Perspectives on ascent of Eurasia
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.