I have just started the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. In the book he is trying to come up with the explanation of why the societies that dominate the world today do so.
A couple of quick comments -
He seems to be convinced that the world of 1500, and those in power then, directly resulted in today's power structure. I'm not convinced - first, because I think he underestimates the Middle East and Northern Africa circa 1500; by his logic, they should be in much better shape than they are. I also think he overestimates the Japan of 1500.
"Progress," in the Modern sense of political and technological power, seems to me to be directly related to one thing (maybe more, but I'm just noting one) - Openness. Intellectual curiosity, maybe, or just maybe the willingness to look for what works best and use it. Rome rose to power by absorbing other cultures - the Etruscans, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, etc, and then stagnated. Once they became too powerful, they stopped absorbing other ideas, cultures, technologies, and just started trying to spread what they had, making copies of Roman society in Spain and in the Near East.
Europe was consistently invaded - 'opened,' especially from the East. The Golden Horde left its mark on Europe, and prevented it from being a single contained entity.
China was the most powerful civilization, probably, at 1500. It was around this time (it may have been even earlier) that they decided they wanted no part of the West, scuttled their merchant and exploratory fleets, and did their best to remain Pure. Japan did the same thing. Like Rome, they looked only to within for progress, and slowed. Instead of trying to expand themselves and make other peoples copies of themselves, they wanted just to make sure they remained fully them. They stagnated.
Later, once Japan opened, Japan quickly grew to match Western powers in Guns and Steel, and technology. The societies that flourished continued to be more open - Europe, and later to a greater extent, America. Now, I'm not delusional, and I know that these places weren't necessarily happy about having other people join them, but they still integrated other things into them.
So, it seems that the worst thing a society can do it think that it has reached its potential, and adopt a closed mind to other ideas and technologies.
Late night rant brought to you by Benedryl