clothing in the postwar period, but it’s the kind of anecdote that is a Ferguson specialty and tends to underpin his analysis.

Ferguson’s take-away is that if there is a threat to the West’s continued dominance in the world, it comes not from China or Islam, but from ourselves — from our lack of knowledge of history and our lack of faith in the civilization we inherited. It’s a powerful theme and a great ending, alas, for a book that is still to be written.

Steven Pearlstein is a Washington Post business and economics columnist and the Robinson professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University.


The West and the Rest

By Niall Ferguson

Penguin Press. 402 pp. $35