Per­spec­tives on as­cent of Eura­sia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Paul Monk’s

The cover story in the July-Au­gust is­sue of The Econ­o­mist was headed “Planet China: What to Make of the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive”, re­fer­ring to the vast Chi­nese project to deepen com­mer­cial in­fra­struc­ture across Eura­sia. The as­sess­ment was that many coun­tries rightly feel un­ease at China’s am­bi­tions.

Two fine books, Bruno Ma­caes’s The Dawn of Eura­sia and Barry Cun­liffe’s By Steppe, Desert and Ocean, con­sider the pre­his­tory of Eurasian com­mer­cial in­fra­struc­ture and the set­ting for China’s big 21st-cen­tury plans.

Ma­caes, a Por­tuguese in­tel­lec­tual, is plugged in: a se­nior ad­viser on geopol­i­tics at Flint Global in Lon­don, a se­nior fel­low at Ren­min Univer­sity in Bei­jing, and a fel­low at the Hud­son on In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton. The Dawn of Eura­sia is a won­nder­ful back­grounder to o con­cerns raised in the The Econ­o­mist. Its ar­gu­ment is that the vast su­per­con­ti­nent that ex­tends from the At­lantic to the Pa­cific c and from the Arc­tic to the e Per­sian Gulf and the Bay of Ben­gal is, for the first time, , be­com­ing a sin­gle, in­te­grated grated eco­nomic unit, with geopo­lit­i­cal olit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions for which the EU, which he cher­ishes, is un­pre­pared.

Cun­liffe pro­vides, how­ever, what Ma­caes does not: the pre­his­tory of Eura­sia. He en­riches enor­mously the ab­stract and anec­do­tal char­ac­ter of Ma­caes’s con­cise brief­ing on what is un­fold­ing be­fore our eyes.

By Steppe, Desert and Ocean is mag­nif­i­cently il­lus­trated, in­clud­ing 94 coloured maps that are an ed­u­ca­tion in them­selves. He of­fers, for in­stance, a set of four maps show­ing the chang­ing veg­e­ta­tion pat­terns in the Le­vant ei­ther side of the Younger Dryas, be­tween 15,000 and 9500 years ago. It’s a won­der­ful mi­cro-study in cli­mate change.

Be­gin­ning with the geo­phys­i­cal set­ting and the tec­tonic for­ma­tion of the vast land­mass, Cun­liffe takes us through the state of hu­man set­tle­ment at the end of the most re­cent ice age and the be­gin­nings of agri­cul­ture in the Fer­tile Cres­cent. He then guides us back and forth across Eura­sia down to the 14th cen­tury, the eve of the era of Western colo­nial­ism.

The Mon­gol as­cen­dancy and the Black Death mark the end of his his­tory, circa 1400. By then, we have seen the spread of agri­cul­ture from the Fer­tile Cres­cent through­out Europe, the Mid­dle East and In­dia, as well as its emer­gence in China. We have wit­nessed the emer­gence of Ne­olithic and then met­al­lur­gi­cal tech­nolo­gies, writ­ing and record keep­ing, the rise and fall of city-states, em­pires, no­mad cul­tures on the steppes, and the end­less and of­ten vi­o­lent mi­gra­tions of horserid­ing no­mads into the agrar­ian zones.

These books are a su­perb in­tro­duc­tion to the world of which we are a pe­riph­eral part. The ex­tra­or­di­nary progress that sci­en­tific arche­ol­ogy and his­tor­i­cal stud­ies have made in re­cent decades is fully re­flected in Cun­liffe’s grand syn­the­sis.

Our own place in this vast can­vas is per­haps best cap­tured in Billy Grif­fiths’s Deep Time Dream­ing: Un­cov­er­ing An­cient Aus­tralia. Jux­ta­pos­ing that book with Cun­liffe’s shows, in stag­ger­ing depth of per­spec­tive, how stranded in­dige­nous Aus­tralians were af­ter the end of the ice age, as this con­ti­nent be­came more iso­lated and more parched, com­pared with the vast and fer­tile cul­tural in­ter­min­gling and end­less tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion that took place across Eura­sia.

