The popular Western perception of world history is that “Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, which begat the Renaissance, which led to the Enlightment period, which begat political democracy which, in turn, begat the Industrial Revolution and brought us to today’s American-dominated world”. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Peter Frankopan.
In his new book, “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World”, Frankopan goes back to (circa) 1,000 BC and the emergence of the Persian and Greek dynasties, and shows how it was, in fact, the Middle East and countries along the Silk Road which have had the greatest role in shaping the modern world and which continue to play a critical role today, albeit currently more in terms of energy risk and globally impacting conflicts. His conclusion, after more than 600 pages of descriptive history and analysis, is that the Silk Road – broadly defined as those from the Black Sea to the Chinese border – countries are again in the ascendency and will regain their historic role as the spine of global commerce and culture.
The author traces the origin of the specific term “Silk Road” to German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen (uncle of the WWI flying ace the Red Baron). His reference to “Seidenstrasse” has stuck, although the first recognition of the region as a conduit for trade and war and the development of culture and arts can be traced back as far as 130 BC, when China took control of the Gansu corridor and opened up a route across the Pamir mountains and onto the West. Marco Polo (1254-1324) hardly gets a mention in the book, as he actually travelled along routes already well established by the Mongols and other traders and invaders over the previous millennium. Marco clearly had a better PR agent to help establish his place in history.
For those in the West who like to think that it was Europe that had the critical role in world history they should consider two sections of Frankopan’s book. In his review of the Roman Empire, he says the evidence shows that Roman soldiers constantly tried their best to get out of a posting in northern Europe in favour of the more cultured and developed east. Britain, for example, was widely viewed as a byword for “grim and fruitless isolation”; anybody living north of the Alps was considered an uncultured savage. The other section looks at the spread of Islam. The author says that the whole of Europe could easily have been conquered by invading forces that came across from North Africa into Spain. The reason why their advance had long since faltered when they were beaten in a decisive battle in France is simply because the soldiers saw little opportunity for plunder or riches in such backward lands and, in increasing numbers, went back to the Middle East to concentrate on advancing eastwards.
While northern Europeans were indeed mainly marauders, the popular perception of the history of the Middle East and of invaders from the east is that they were particularly bloodthirsty and engaged in wholesale slaughter and destruction. Not so, says Frankopan. For sure there are plenty of well-documented wars and atrocities carried out by the Greeks, Romans, Mongols and forces under Tamerlane (1336-1405). But once they had conquered, the victors set about fostering art and culture, and building administrative and business structures. In other words, while the conflicts were regularly brutal, there were very lengthy periods in between when culture and economics were encouraged and fostered. The author’s contention is that this is in direct contrast to the history of Europe which, over the past 2,000 years, has been either engaged in internal wars or conducting destructive campaigns against others on a near-constant basis. He argues, for example, that no Asian conqueror ever led to the destruction of native populations in a similar way that the Mayan civilization of South America or the native Americans in the north were wiped out to make way for Europeans.
The book also has some interesting historic precedent for events shaping today. In 1570 Pope Pius V issued a bull against the English monarch in which he referred to Elizabeth I as “the pretender Queen of England, the servant of crime”. That greatly reinforced England’s isolation from Europe and, it can be argued, because England was not involved in the constant infighting across the continent, it led to the emergence of the United Kingdom as a global power. That would not have happened had it been dragged into Europe’s eternal conflicts. Perhaps a lesson some might refer to in the EU referendum to held before the end of 2017.
The second modern relevance concerns how the West, especially the UK (in its role of global superpower at the time) and the US since the start of the last century, views Russia. Basically, the relationship has always been confrontational and mired in suspicion. For example, in 1820 a member of the Duke of Wellington’s cabinet, referring to the threat posed by Russia, said that, “Britain’s primary role in the world today is simple: to limit the power of Russia”. In 1854 Lord Palmerston declared in parliament that “Russia was to be taught a lesson” and he urged the escalation of a (then) little-known war in Crimea as the venue or opportunity for that “lesson”. One has to wonder if those who have so enthusiastically supported sanctions have ever heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade?
But the most interesting and currently relevant history is that of China’s efforts to build trade links with the rest of the world. Beijing has allocated hundreds of billions of dollars to create what it refers to as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”. That plan is to build thousands of miles of rail and road links to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and to the Indian Ocean and sub-Sahara Africa. Those links will be laid cross Central Asia, Russia and Iran – ie. basically across the old trade paths. The reason for now concentrating on such land links is possibly because of the lesson learned in the late 1500s. At that time China was also looking to expand its trade routes and started building a merchant navy fleet. But at every opportunity the ships of the better managed and larger European fleets blocked China’s expansion plans. Today the US Navy has that dominant role, which leaves China in a very vulnerable position. To the planners in Beijing it makes more sense to modernize and expand already proven land links.
One reason why China is in such a hurry to build those links and to expand its trade capacity is also because of another lesson of history. In the 16th century the country had expanded its domestic production capacity so much it was no longer capable of consuming all that it made. It needed to sell them abroad, but because of the naval blockade it was unable to do so. Hence the economic collapse which, at the time, was known as the “bullion famine”, but which today could be called a “credit crunch”.
Frankopan’s contention is that this century will again belong to the Silk Road countries, especially taking into account the re-emergence of Iran and the expansion of India’s regional economic and political ambitions. Iran, in particular, has always been the central player in Silk Road history. Whether the author’s view is overly optimistic or not, it is becoming clear that the Silk Road “region” is returning to a more important economic and political role in the world.
Over the past 100 years, in particular, the West has consistently mis-read the region with policies which seemed to flip-flop every other decade. Put simply, more often than not Western governments have gotten its engagement strategy wrong. If Frankopan’s assumptions about the future trends are even half correct, investors need to start paying more of an unbiased attention to the region – and sooner rather than later.
“The Silk Roads: A New History of the World”, Peter Frankopan, published by Bloomsbury Publishing (2015)
Chris Weafer is a founding partner of Macro-Advisory, which helps investors cut though the noise & focus on underlying trends, real political risks, & opportunities in Russia/CIS, Eurasia Union, & Mongolia. Follow him on @ChrisWeafer