Allen Lane, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

From the Ruins of Empire, By Pankaj Mishra

This sharp account of the West's decline takes an equally astringent view of Asia's rising powers

By comparison with the conflicts of the two world wars, the battle of Tsushima in May 1905 was not particularly bloody. But the result – the destruction of much of the Russian navy and the humiliating defeat of Russia in its war with Japan - may have been as important in shaping the world we live in today. The triumph of the small Japanese navy over the imperial might of what was then regarded as a European power fired an entire generation of Asian leaders. Jawarharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi, Sun Yat-Sen, Mao Zedong, the young Kemal Ataturk and nationalists in Egypt, Vietnam and many other countries greeted the decisive conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war with ecstatic enthusiasm. "And they all drew the same lesson from Japan's victory", Pankaj Mishra writes. "White men, conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible."

The point did not go unnoticed by the imperial powers. Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, noted that "the reverberations of that victory have gone like a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East". The world wars that followed deprived Europe of much of what remained of its authority in Asian eyes. "In the long view, however," Mishra concludes, "it is the battle of Tsushima that seems to have struck the opening chords of the recessional of the West".

Mishra is well placed to explore the contradictions and paradoxes of the interplay between east and west. Based in London but living part of the time in India where he was born and grew up, he views the rise of Asia from a standpoint that pierces through the illusions that have shaped perceptions and policies on both sides. In From the Ruins of Empire: the revolt against the west and the remaking of Asia, a deeply researched and arrestingly original mix of biography and historical analysis, he focuses on some of the intellectuals who led the Asian revolt against the west. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), a cosmopolitan figure, first defined Islam as anti-western. Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a widely influential journalist, attacked western materialism and defended Confucian ideals. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) also criticised Asian leaders for promoting western models of development at the expense of their own traditions.

As Mishra points out, such critics of western-style modernisation did not go unchallenged. Many Asian writers and activists believed it was necessary to adopt western methods and values if they were not to be forever under the west's heel. The need for Asian countries to adopt western models of statehood in order to avoid being crushed being crushed by western power is at the heart of Mishra's story. It is an ironic and in some ways tragic tale. Partly inspired by one of the great neglected books of the last century - Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff's The Politics of Hysteria (1964), a prophetic analysis of the ambivalent victory of the modern west - Mishra argues that the malign effect of European imperialism extended beyond economic exploitation.

That was certainly important: India and China were in many ways more advanced and prosperous than the west before the two countries' development was curtailed by European control. But more malignant, Mishra argues forcefully, was the impact of a European model of the polity Asian countries found themselves being impelled to impose on themselves - the unitary nation-state.

Japan was the most successful, at least until its interwar excursion into militarism, but the result elsewhere has been highly ambiguous. In the case of China- a far more diverse country - the result has been to replicate, on a larger scale, the forced cultural homogenisation imposed in European countries during their periods of nation-building. By following this path, Asian countries have been able to challenge the west. But the costs have been substantial. They are likely to loom even larger as economic growth continues and Asian powers are impelled to compete with one another, much as European powers did, in a fierce struggle to secure control of natural resources.

With no comforting message, From the Ruins of Empire is an assault on false consciousness and self-deception in both east and west. Europe and America are stuck fast in the grip of cognitive dissonance. Unwilling to accept that the rise of Asia is actually a return to the more normal world of a few centuries ago, they are stubbornly asserting their continuing primacy in a succession of gruesomely pointless wars.

Especially in the US, where a consensus across the political spectrum insists that American decline is entirely self-inflicted, the irreversible shift is denied. The upshot of China's experiment in state capitalism is as yet unclear, and many countries that have risen on the back of the post-Mao boom will suffer badly if China falters. That will not restore western hegemony, which is gone for good. Over-indebted, essentially insolvent states cannot also be great military powers, intervening in neo-imperial style. But the retreat of the west is unlikely to bring peace, for the Asian powers have their needs, rivalries and scores to settle.

"The war on terror," Mishra concludes, "has already blighted the first decade of this century". In retrospect, it may seem a mere prelude to... bloodier conflicts over precious resources". The rise of Asia is a great achievement; but also "the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous". Mishra's sober realism will provoke some sharp criticism - not least in his native India, where the idea that advancing Asian countries are fated to repeat the conflict-ridden history of the west will be indignantly dismissed. But precisely because it spares no one, this penetrating and disquieting book should be on the reading list of anybody who wants to understand where we are today.

John Gray's latest book is 'The Immortalisation Commission' (Penguin)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own