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
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)
Indian labourers building a hospital near New Delhi, part of the country’s booming economy.
The cover of The New Silk Roads.