Mak­ing sense of new world or­der

Peter Frankopan’s 2015 book which painted a new his­tory of the world was a sen­sa­tion. He tells Wil­liam Yeo­man why he has up­dated it three years on

The West Australian - - AGENDA -

Peter Frankopan is Pro­fes­sor of Global His­tory at Ox­ford Univer­sity. He’s also a keen ob­server of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics — in­clud­ing our own.

“I’m not an Aus­tralian voter,” he says when asked what he thought about Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son con­sid­er­ing mov­ing Aus­tralia’s em­bassy in Is­rael from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “But I would have thought that with so many fires burn­ing all around the world, one would choose one’s fights a bit more care­fully.”

About the re­cent APEC meet­ing, he is equally scep­ti­cal. “Noth­ing’s go­ing to get fixed by what a few global lead­ers, mainly men, say in the space of a few hours while en­joy­ing the de­lights of Pa­pua New Guinea. But it’s very strik­ing that a great deal of at­ten­tion is be­ing paid to it.”

He says the prob­lem fac­ing most politi­cians is the same as that fac­ing their elec­torates. “It’s dif­fi­cult when you’re a politi­cian,” he says. “The world comes at you very quickly and you’re re­spond­ing to hour-to-hour events with pithy sound bites.

“It’s hard to find time to re­flect. It’s eas­ier to talk about walls and even to build them than it is to make new al­liances and to ac­cept what the new re­al­i­ties are.”

Frankopan’s 2015 book The Silk Roads: A New His­tory of the World — the ti­tle ref­er­ences the old trade routes con­nect­ing East and West — pro­vided a long-over­due cor­rec­tive to Euro­cen­tric world his­to­ries by fo­cus­ing more on China, In­dia, East­ern Europe and the Mid­dle East. It be­came an in­stant clas­sic, sell­ing more than one mil­lion copies and be­ing trans­lated into 25 lan­guages.

His lat­est book is The New Silk Roads: The Present and the Fu­ture of the World. It looks at a world that in the mere three years since the pub­li­ca­tion of the ear­lier book has changed dra­mat­i­cally.

“Asia and the Silk Roads are ris­ing — and they are ris­ing fast,” he writes in the book. How­ever, “the sun ris­ing in the East does not mean that it is set­ting on the West. Not yet, at least.”

“Although 2015 doesn’t feel so long ago, so much has hap­pened,” he says. “You have Brexit. You have a huge change in Europe, where the fun­da­men­tals of the Euro­pean Union are un­der threat. We’ve got Trump in the US; in Rus­sia we have Putin and the ac­cel­er­a­tion of in­ter­ven­tion in other states’ af­fairs. Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are all bub­bling away. Last year, there was a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion be­tween China and In­dia. There’s a lot go­ing on.”

Frankopan, whose other pub­li­ca­tions in­clude an il­lus­trated ver­sion of The Silk Roads for younger read­ers, says that as an his­to­rian the one thing he is most wor­ried about is in­sta­bil­ity.

“I don’t like sud­den, rapid change,” he says. “Be­cause his­tory teaches you that there are not just ma­jor con­se­quences but lots of un­pre­dictable, frag­men­tary ones. In to­day’s world where we are talk­ing about mul­ti­mil­lion pop­u­la­tions and mul­ti­tril­lion economies, the tini­est move­ment of the nee­dle can have a gi­ant im­pact on us all.”

He doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily agree that the ad­vent of more ac­ces­si­ble and cheaper air travel and the rise of the in­ter­net have led to a great un­der­stand­ing of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and world views.

“We are re­treat­ing, de­spite the fact we’re more in­tensely glob­alised, more con­nected than ever by air travel and dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and so on,” he says. “I think there is a nar­row­ing of per­spec­tive. We are sit­ting like rab­bits in head­lights and not re­spond­ing very quickly to how the world changes.”

The so­lu­tion is ed­u­ca­tion. “The way we teach his­tory,” he says. “The way we teach lan­guages. Even the way we travel. You can put up all sorts of bar­ri­ers but the tides of his­tory are un­stop­pable.” The New Silk Roads: The Present and Fu­ture of the World is pub­lished on De­cem­ber 1 by Blooms­bury ($33)

Pic­ture: AP

In­dian labour­ers build­ing a hos­pi­tal near New Delhi, part of the coun­try’s boom­ing econ­omy.

The cover of The New Silk Roads.

Peter Frankopan

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