All roads used to lead to Rome. Today they lead to Beijing.
A year ago I wrote a blog post that listed ten of my favourite books. Among these was The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. For someone who loves reading history, this book was fascinating. It is not so much groundbreaking in the story it tells, but rather, the way that story is told. In the west, we often follow history through a series of civilizations that rise and fall and are then superseded by what follows. And so we go to school reading about the Egyptians, then the Greeks, then the Romans, and finally the rise of Europe and America.
Frankopan tells this same familiar history from a completely different perspective. He places modern-day Iran (formerly called Persia) at the centre of world history. The same empires still rise and fall. But the perspective from which the story is told changes, and in my opinion, the story is much richer, broader and more accurate for the change.
Frankopan has recently written a second book called The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. In some ways, this book is a sequel to the former, although it spans a few years of current events rather than millennia of history.
Frankopan seeks to explore the massive changes that are currently taking place in the world, but again from a different perspective. While the west is becoming increasingly inward-focused, the rest of the world, and particularly Asia is transforming rapidly, and in many ways becoming more inter-connected.
The relentless focus on the White House, on Brexit and on the day’s latest breaking news in familiar corridors of power in the west means there is limited focus on what is going on elsewhere in the world. This blindness is particularly strong when it comes to large-scale developments that have regional, and indeed trans-continental consequences…
Where the story in Asia is about increasing connections, improving collaboration and deepening cooperation, in Europe the story is about separation, the re-erection of barriers and ‘taking back control’.
-Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World
Frankopan in particular examines the rapid economic changes taking place in China and other parts of Asia including China’s Belt and Road Initiative. He seeks to explore ways in which the rapidly growing economies of Asia will cause significant change across the globe, including Europe and the Americas.
Of particular interest to me is the way in which the countries of Central Asia, (“the ‘Stans”) have grown massively in strategic and economic importance even while being considered the epitome of obscurity in the west. But with Frankopan’s perspective of history, this is not, and should not, be surprising. After all, it is these very countries that formed the heart of the ancient silk roads that were once the economic hub of the world.
The sun may be setting on the three hundred or so years in which Europe and America have led the world in political, military and especially economic power. With a wider view of history, this should not be surprising. Like it or not, the world is going through a period of significant change. We in western countries would do well to pay more attention to the world outside of our borders. The New Silk Roads is a good place to start.
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