Cun­liffe is a won­der­ful scholar. Ma­caes is a con­tem­po­rary politi­cian and an­a­lyst who ex­hibits an un­usual and re­fresh­ing ca­pac­ity to ap­pre­ci­ate the hu­man and the lo­cal in the midst of the eco­nomic and the geopo­lit­i­cal. His range of em­pathies is re­mark­able and he has been able to se­cure un­usual ac­cess across the geoe­co­nomic land­scape he sur­veys.

If he has an an­tipa­thy, it is Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia. He has form in this re­gard. Only a few years ago, while serv­ing as Por­tu­gal’s Europe min­is­ter, he vig­or­ously pushed for the EU to look west and build its en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture around im­ports from North Amer­ica, to counter Rus­sia’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of oil and gas mar­kets for geopo­lit­i­cal ends.

The chap­ters Chi­nese Dreams, The Is­land and Rus­sia Turns East are the piv­otal ones. He be­gins The Is Is­land with this re­mark: “Rus­sian o of­fi­cials will never say it in pub pub­lic, but in pri­vate they confe con­fess to in­creas­ing wor­ries abo about Chi­nese en­cir­cleme ment.” Ma­caes sees Rus­sia as feel­ing trapped betw tween Europe, where it is not wel­come, and China, which it sees as al­lur­ing an and im­pres­sive but alien and dan­ger­ous. His re­flec­tion tions on Rus­sia are well-in­forme formed and thought­ful. He traces Rus­sian his­tory, reads Rus­sian nov nov­els, con­verses with Rus­sian in­tel­lec­tu­als and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures and, while crit­i­cal of Putin’s aims and am­bi­tions, is able to em­pathise with Rus­sian dilem­mas, as­pi­ra­tions and cul­tural con­fu­sion in the af­ter­math of the com­mu­nist de­ba­cle.

In some ways, he ar­gues, the idea of Eura­sia was a Rus­sian in­ven­tion, in the writ­ings of ex­iled aris­to­cratic lin­guist Niko­lai Sergeye­vich Tru­bet­zkoy (1890-1938) who ar­gued, in the 1920s, that Rus­sia was the heir not sim­ply of Rome and Con­stantino­ple but of Genghis Khan. Its des­tiny was to tran­scend the western Euro­pean En­light­en­ment and cham­pion a more “spir­i­tual” civil­i­sa­tion bring­ing East and West to­gether.

He also draws Lev Gu­milev (1902-92) into our un­der­stand­ing of mod­ern Rus­sia. Gu­milev, the son of the great anti-Bol­she­vik poet Anna Akhma­tova and her ill-fated hus­band Niko­lai Gu­milev, suf­fered enor­mously un­der Joseph Stalin. He be­came, how­ever, a ro­man­tic Rus­sian na­tion­al­ist and Eurasian­ist who called on Rus­sia to free it­self from the West and find al­lies among the Turks and Mon­gols. It is the im­pli­ca­tions of all this for the EU’s or­derly world that most con­cern Ma­caes.

That con­cern forms a di­rect link be­tween Ma­caes’s re­flec­tions and Cun­liffe’s his­tor­i­cal sur­vey. For Rus­sia strad­dles the Eurasian steppes and, as Cun­liffe shows, it was in and through those steppes that those rid­ers on the storms of his­tory, the horsed no­mads, moved for more than 4000 years, in­vad­ing Europe, China and the Mid­dle East.

If the Belt & Road Ini­tia­tive is to be raised, the dis­po­si­tion of Rus­sia will be cen­tral to how or whether it can be done and how China’s grand Eurasian am­bi­tions play out. Ma­caes is on the money. Cun­liffe shows us where all the bod­ies are buried. books in­clude Thun­der From the Silent Zone: Re­think­ing China.

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