Image credit: David Iliff / Commons
This article is an edited transcript of The Silk Roads with Peter Frankopan available on History Hit TV.
We can talk about big themes in history and politics but, in reality, across the globe there’s always a relatively peripheral engagement with the centre of global power. We can talk about Washington and Beijing but what does that actually mean if you don’t have a job and you’re living in Turkmenistan?
A better world tomorrow
The two things history teaches us is that, as long as people have freedom of expression, particularly freedom of religious expression, and as low a tax bill as possible, by and large they tend to get on with whatever system of government they have, or whoever happens to be their temporary overlord.
As long as there’s no risk of being disappeared in the middle of the night and locked up in prison, or being beaten up or suffering grotesque human rights abuses, the human condition allows us to accept short-term difficulties in return for what we think is going to be a better world tomorrow.
The reason why many people have children is because we all live in hope that the world will become a better, happier and more prosperous place, rather than one that’s marked by fear, worry and anxiety.
That is very much the story of China, India and countries in Central Asia where hundreds of millions have come out of poverty over the last two decades. People believe that the world is going to get better. They feel that this is their moment, that this is their time.
Is the West going the way of the Roman Empire?
By contrast, here in western Europe we are acutely aware that we can’t allow more people in, that our population is stretched to bursting point.
We can’t pay for any more roads, we can’t build any more schools, we can’t do all sorts of things.
In Britain, the Financial Times tells us that our children’s generation is the first that will be significantly worse off than its parents.
And when countries turn in on themselves like that, then they begin to reenact what happened when Rome fell or when other great empires in the past petered out.
They tend not to go out with a giant explosion and collapse. They just sort of whimper and become restrictive and intolerant. They get marked by fear. Interestingly, this normally coincides with a very strong redistribution of wealth upwards and into the hands of the few, because there are opportunities to take advantage of people’s suffering and anxieties.
The worry about Europe and the West is that we’re constantly having to fight against an atmosphere of negativity, and that contrasts very sharply with other parts of the world.
Clearly, places like Syria are very specific exceptions and there are groups of people going through hell on earth. But other parts of the world are feeling that this is their moment. Their children have no boundaries in front of them.