Let History Tell Us about the Future: An Offline Seminar on Global History by Professor Zheng Xianwu

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History is a mirror of the future. The significance of learning history lies not only in understanding history itself, but also in learning how history reflects reality. The world today is undergoing changes unprecedented over the past hundred years, so it is of great significance to understand these changes.  

This was the theme of the offline seminar hosted by Professor Zheng Xianwu, of the School of History and the Institute of International Relations, Nanjing University, as part of his course Global History.


The seminar, which focused on the shift of hegemony from Britain to the United States from 1914 to 1947, was held in Classroom II-304, Xianlin Campus, on the evening of December 20, 2020.  

At this seminar, eleven groups took turns to present and share their views, demonstrating the talents of NJUers of various disciplines. The groups discussed and analyzed what they learned in the Global History course from multiple dimensions and perspectives, and put forward many innovative views.

First, they sorted out and analyzed the impact on Britain and the United States of the major historical events during this period of time—the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars, and the global economic crisis—,and then summarized the specific manifestations of the shift of hegemony from Britain to the United States in three aspects: military, political, and economic.   

Second, some groups analyzed the shift of hegemony from Britain to the United States from a more unique perspective.  

For instance, the fourth group analyzed the inevitability of the shift by four dimensions: the decisive role of technological hegemony, environmental determinism, the historical inheritance of culture, and the fundamental difference in methods of expansion. The group put forward the view that only when a civilization suffered from hardship and destruction, can it experience rebirth and revive on the ruins.  

The fifth group discussed the shift from the perspective of the relationship between "cooperation" and "competition" and held that cooperation and competition inevitably emerged with prosperity and decline. The more developed the region, the more intense the situation of cooperation and competition. Cooperation has narrowed the gap between Europe and the rest of the world, and the war has increased the desire for change in other regions.  

Several other groups analyzed the history of the shift of hegemony from Britain to the United States and considered the realistic enlightenment of this part history on our understanding of the current era.  

The third group summarized the law of "decline after prosperity" and pointed out that the rise and fall of a nation is closely related to whether it is in line with the pace of the times. Meanwhile, the growth of a major power requires the formation of an international strategy that matches its own national strength, maintaining strategic stability in a complex international environment, properly handling the structural contradictions and tensions among major powers, and making good use of soft and smart power.  

The sixth group concluded that major powers must respect the bottom line of interactions, attend to each other's core interests, and jointly participate in and promote the resolution of global issues on the basis of strategic consensus and mutual trust. Only by this way can the emerging powers and the established powers solve the "security dilemma," step out of the shadow of containment and counter-containment, and jointly contribute to the lasting peace of the world.  

The tenth group proposed that the historical significance of the shift is to "acquire game-style wisdom and abandon expansionary ideas." At present, our nation should continue to promote cooperation to strengthen its power and stick to friendly and peaceful development.  

After presentations of the eleven groups, Professor Zheng Xianwu gave detailed comments and explanations.  

He fully affirmed that the students have seen the significant impact of major historical events on nations and international relationship, as well as the enlightenment on the current era through reflecting on history. At the same time, he also pointed out the limitations of the students' exploration of this topic, the lack of discussion on global governance.  

Professor Zheng taught the students that they should learn to look beyond the appearances of historical events and think deeply about why the same war and the same crisis had such different impacts on Britain and the United States.  

To understand history more comprehensively, we need to explore both its transformative external causes and its continuous internal causes. We also need to learn to look beyond historical events themselves and analyze their causes and patterns in the larger global context. We should notice changes at the micro level and see trends and patterns at the macro level.  

Finally, Professor Zheng Xianwu made a summary of the seminar.  

First, he concluded the reasons why the United States replaced Britain as the new hegemonic power: "it has strength, capability, willingness, opportunity and ability to follow the trend."  

Second, he reminded students to learn to look back for a hundred years when discussing the topic of "great changes unprecedented over the past hundred years—shift of hegemony from Britain to the United States from 1914 to 1947." The comparison suggested that in the first hundred years (1817-1917), the power center shifted from the East to the West, while in the second hundred years (1917-2017), the power center shifted within the West.  

Third, he suggested that students should look forward for a hundred years, the new century of great changes that we are currently experiencing. The current global power center is undergoing a new shift process, and competition among major powers has intensified. The strength of the United States is relatively declining, while China is rising rapidly. In the face of COVID-19 pandemic, China has demonstrated outstanding crisis management capabilities. Since Sino-US competition is inevitable, China needs to keep a focus in the face of various crisis. While continuing to develop itself, China should strive to contribute to global governance to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and continuously enhance China's influence.  

(Article written by and photos provided by Chen Siyi)