New roads, new kingdoms, old news
Peter Frankopan’s follow-up to his ambitious history of Central Asia is a somewhat repetitive current affairs manual
Geopolitics talk is irresistible, but the truth is that most of what matters happens behind closed doors and on protected phone lines inaccessible to those outside high political or bureaucratic office. Even those who engage regularly with the establishment go about their day jobs with an awareness of this opacity—few think tank white papers, especially of a predictive nature, can withstand the realpolitik test.
Among the civilians, it is a question of when, and not if, any kind of social setting involving conversation—running the spectrum from literature festival panel discussions to a raucous night out with old college buddies—will enter the “Putin is the real king of the world” or “Do you know how much oil there is in Iran” zone. In a Twitter world where the lines between amateur and expert are increasingly blurred, analyses of international relations begin to resemble each other quite easily.
It would be unfair to categorize historian Peter Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads as just another hot-take (given that it is intended as a “present and future” follow-up to his book on the “past”), but there is not much in it that adds a fresh perspective to a well-established thesis that is now beginning to sound a little tired, at least in our part of the world: the shift in the balance of power from the West to the East.
Its predecessor, The Silk Roads (2015), was a popular narrative history tome in the classic sense, with more than 600 pages devoted to challenging the Euro-centric view by highlighting the pioneering role of Central Asia and China in the history of the world. By many accounts, it was a book well-received by critics and readers alike, capturing as it did the zeitgeist of Asia’s sense of returning to the glories of centuries past. The plaudits, no doubt, encouraged its publisher to produce a sequel that would bring the story up-to-date.
At less than 350 pages, the new book is a slim volume relative to its predecessor, yet it feels like a few pages too many for subjects that are rehashed regularly in news magazines like The Economist and Foreign Affairs. What it does work as, however, is as a compendium of data points to anecdotally buttress flavour-of-the-season themes in international affairs reporting: the rise of strongman politics; China’s strategy of gaining economic and cultural capital through its One Belt, One Road initiative; the new bling of Central Asian capitals such as Kazakhstan’s Astana and Turkemenistan’s Ashgabat.
Frankopan’s examples do a competent job of mapping the global butterfly effect arising out of domestic developments in countries like China, Russia and Iran (a not-so-unlikely triumvirate straight out of a Washington nightmare). A typical example detailing cause and effect is one explaining the rise of donkey prices in Tajikistan and some African countries. Increased spending power in China has led to increased demand for ejiao, a traditional medicine that is thought to relieve pain, treat acne and improve the libido. Donkey hide is one of the main ingredients of ejiao. China has had to look elsewhere for the animal because its own donkey population has been halved in the last 25 years. Some African countries, like Niger and Burkina Faso, whose agrarian economies could be destabilized by the decreasing number of donkeys (a useful pack animal) and rising prices, have had to go so far as to ban the export of donkeys to China.
The New Silk Roads also covers the more obvious instances to highlight the shift in the world order. The disintegration of any chance of a coordinated Western policy is evidenced in the situation that European businesses find themselves in, with respect to President Donald Trump’s declaration that any country doing business with Iran would face sanctions. As a response to the US missive, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has sought to activate a legislation that would ban European companies from complying with the US sanctions against Iran. The result might be what Frankopan describes as “surrealist politics and economics…European businesses face the choice of being fined if they do business with Iran by the US—and being fined by the European Union if they do not.”
Fine examples they may be, but one gets the sense that they are overdone. The book’s modus of factual bombardment does not lend itself to a neat narrative structure—the data points are so relentless and tightly packed with each other that they begin to feel like a rigmarole. Even the four chapter titles seem to blend into each other (“The Roads to the East”; “The Roads to the Heart of the World”; “The Roads to Beijing”; “The Roads to the Future”), and do nothing to indicate any major differentiation in their content. It is not an easy book to use for referencing—wanting to return to a specific example a couple of days after a read, the reader is left without even an approximation of the part where the titbit may have been come across.
In the end, one is left with the feeling that Frankopan, who is now professor of global history at Oxford University, might have been a victim of his own success. This sort of book, a regurgitation of cold fact, hard numbers and accompanying obvious truths, is best left to op-ed writers or foreign affairs experts. In his own introductory admission, Frankopan says that his bread-and-butter work in medieval Byzantine history received only lukewarm interest at dinner parties. It is tempting to read the book as an attempt to be more “with it” and contribute to the conversation about Trump’s ever-changing equations with his Asian friends and foes.
To infuse the book with soul, Frankopan could have deployed some of the narrative heft of The Silk Roads. There is a need to re-imagine book-length writing about contemporary geopolitics. Perhaps it could borrow from the tools of travel and history writing, to evoke a sense of place and a sense of the other. How else are the civilians to deal with the futility of only ever half-knowing what went on behind the closed door?
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