Silk Roads: A special Interview with Professor Peter Frankopan
“-How does the Caspian Region fit into this new Silk Road paradigm?
It lies at the centre. What happens in the coming years in Caucasus, Iraq, Iran, the Central Asia republics, but also in Southern Russia will drive change in the world. This is not just about energy, resources and attitudes. But where war – or peace – will shape the 21st century. And not just for the region, but for the whole world.”
How is the current phenomenon similar to the historical Silk Roads? More importantly, what makes it different?
As Mark Twain famously said, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The Silk Roads were a web of connections that straddled the spine of Asia but also linked peoples, countries and regions by sea. The term is an abstract one: there was no ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ of the Silk Roads; there was and is no structure to which locations or places were part of the Silk Roads. Labels are always blunt and even clumsy. But they can be useful in providing an over-arching concept that is helpful to understand the past, present and future. The Silk Roads in history describes ways in which goods, ideas, languages and also food, fashion, genes and disease were exchanged between neighbouring populations and over long-distance. In that sense, the modern Silk Roads are very similar: the world I look at in the present day is all about deepening and strengthening ties: and China, which is providing much of the initiative, drive and resource behind the connections being knitted across Asia, Africa and Europe has been careful to stress that this in an inclusive (rather than exclusive) model. So there are many similarities with the past.
-The original Silk Roads were methods of transporting goods by land. Yet, the majority of the world’s commerce today is maritime – does this have any effect on the development of current reconnection?
It depends who you ask. Some focus on the significance of train routes, the certain costs of transportation and also on the environmental impact of moving products by rail which are estimated to be as low as 5% of shipping by air, and half those of shipping by sea. Much depends too on how transportation patterns change. One study suggests an enormous shift from ari and sea to rail, with a base line assumption of 7,500 containers sent by rail in 2015 rising to 7.5million by 2020.
-The Silk Roads were born in a world where the New World was unknown. Indeed, it seems that it was the rise of Atlantic trade that spelled the beginning of the end for the silk road. While it is true that the East is gaining in importance, it seems that trans-Atlantic ties will not disappear, nor will the US fade into obscurity anytime soon. What effect does this have on current integration?
I disagree. In fact, the rise of Atlantic trade was a shot in the arm for the Silk Roads. It is no surprise, for example, that the glories of Safavid Empire, Mughal Iran and Qing China post-date Columbus. It is easy to forget that the expedition of Vasco da Gama that linked western Europe with the Gulf, South Asia and beyond was just as important as that of Columbus and those who followed him. It is important to think about the past in more connected and global terms that we usually do. Globalisation has emerged in the last 12 months as a highly negative term. That leaves me scratching my head in disbelief and despair. I am not sure that it is possible to stand in the way of change, and my study of history teaches me that it very dangerous to try to do so.
-The historical silk road was largely an organic phenomenon, comprised of vast networks of merchants across Eurasia. What do you make of the fact that much of the current integration seems to be driven by States and their projects (ie OBOR, New Silk Road, Eurasian Economic Union)?
Well, states of course have much more significant resources at their disposal than individual traders or corporations; but they also have a strong vested interest in building infrastcutre, legal systems and connections that allow the least resistance to trade and the optimum results as far as taxation and restoring and growing government revenues go. So states are fundamental to the major infrastructure projects we are seeing across Asia at the moment. Incidentally, this is not so dissimilar from the world of two thousand years ago: travellers and individual traders wrote about how well governed states were then too; how well the roads were maintained; what kind of passport controls were in place and so on. We think we are living in a new age and that our ancestors were fools. Neither is true.
-Historically, the Silk Roads have been sources not just opportunities, but also of threats (Steppe Invaders, Diseases, etc.). To what extent do you see this as relevant in the modern context?
Well, all intensive exchange can be dangerous. Disease, for example, spread quickly amongst people who communicate regularly. And in today’s world, the fact that bird flu can be spread by passengers on a plane in matter of hours should remind us how fragile our world is. I think there a great many threats to the international community from the way we travel, live and communicate. What matters is how we evaluate those risks, prepare for them, and then deal with them when they become real.
-The silk roads of old were partially driven by the riches in the Middle East. In your book you mention that the thrust of Roman expansion was not to the North and West, but to the East. Today, many of these historically important regions in between East and West are in turmoil. Syria, which was so important the Silk Roads of old is currently undergoing a particularly brutal civil war. Terrorist groups like the Islamic State have control of vast swathes of the Middle East, and are influencing similar movements in Central Asia (like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). Do you think this is a limiting factor on the potential of a new Silk Road, or is it just a repeat of patterns that have always existed?
We are witnessing the birthing pains of a region. Some of the problems we see today in the Middle East involve the unpicking of settlements made at the end of the First World War; others relate to interventions by western powers that could be most generously described as being ineffectual, and if one was more critical even describe as counter-productive. From my perspective, however, the most important thing is not to see the Middle East on its own as a separate, standalone phenomenon. We should consider this alongside the Arab spring of course; but also in the context of Russia and Ukraine; Brexit and the problems of the EU; Trump and the polarisation of US politics; massive social and ecomic change in China; transformation in South and South East Asia. We could benefit by looking at the past, present and future in more interesting ways.
-How does the Caspian Region fit into this new Silk Road paradigm?
It lies at the centre. What happens in the coming years in Caucasus, Iraq, Iran, the Central Asia republics, but also in Southern Russia will drive change in the world. This is not just about energy, resources and attitudes. But where war – or peace – will shape the 21st century. And not just for the region, but for the whole world.
– Finally, what role the European countries and the United States in particular can play in emerging Silk Roads thats primarily driven by China and its vast financial resources that it utilizes to push for the Belt and Road project?
That is the billion dollar question. We are all waiting to see what direction US foreign policy is going to take. I am one of the few who is willing to wait and see what happens, rather than bad my views shaped by what the President tweets first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Everything hangs on action rather than words. This is an exciting few years to watch the Silk Roads. But it is time to hasten the seat belts, as it could be a bump ride.