Image credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures
This article is an edited transcript of The Silk Roads with Peter Frankopan available on History Hit TV.
The rise of the West has played out in numerous different phases. In the first phase, the discovery of the Americas allowed Conquistadores from Spain, and then Portugal, to strip assets from Aztec and Incan populations. They then started the silver and gold mines that unleashed a mountain of capital and cash back in Europe.
That capital gave Europeans the ability to invest and take stakes in businesses that bought products from the east. It also spurred the same European countries to send enormous trade missions out to places like India, China and Japan. Suddenly, there was a surge in disposable wealth.
Violent, ultra-competitive innovators
Europe’s key competitive advantage since antiquity has been that, for whatever reason, it’s the one continent that has seen persistent violence among its inhabitants.
In 1500 there were 500 political units in Europe and by 1900, there were 25.
European history is defined by stories of the strong devouring the weak, and of constant conflicts that inevitably end with the strongest party left standing.
We can see this tendency emerging as far back as the Middle Ages, when a knight on a big white horse, fighting for his faith, became an era-defining image. The elision of nobility and the military has long been an important element of Europe’s identity.
Looking back, the Europeans have been very good at mechanising violence and investing in better ways of fighting. We evolved castle designs that became almost impregnable, invented the machine gun and, eventually, the nuclear bomb.
It’s no coincidence that such scientific and military technologies have all come from the western world, rather than from places where that profile, that rhythm of violence, has been less of a defining characteristic.
In many ways, the striving, competitive tendency that has characterised the West is entirely healthy and positive. The need to make things better, leaner and more efficient enables advances to be made in the capitalist world.
We shouldn’t be too negative about this tendency and overlook all the positive things that have come from it, but I do think that the pattern of urbanisation in Europe, the drive to invest and get hold of things, is the reason why western Europe took over the world.
We quickly went from being trading partners with countries like India to thinking that we could dominate them.
When Robert Clive, the commander-in-chief of British India, was investigated by the British parliament, he answered criticism of the East India Company by pointing out that he was running a business, and that his primary responsibility was to his shareholders, not to the local population in Bengal.
That was after a famine in which tens of millions of Indians had died of hunger.
Throughout history there’s been a constant tension around who is doing what for whom and how you get the balance right in an interconnected world. Where do your responsibilities lie?
Is Britain’s role on the global stage diminished?
Today, decisions being made in Moscow, Tehran, New Delhi, Beijing and Shanghai are more important than ever.
Decisions relating to the oil and nuclear technologies available in Iran, or to pipeline distribution that’s pumping huge volumes of gas and oil into China are much more important than anything that’s being decided by the British chancellor.
Britain has a limited role on the big global stage these days and we’re not particularly well set up. We don’t teach our children about these countries and we don’t teach their languages.
Having said that, Britain’s stock is still very high in most parts of the world. And the fact that we’re not America, China, Russia, Iran or even India is certainly to our advantage in terms of business and alliance-building in some areas and sectors.
Britain and the West are not necessarily lost causes, but emergent parts of the world are better positioned – especially if one takes the long view and forgets the current economic cycle and crises.
There’s more oil underneath the Caspian Sea than there is under the entire North American continental shelf and all the components we need for our laptops and mobile phones – things like dysprosium – are centred in places like Kazakhstan and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.
By contrast, we don’t have an enormous amount of anything in western Europe. Indeed, the differentiations between who’s actually German and who’s actually French are very small. Whereas in other parts of the world, access to commodities, foodstuffs and water will shape the future of geopolitics.
The whole modern-day Silk Road region – running from Syria through to the Pacific coast of China – is defined by exchange.
Exchange shapes events in the region, so something that happens in Syria can have an impact thousands of miles away. We can see this because it’s affecting policy decisions being made in Washington, Moscow and now China.
We wade into disputes without understanding what’s happening on the ground and misjudging the fact that our potential allies are turning into our enemies and antagonists.
But we need to be careful how we get the genie out of the bottle, because it’s very difficult to put it back in again.