The Americas: the history of the continents by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Why did North America overtake its Latin twin to the south? Frank McLynn suggests that culture, and not just chance, must have played a part

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is one of the most brilliant historians currently at work. All his books are bravura displays of erudition, fizzing with seminal thoughts, original ideas and new syntheses of existing knowledge. His latest, ambitious production is no exception.

The idea of writing a synoptic history of both Latin and anglophone Americas is an audacious and inspired one. For much of this volume, Fernández-Armesto is on top form. He rightly sees the crossing of the Atlantic by Europeans as the key event in world history and shows how crucial was the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru in the early 16th century. First, European diseases took out 90 per cent of the population of the new continent; then the wealth of Mexico and Peru made Spain, for a time, the world's superpower and the "superprofits" extracted from the Americas allowed Europe to dominate Asia.

But not only was the exploitation of the precious metals of Peru and Mexico critical in the formation and generation of surplus capital for investment; the general "life-chance" odds at first favoured Latin America against the English-speaking colonies on the Atlantic seaboard of the modern US, as New England and Virginia proved difficult to colonise. Until the early 19th century the gringos were largely confined behind the Alleghenies and Appalachians, whereas the Spanish had penetrated to the interior of South America by the end of the 16th century.

Fernández-Armesto's running thesis is that things could have been otherwise and that the eventual hegemony of the US was a product of aleatory circumstances. Yet many of his arguments point away from the conclusions he reaches. Repeatedly, he says that the theory that Latin America is plagued with innate, moral defects is wrong or "false" (as if it were a statement in logic), but he never really argues for his position which, in spite of all his towering supplementary scholarship, remains a mere assertion.

Many of his points are unexceptionable and even cogent. So, in Alice-in-Wonderland terms, the US has always been Tweedledum versus Tweedledee (Gore Vidal has described the Republicans and Democrats as two wings of the Property Party), while Latin America is more of a shattered Humpty-Dumpty. Again, the US never experienced the Latin phenomenon of caudillismo, although Fernández-Armesto correctly identifies Aaron Burr as a caudillo manqué - and he might have added Andrew Jackson. Latin America relied on monoculture and did not industrialise, favoured corporatism rather than individualism, and opted for the man on horseback rather than democracy.

All this is true as far as it goes. But it does not answer the deeper question of why anglophone and Latin Americas turned out so differently; one can still ask: "why did Latin America not industrialise?" Just as there is a point where a hundred so-called coincidences look more convincing when viewed as a conspiracy, so hundreds of contingent and adventitious factors, whereby Latin America failed to get the breaks, look more convincing as a general pattern.

What might this pattern be? It will probably be regarded, in this age of cultural relativism, as outrageous to think the unthinkable and suggest that maybe, just maybe, the Hispanic cultural tradition really is inferior to the Anglo-Saxon. It is not just the hidalgo contempt for work and the gringo's enthusiastic embrace of it which suggests this.

William James correctly identified North Americans as ruthless pragmatists; they do not mix reality and fantasy. They may have a sentimental liking for Westerns and the man on horseback, but do not look to such myths for salvation. Latin American culture, by contrast, is deeply imbricated with the interpenetration of appearance and reality; we see this not just in the cult of "magical realism" but in Don Quixote himself, an archetype representing Spain's metaphysical confusion. At times the author himself seems befogged in much the same way. To say that Argentina is "a classic case of a country that has talked itself into decline" is to beg all the questions. Why did Australia and Canada not talk themselves into decline?

Fernández-Armesto's other fault is what I can only call a Panglossian pious hope that Latin America may yet catch up with the US. His account of the Latin American republics is distinctly couleur de rose. To take one example, I find his description of Colombia as a country where democracy has been only occasionally interrupted staggering in its naivety. One might just as well say that Bush's White House is an academy where Aristotelian discourse has been only occasionally interrupted. And, pace Fernández-Armesto, how exactly is Latin America supposed to play catch-up?

When Kennedy's Alliance for Progress was launched in 1961, a distinguished group of economists worked out that if the US experienced nil growth and Latin American economies grew at 3 per cent per annum, they would take 40 years to reach one third of the US Gross National Product; if the US grew at the same rate, the one-third mark would be reached after 250 years. As everyone knows, the gap has actually widened since then.

There is no conceivable way Latin America can overhaul the colossus of the North. Anyway, if one is to believe the direst predictions of the astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, mankind will not survive another 250 years. Fernández-Armesto is a superb scholar and historian, but in this volume his Catholic soteriology seems to have taken over from good sense.

Frank McLynn's history of the Mexican revolution, 'Villa and Zapata', is published by Pimlico