We may think in Europe that we are the centre of the world, but Peter Frankopan doesn’t agree. “From the beginning of time, the centre of Asia was where empires were made,” he wrote in his bestseller The Silk Roads – A new history of the world from 2015. The Greeks and Romans, for example, had relatively little interest in the rest of Europe. They had their sights set on Persia. That was for them their most important opponent, but also a birthplace of culture and science.
It is only after the exploratory expeditions in the late fifteenth century that the centre of world power really shifts to Europe, Frankopan writes. With the discovery of the Americas and the route to India via Cape of Good Hope, the roads of trade now all lead to Europe. Through colonisation and the spreading of Christianity, Europa makes its mark on the world in other areas.
An end to that era is now coming about slowly but surely. While the west is having more and more trouble upholding collaborative relations (see Brexit, but also the fact that the American president Donald Trump has left the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organisation), those on the other side of the world are seeking out collaboration.
The new silk roads
Take China, for example. It has experienced tremendous economic growth; China’s gross domestic product was only 39 per cent of that of the United States in 2001, in 2016 it had risen to 114 per cent. China uses its wealth to strengthen neighbouring countries with investments and to increase its power, Frankopan writes in The New Silk Roads from 2019.
They aren’t alone in this. In many ways, both economically and politically, the regions along the former silk roads – the Arabian Gulf States, countries in South-West Asia and China – are seeking each other out. In the meantime, their populations are becoming wealthier. Famous French wine houses, well-known New York hotels, and top football clubs in England: these days they are all in the hands of the new rich from China and the Arabian Gulf States. For decades, there has not been a single Western country on the World Bank’s list of fastest growing economies.
The main difference, says Frankopan in various interviews, is that leaders in the west have no vision about how they think the world should be. They focus largely on domestic problems and the short term. “I think that we in Europe, North America and elsewhere in the west need to think harder about exactly what our vision is for the future, and to frame that within a global context,” he says via e-mail. “It is hard to understand change in the world if one’s vision is so limited; and perhaps most important of all, where the echo chamber is so dominating that there is little critical thinking.”
The west doesn’t want to understand the East, he concludes. It doesn’t study the culture, but instead tries to impose its own standards and values. We like to see ourselves as the defenders of the pillars of democracy, branding other regions as places where people, to put it mildly, have a certain contempt for human rights.
But how good is our own democracy actually, Frankopan wonders. “How do we square a movement like Black Lives Matters with ‘a certain disregard towards human rights’? How good are we at the business of actually running a coherent and cohesive state in the west, and which ones function better or worse? Which regions in the Netherlands do a better job than others, and why? Is it actually plausible to talk of ‘pillars of democracy’ when the President of the United States claims he won the election? These are serious questions that deserve serious answers. It is not enough, in my opinion, to assume that our way of thinking or doing things is the way that everyone on the planet is going to copy. We should be more modest in our views of ourselves – which is a very Dutch thing to say and think.”
Rulers from the past
So, it is a good moment to stop and think, to look at others. What could the present leaders, for example, learn from rulers from the past? Certainly something, but maybe less than we may think. “Many people, I suspect, like to read biographies of great or tragic figures in the hope that this teaches lessons about character, or about decision making. For me, the mechanics of how the Mongol or Byzantine Empire functioned and how laws, rituals and governance took shape are more interesting than simply following Genghis Khan and painting an exaggerated portrait of a single figure. That is the way most historians operate these days. They look past the acts of great individuals (usually men) to think about societies that underpin them. If one wants to understand the Netherlands today, for example, is it enough – or even sensible – to only look at the comments and decisions of prime minister Mark Rutte, or should one start by thinking about what it means to be Dutch, where success (and problems) come from and what changes are taking place, where and why?”
Not standing still
The world is in continuous movement, says Frankopan. Balances of powers shift, rulers and their empires come and go. “You can waste your time, money and resources trying to stop it, but ages slowly come to an end. It is up to us to adapt,” says Frankopan in the Tegenlicht episode. In an e-mail he writes: “It can be helpful to think of states like organisms. There is no such thing as staying still, of being constant or even of being stable. The easiest way to assume a state is stable would be that its borders have changed little. But that geographic stability is not mirrored in things like who has a right to vote or how wealth is more (or less) evenly distributed in society. No state resembles its version in the past.” Nor should we want it to, he thinks. “I suppose those that resist change are the most stable. But would we think a country like North Korea is a good example to learn from?”
In short, don’t focus too much on a country or a leader, but keep looking at the bigger picture, is Frankopan’s advice. He hopes that those who are interested don’t allow themselves to be led too much by what they think they should know. “One of the big challenges for professors and teachers is to get the balance right between teaching students and telling them what to study on the one hand, but encouraging them to use their curiosity and initiative on the other. At Oxford, I try to encourage young thinkers to do just that: to think for themselves; to read widely from their own interests; and to consider what topics, periods, regions and questions they want to address. In my particular case, I am grateful that I had the freedom to explore in this way. So while I understand why young (and old) might want advice about when and where to start, my advice is to be the master of one’s own destiny, rather than rely on some professor pontificating about what he thinks is important.”