As the West loses it way, the historian says all roads to the East
Book review: Peter Frankopan’s ‘The New Silk Roads’ is less a history book than a state of the world address
It was a compelling argument. Back in 2015, historian Peter Frankopan developed a new history of the world eastward, towards Asia and, more broadly, the area between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific.
He argued it was along these “Silk Roads”, an exotic moniker coined by a German geographer in the late 19th century, that the most powerful networks of trade, ideas, peoples, religions… and diseases took root.
The Silk Roads was called exhilarating, and plenty agreed. It became a surprise bestseller as Europe and the West seemed to lurch from one crisis to the next, and served as a reminder that globalisation is hardly a new phenomenon.
Earlier this year, Frankopan set about writing a short epilogue for a reprint, to sharpen the conclusion and update his idea that the world’s past has always been shaped by what happens along the Silk Roads.
“I wanted to explain that however traumatic or comical political life appears to be in the age of Brexit, European politics or Trump, it is the countries of the Silk Roads that really matter in the 21st century,” he writes. But the more he explored how decisions of consequence today are being made in China and Russia, the Middle East or Delhi, the more he realised the seismic period of transformation we are now experiencing was a book in itself; and The New Silk Roads was born.
Frankopan calls it a younger sibling to the first book, and it’s definitely a breezier, more energetic read, full of pin-sharp, up-to-date comment on everything from the Chinese government’s ambitious Belt and Road programme of investment in global infrastructure to why, for example, it matters that Dubai’s DP World and the government of Djibouti are in dispute about a port in the East African republic.
The opening argument – which, to his credit, Frankopan is not afraid to counterbalance later – is that while the West fragments, detaches and is less engaged with the world, along the Silk Roads, states are finding a way to either work together or to manage their competition.
“Where the story in Asia is about increasing connections, improving collaboration and deepening co-operation, in Europe the story is about separation, the re-erection of barriers and ‘taking back control’” he writes.
It’s a broad brush stroke in the light of the many obvious historical and contemporary disputes that Silk Road states have with one another – and Frankopan does eventually admit it’s an oversimplification to suggest that such countries always see eye to eye – but he also finds it fascinating that it now should be the Chinese who are articulating a role of global leadership. He notes with interest President Xi Jinping’s words to the Davos summit last year: “Our real enemy is not the neighbouring country – it is hunger, poverty, ignorance, superstition and prejudice”.
All of which makes The New Silk Roads less a history book than a state-of-the-world address. It’s to Frankopan’s great credit that he doesn’t get bogged down in geopolitics until the closing phases. Largely this is accessible stuff – the pace of globalisation and changing influence is explored through the European football clubs which are owned or sponsored by businesses and people from the lands of the Silk Roads. It’s ironic, he writes, that once upon a time rich British people would head east to Europe on a Grand Tour, bringing back with them art, manuscripts and sculptures as trophies. Now, English and European football trophies are hunted and displayed by the “great and the good” from the Silk Roads.
It’s not just football. Westerners’ favourite brands, from Volvo to Harrods, the Odeon to the Waldorf are all owned outright or as partnerships via the rising wealth in the east. The remaining American or European brands have had to ensure they have the right message in the east if they want to survive. In these circumstances Frankopan’s assertion that somewhere like the South China Sea isn’t “a” crossroads of the global economy but “the” crossroads is wholly convincing.
Yet there are niggles. This vision skims over the cost to the “Asian century”; the conflicts, environmental issues, working conditions, national debts and persecutions. Not that Frankopan doesn’t mention them – there’s some serious research involved in noting that students can’t leave Tajikistan without permission. It’s just that they feel like mere casualties in a book which is generally awe-struck by the influence of China’s economy.
Frankopan himself calls these issues “obvious growing pains”. And while they might be slightly more serious than that throwaway line, how those pains reveal themselves amid the breathtaking speed of change will undoubtedly shape the world of the future.
The New Silk Roads, published by Bloomsbury, is out now