NEW SILK ROADS, OLD PREOCCUPATIONS
The China story is fast losing its novelty, at least in Asia if not in Europe, and is now ubiquitous both alongside the route of the old silk road but, equally important, also outside of it
Peter Frankopan, an Oxford historian, is well-known as the author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. That book was a 2015 bestseller—a nonWestern perspective on world history centring on the Silk Roads. In it, Istanbul, Khiva, Herat, Merv, Samarqand, etc, figured prominently as centres of world history. Explaining history from this perspective meant discarding, or at least correcting, the traditional Eurocentrism, characteristic of much of Western scholarship that traced a linear movement from ancient Rome to European and US domination in the 19th and 20th centuries. Clearly, changes in global power equations are requiring historians to relook facts and construct new frameworks of explanation.
The Silk Roads was history written on a grand scale, with narrative zest, its text made accessible by being regularly punctuated with connections drawn between seeming unconnected processes and facts designed to draw the reader in and stay with the narrative till the end. Its last sentence—‘The Silk Roads are rising again’—provides the point of entry for The New Silk Roads in which the attempt is to bring the story in his first book up to our own times. Hence the subtitle: ‘the present and future of the world’.
The opening pages explain the rationale for the new book: ‘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 road that really matter in the 21st century…. I wanted to remind the reader that the world’s past has been shaped by what happens along the Silk Roads. And I wanted to underline that so too will the future.’
In doing so, Frankopan gives us a rapid run through current global geopolitics punctuated by a striking series of facts and connections. For instance: ‘one of the most vibrant centres for tech startups in the world today is Iran’; Turkey’s embassy in Somalia ‘is the largest Turkish diplomatic mission in the world’; ‘Boeing’s corporate research suggests that Chinese airlines will buy more than 7,000 passenger jets in the next 20 years’, etc.
The book uses a large canvas that covers South and Central Asia, China, Russia, Iran, the Arab World and the East coast of Africa. A critique of Trump runs through and forms almost its predominant theme. Its other major theme is the rise of China. This is a story fast losing its novelty, at least in Asia if not in Europe, and is now almost ubiquitous both alongside the route of the old silk road but, equally important, also outside of it.
The book is engagingly written and draws on sources in a number of languages, but outside of Trump and China, the reader is left struggling to decipher what else exactly it says. If the aim is to juxtapose China today, all of whose actions are presented as deeply thought through by a mother brain somewhere in the middle kingdom, with a maverick Trump presidency that appears to lack strategic vision that leaves the question unanswered that many of Trump’s actions vis a vis China have a greater extent of bipartisan support than is generally conceded. But as one ricochets between Trump and China and savours the generous sampling of interesting connections and events, we are left yearning for the author of the The Silk Roads and the historian writing about the past rather than the present.
THE NEW SILK ROADS: The Present and Future of the World by PETER FRANKOPAN Bloomsbury `419; 335 pages