30 Января 2017 г. 00:00

Peter Frankopan: "Silk Road prepares a revolution in Eurasia"

Peter Frankopan:

- Your recent book The Silk Roads is acclaimed by some critics as an "antidote to a Eurocentric accounts of history". As we know, discourses are closely connected with power. Hence, do you think a world dominated by the West is over?

- It is difficult – and dangerous – to make predictions. Events can easily overtake things that look likely and even probable. A hundred years ago, as the First World War was breaking out, the German Chancellor, Theodore Bethhman-Hollweg sat by his summer house and turned to his secretary and said: 'the future belongs to Russia’. Three years later, Russia descended into revolution and into a century that proved extremely difficult, problematic and contradictory. I think it is fair to say, looking back that, the 20th Century was the American century.

However, if there had not been a world war – or two world wars – things would have been very different. What is clear to me is that we are living through an age of transition. The world’s centre of gravity seems to me to be shifting to the east.

In many ways, this is not a surprise: the axis on which the world spun was always in Asia. Europe’s rise, from around 1600 or so, was unusual and an exception. My view is that we are seeing reversion to something that feels strange, but is in fact very normal.

But as I mention, much can change; small events can destabilise and force dramatic changes of direction very easily. Just look at 9/11. What happened in the space of two hours changed the world dramatically.

- Apparently, we will be living in a multipolar world, at least for a while. According to your understanding of history, this new world will be more chaotic and dangerous than the one we got used to over the past 2-3 decades?

- Danger comes from instability. As a historian, I am not interested in warfare and confrontation, and moments when people decide to fight. Such moments lead to misery, disaster and chaos for millions. It seems to me much more useful to look at and understand how people co-operate, collaborate and communicate with each other to find mutual  interests, rather than set about trying to dominate and overcome each other.

There is nothing at all wrong with multi-polar, and the existence of multiple centres of power does not itself correlate to fragility. In fact, one could make the opposite case entirely: that is, the fewer the ‘poles’ there are, the greater the potential prizes on offer and the greater the incentive to gamble on seeking triumph.

The key thing that any political leader should want is to avoid dislocation and fragility, because this presents risk. This makes me worried about Brexit, problems in Europe and the election of Trump in the United States. It doesn’t matter what my own political views are; but the division of the UK, Europe and the US raise the probability of decisions being made that antagonise and alienate. I have studied enough history to tell you that those are not good ingredients, especially during tough economic cycles.

- Russia is widely considered in the West as a fallen empire which cannot be ressurected. According to your understanding of the Russian history, what is to expect of Russia in the future? What does it want to become?

- With all due respect, that is not really a fair question to ask me. What Russia wants to become is something for Russians themselves to think about and decide on. However, as all Russians know, the question of identity, of Russia’s role in the world is a tense one that has made scholars, intellectuals, writers and politicians anxious for many, many centuries. Russia looks in three directions – towards Europe, of course; but also to China and to the heart of the world in Central Asia and Iran.

I follow very closely the contacts and relations being built up by Moscow with all three. None are easy to establish or maintain. For me, the greatest difficulty is that, for many reasons, Russia has never been very good at articulating its aims, its intentions, or in deciding what it wants to be. My guess is that as Asia becomes more and more important, it will help to reduce, rather than increase, this anxiety. For the last 400 years, Russia has wanted to have more to do with Europe than some of its other neighbours; but that dynamic and rhythm may now start to change.

- Nowadays Russian intentions are frequently portrayed as a quest for rebuilding an empire. What are the causes that explain recent Moscow's clashes with neighbors and actions in Crimea?

- Well, Russia should not forget that it is an empire in all but name. There are many minorities within modern Russia that already demand respect and recognition, and also require full protection by law. To be successful, empires do not need to expand or rebuild by putting pressure on neighbours. The key to the long-term success of any polity, whether a republic, a monarchy, an empire and so on, is the functioning in the first instance of its institutions and its administration. Empires that have proved the most successful and durable have been those that have been very careful to prevent high levels on social and economic inequality, have set great store on correct and fair tax collection, and on building and maintaining functionaries/civil servants/administrators who are chosen on ability – and not on their personal connections. Precisely this model was captured perfectly by the Byzantines.

The Byzantines had little or no interest in expansion or in seeking clashes with neighbours and rivals.

They knew this allow disproportionate authority and influence to pass to the military, and always sought to build alliances, rather than break them. It is no coincidence that the Byzantine Empire lasted for more than 1000 years.

I think there are several motivations and explanations for Moscow’s recent foreign policies. I am not sure if the expected consequences and outcomes are in line with the intentions.  But this is a pattern too that is familiar to those who watch Russia carefully.

- There is a great deal of discussion about the New Chinese Silk road (One Belt, One Road initiative of Chinese government). Does it have potential to revolutionise trade routes in Eurasia? What are the major potential consequences?

- It is too early to tell. The One Belt, One Road is still in its very early stages and it is difficult to predict what shape this initiative will take. Yes, it certainly has the potential to revolutionise trade routes in Eurasia, and arguably has already started to do so. There is also the possibility, however, that it revolutionises Eurasia itself – in other words, not just the trade routes. There are enormous potential benefits, but also major challenges that may fundamentally reshape everything from global geopolitics to gender, from accelerating the redistribution of worldwide GDP from the west to the east to putting serious pressure on food and water supplies. Like all plans, everything depends on the execution. And that is quite clearly something that is understood well in Beijing.

- You describe states and regions in Central Eurasia (Central Asia, South Caucasus, Iran, etc.) as of "pivotal importance to the global history" because of their resources. Do you think Russia could act as a mediator and moderator of this huge space coordinating its efforts with China and Iran, or it is just a wishful thinking?

- The world is going through a remarkable phase of transition. Such phases are unpredictable and also potentially volatile. The winner, to paraphrase an ancient Chinese author writing more than two thousand years ago, is the one who is able to adapt best. That does not mean in the ability to make one or two good decisions; rather it means a ‘roots and branches’ overhaul that prepares for the future.

The changes we are witnessing today involve shifts in power, but also in terms of cyber-security, robotisation, automation, demographic growth – but also rising fundamentalism (not only religious) and also pressure on soft resources too. Those who understand where change will lead can ensure that the next generation are ready to take advantage of opportunities, and also be ready to understand the challenges. For me, everything starts with education.

From my perspective, Russia’s greatest difficulty will be to work out how not to compete with others but to collaborate with them. This is much easier said than done. I watch bilateral and multilateral connections between Moscow and countries across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. I can’t tell you what is being said behind closed doors, and my views are little more than conjecture. But from the outside, anyway, it seems like there are competing interests and competing voices when it comes to Russia’s short and medium term decisions; and much will depend on which turns out to be loudest – and which the most persuasive.

Prepared by Vyacheslav Sutyrin

24 Апреля

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