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#WavellReviews “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan

Available here from Bloomsbury Publishing

We all have certain ideas about world history; be they from formal education, travel or popular culture.  The broad strokes of ancient history in the Mediterranean are well known.  Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians are the mainstays of the way we view the ancient world.  When it comes to ancient China, invention and political machinations are vaguely known, but we often know little of the details.  As for India, our collective knowledge often extends only so far as its intersection with our own history through the days of Empire.  The pre-1900 history of all the areas in the middle, from Turkey to modern Pakistan and north into the Steppes, is largely unknown.

The Silk Roads is, despite what the name suggests, a narrative not of a people, a specific place or even trade as such, but of a dynamic.  This book looks at the geography of trade & culture, and how it intersects with politics to shape the world around us.  It stops short of being geographically deterministic, akin to Prisoners of Geography.  Rather it aims to create a single, uninterrupted logic throughout history, following the most famous chapters of the peoples and Empires which have peppered Eurasia from antiquity to the modern day.

The book’s greatest strength lies in its focussed lens, through which we can gain a fresh perspective on world history.  This book does not, for instance, teach the intricacies and palace intrigues of the Crusades, but it does disrupt the popular narrative.  Rather than an all-consuming religious confrontation, a clash of civilisations, the war is shown as a sideshow.  Conflict occurs around trade, rather than the other way round.  Far from the notion of zealous enemies, native traders continued trading with the European merchants even as the walls of Jerusalem were under siege.  Trade, Frankopan argues, is king.

Similarly, this book portrays the rise of Britain as a hegemon not merely as a triumph of industrialisation but as one of opportunity, via a shift in the centre of gravity of trade which occurred as a result of the discovery of the Americas.  Effective policy and a focus on the Royal Navy allowed Britain to outcompete its European rivals.  This shift in trade is argued to be the foundation on which industrialisation was founded, as well as the basis for a long-term shift in power dynamics towards Western Europe.

Rather than stick to stories from long ago, The Silk Roads covers the region all the way to the Global War on Terror, examining the impact of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, alongside the lingering challenge of Iran.  Set against a long history in the region, Frankopan argues that the west failed in its objectives in part due to viewing each of these three countries as separate issues, each requiring different strategies.  Furthermore he argues that the US’s commitment to shoring up the oil trade in previous decades laid the groundwork for the current geopolitical situation.  This argument isn’t particularly uncommon; however, this quest to secure oil trade routes shows a similar dynamic to historical attempts to secure similar routes for other types of trade. It places the modern conflict in the middle east in a broader history of trade and argues that it is  trade which motivates politics, not the other way around.  This is a particularly acute and transferable lesson, especially when the world looks to isolate Russia from world trade due to its invasion of Ukraine.

While the recontextualization of popular history is thought provoking and provides incredible insight into the RealPolitik of world history, it is not to be viewed as a panacea to our view of the past.  By focusing on trade and geography, key factors can be lost.  An example of this is while the focus on food security in the motivations for, and execution of, Operation Barbarossa and the Holocaust are of merit, it overlooks the role Nazi ideology had to play.  While a glaring omission from a rounded account of history, this is by design.  This book does not seek to explain history to all (in fact if the reader lacks a hefty baseline knowledge of a chapter’s subject matter it is easy to get lost in the detail) and therefore it can be unapologetically inaccessible to some.

More than just a history book, Frankopan’s work is highly relevant to modern readers due to the exposure of historically consistent themes within this important region, and the failures of those who ignore these dynamics.  This background dynamic can help deepen understanding and wider themes of current issues, especially at a time when the Silk Road is having a resurgence under China’s Belt and Road initiative. Rather than summarise his approach to this resurgence, Frankpans second book, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, focuses exclusively on this.  By seeing this new geopolitical challenge as an evolution of the old rather than advent of the new, we can better understand the actions and motives of each party with less of a bias derived from our own political geography.  As such, Frankopan’s book is a much needed new lens, if a narrow one.


Elliott Murphy

Elliott has a Masters degree in International Security, specialising in the geopolitics of NATO and global trade networks

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