'These were the gene corridors': in conversation with Peter Frankopan on his latest book, ‘The New Silk Roads’

Peter Frankopan looks at history as a series of connections

Updated - December 23, 2018 02:58 pm IST

Published - December 22, 2018 04:00 pm IST

One world: ‘We are joined together by the exchange of ideas.’

One world: ‘We are joined together by the exchange of ideas.’

In 2015, when Peter Frankopan wrote the book Silk Roads – A History of the World, little did he expect that it would become a bestseller. He writes in its introduction about how the Eurocentric narrative of history as it is taught in the West, focussing on the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution up to the present period, is “flawed and there were alternative ways of looking at history — ones that did not involve looking at the past from the perspective of the winners of recent history”. In the sequel to that book released this year, The New Silk Roads , the Oxford professor of history continues on that trail, showing how contemporary politics is converging on the nations along the ancient Silk Roads.

Excerpts from an interview:

In both your books, you’ve argued that the region lying between the East and the West on the old Silk Road, is the real centre of the globe that influenced its past and will shape its future. Please elaborate.

First of all, I must say that there is no actual Silk Road in the physical sense: it is a concept developed by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen to describe the networks of exchange linking Han-dynasty China with the world beyond. In a loose sense, he tried to identify the geographical scope of how goods and ideas were exchanged between Asia, Europe and Africa. The concept clarifies the centrality of the control of resources and long-distance trade that can fashion the rise of empires. This region mattered in the past, it does so now, and it will in the future too.

In the past, the Silk Roads acted as ‘gene corridors’ for both humans and the natural world, resulting in the spread of languages, cultures and even diseases.

In the 21st century, decisions being made in Beijing and Moscow, in Tehran and Riyadh, in Delhi and Islamabad, and in Kabul and in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, Ankara, Damascus and Jerusalem, will continue to shape world affairs. In The New Silk Roads, I have provided a detailed snapshot of contemporary affairs, but through a wide lens, in the hope of providing context for what is going on around the world.

How is what happened along the Silk Roads, in terms of trade and exchange of ideas and culture, different from globalisation today?

The speed of exchanges is the key today. We are 12 hours away from anywhere in the world. We can share ideas instantaneously using digital technology, for free. The intensity of these connections is different and with the digital and transportation revolution, we are tied more closely together, which brings both benefits and challenges.

In the past too there was extensive interaction along the trade routes, but most interactions were local. Elite goods traded along these routes have survived over the years. Silk from China and India have been found in the graves in Scandinavia, for instance.

One of the challenges with the Silk Roads is distinguishing between the short local trade and long-distance exchanges taking place. There was also an exchange of ideas. For instance, prostrating on the floor with the head touching the ground, during prayer or as a mark of respect, was a practice that spread through this region the world over. That the same action is performed in other parts of the world is not a coincidence, it is about how we learn from each other. In the past as well as now, we are joined together by such exchange of ideas.

How are the Silk Roads and their history then vital to explaining present political turmoil, especially with events such as the rise of the global Right and Brexit?

Societies are always in a state of flux and often understanding these changes requires us to look outside of what is happening within our own countries. States which have resources at their disposal are the ones that drive the changes. The rise of the Right today is because of the promise of stability it brings to communities at the receiving end of globalisation. The great winners of the globalising forces have been the global poor who gained in terms of opportunities.

But the losers of this process comprise a large part of the group who have supported Trump and Brexit. Meanwhile, other countries such as India and China are becoming wealthier. That does not mean that the West stands to lose. The danger of such Eurocentrism lies in how we fail to understand the flows of that model of exchange.

A hundred years ago, a quarter of the world’s population owed allegiance to the British crown, but today those overseas territories have gone. That is the source of this turmoil. Let us shift focus from the West and look at India, for a change.

The Chabahar Port is important for India’s energy supplies. The Modi government is planning to build motorways into Myanmar and Thailand. India is buying weapons from Russia and building networks that stand up against China. It is all part of how different pieces of the global jigsaw puzzle are moving that will shape the future.

So, you are saying that to understand the present we have to fall back on history to explore the interconnections, spanning regions or periods of time…

Yes. We will have to look at history as a series of connections. In 1776, when America became independent, one of the prime movers of that event had been the Boston Tea Party in 1773. It was a consequence of Chinese tea being traded by the East India Company without paying taxes. Americans knew of the Bengal famine that was caused by the trade policies of East India Company in India and didn’t want America to go in that same direction. And look at how that awareness changed the course of history.

How is China’s Belt and Road initiative going to impact global politics and development?

The awareness of a new world being knitted together has helped prompt plans for the future that will capitalise on and accelerate the changing patterns of economic and political power. Chief among these is the Belt and Road initiative. Some believe that the amount of money that will be ploughed into China’s neighbours and countries as part of this initiative will eventually multiply several times over, to create an interlinked world of train lines, highways, deep-water ports and airports that will enable trade links to grow ever stronger and faster.

I think it is fair to say that the initiative is attracting considerable controversy in India, the U.S. and elsewhere — partly because of the debts that some less developed countries are incurring while building major infrastructure projects. It is easy to criticise, however. Many countries need large-scale investment. And I am not sure whether the U.S., India or others can — or will — dig into their own pockets to put their money where their mouth is. Maybe that will change in the coming years.

Vidya Venkat is doing a PhD in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London.

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