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The New Strands of Power

by Peter Frankopan
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Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Silk Road countries, like Pakistan, are the crucible where tolerance, creativity, and excellence can be at their finest—if and when the political climate allows.

“A week is a long time in politics,” Harold Wilson is once purported to have said. The world is holding its breath to see what the next four years bring. Every day brings new drama to those who are interested in global affairs. Astonishingly, since November last year, the camera lens has been focused on one building and on one man. We still worry about Syria and Iraq; we still think about Kashmir; we still ponder change in North and Sub-Saharan Africa; we still listen out for developments in China. But wherever you live in the world, it is the White House and Donald Trump that dominate the newswires from morning till night.

Keeping up is exhausting. Fact-checkers have to dash for their sources each time the President of the United States mentions an attack in Sweden (that turns out not to have happened), or one of his senior aides talks of a massacre at Bowling Green (that also turns out not to have happened). Those who listened to Trump talk of “draining the swamp” and returning the U.S. from the hands of the elite to the hands of its citizens, look on as policy decisions get made at the Mar-a-Lago estate, where joining fees have doubled to $200,000 since the election. One member not only took photos of the ‘nuclear football,’ the briefcase that travels with the President at all times, but posted them on Facebook, along with a picture of himself with the officer-in-charge, whom he happily identified in an obvious threat to national security.

As one wag put it, the waiters at Trump’s club in Florida likely know more about the U.S. response to North Korea than the Joint Chiefs of Staff—thanks to news being delivered “in a crowded dining room” where the President was having supper with the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, rather being considered in private. Then there is the chaos and confusion around the President’s picks for senior positions, not least Gen. Mike Flynn, who turned out to be the shortest-serving National Security Adviser in history when he stood down after just 24 days in office.

One could be forgiven for thinking that we are witnessing one of the greatest confidence tricks in history: an election of a maverick property developer turned reality TV star to the most powerful position on the planet. If this is correct, then only a fool would laugh. It is in no one’s interests that Trump turns out to be as bad as some are predicting and many fear. Just consider the report last summer that the-then Republican candidate and now-President asked no fewer than three times in one hour why the United States did not use nuclear weapons to impose its views on the world. Or the public statements he has made calling the country’s huge nuclear arsenal “old and tired,” compared with the “tippy top” weapons held by Russia. Make no mistake, these are dangerous times.

And yet in the gloom and fear there is light and there is hope. For one thing, it is important to both understand why tens of millions of voters (nearly 63 million, in fact) voted for Trump. It is important, too, to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between rhetoric and words on the one hand, and action on the other. Politicians get voted into office because they are able to articulate to the electorate what the problems are, and offer a solution of how to solve them. There is something in what Trump was saying on the campaign trail that resonated with the American people. Assessing what that was, and giving him credit for being more persuasive, more convincing, and more robust than any of his challengers involves recognizing that however cartoon-like things seem from a non-U.S. perspective, there may be method to the madness.

Trump was correct both politically and economically, for example, to focus on the impact of globalization on the American workforce. The move of industry away from the U.S. to other parts of the world has been one of the themes of the last three decades—even though the flipside is that what has been bad for the blue-collar worker has been a joy for the rich and poor consumer alike, who have enjoyed goods and products that have been cheaper than if they had been made closer to home.

Trump was right also to remind voters that U.S. foreign policy has been at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive in many parts of the world. That is something few need reminding in Pakistan or in the neighboring region. The United States did not get Afghanistan wrong on purpose after 9/11. The huge resources expended, the failure of the intervention and the bloodied nose at the expense of the Taliban were bad enough. But so, too, was the loss of face as the world’s richest economy and mightiest military were unable to impose peace from above. Aims, methods, and tactics were all wrong, said President Hamid Karzai in an interview two years ago. The Americans “did not fight against terrorism where it was, where it still is,” he said. Instead, “they continued damaging Afghanistan and its people.” There was no other way to put it, he went on: “This is a betrayal.”

It is a sentiment shared by many across the spine of Asia, where, for decades, U.S. policy has proved shambolic and divisive. For the historian, it perhaps comes as no surprise to note that the countries that lie along the Silk Roads that connect the Pacific coast of China with the Mediterranean are what matter in global affairs. Empires were won and lost in the countries that sit in the heart of the world, the crossroads between East and West. The countries are no ‘graveyards,’ as is often thought and taught in the West, but rather the opposite: the crucible where good ideas rise and where tolerance, creativity and excellence can be at their finest—if and when the political climate allows them to flourish.

And ironically, the U.S. has paid a huge amount of attention to the countries of the Silk Roads since the American Century began—and especially after the end of World War II, when America found itself propelled into a global role that was new, unfamiliar, and daunting. As those who remember the classroom will recall, tricky subjects were the hardest ones to learn lessons from. And as recent decades have shown, this proved to be the case.

On the one hand, the U.S. spoke of self-determination, democracy, and good governance; but on the other, it propped up leaders with distinctly undemocratic instincts—because they offered stability and support against the Soviet Union, or in the 1980s against Iran. In Pakistan, Gen. Ayub Khan was kept fully stocked with the latest military hardware—that, in turn, fueled the rise of the Army as political kingmakers—because of U.S. ideological and strategic interests that had much to do with the Cold War, and little to do with the social and economic development of Pakistan.

But even after the Cold War ended, lessons were not learned. Rather than shaping a new world order in the Silk Roads and beyond, the U.S. shied away from a role that might have reshaped the heart of Asia and ushered in a new era. Many would have welcomed American leadership, despite the many mistakes of previous decades. What makes the missed opportunity worse is the fact that the baton was spotted and picked up by others. In business, there is nothing worse that spotting an opening, not doing anything about it, and then having to watch it being exploited and taken advantage of by a third party.

The most dramatic example of this comes from the New Silk Roads rising today. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, and its various offshoots—like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—are part of a fundamental reorientation of a new world order. It would not be going too far to see OBOR not only as China’s signature economic and foreign policy, but as the most important financial stimulus program in the modern era. The real, proposed and forecast transport corridors, pipelines, digital networks, and communication nodes promise to link land and sea routes across Asia and beyond in a way that may change fundamentals about everything from the distribution of global populations to that of energy resources; from the availability and prices of ‘hard’ commodities like metals and fossil fuels to those of ‘soft’ commodities like wheat, food, and water. The initiative may change the way we live, may impact global climate patterns, and will likely shape the future of cooperation, collaboration, and rivalry between neighbors in the coming years.

One only needs to look at Gwadar, which will become China’s Shanghai in the west to see what the impact and effect will be of OBOR in years to come—and this at a point when we are at the dawn of the ambitious program that may well spur an acceleration in economic development that will surpass that of the U.S. and of Russia in the late 19th century, when the laying down of rail tracks, energy expansion, population mobility, and increased connectivity led to the birth of two powerhouses that became global superpowers.

This could all have been done under U.S. leadership and guidance. In September 2011, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a keynote speech that talked about the prospect of creating a New Silk Road across Asia’s spine. The vision that Clinton set out was both idealistic and even simplistic: “Turkmen gas fields could help meet both Pakistan’s and India’s growing energy needs,” she said, “and provide significant transit revenues for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.” She went on to say that, “Tajik cotton could be turned into Indian linens. Furniture and fruit from Afghanistan could find its way to the markets of Astana or Mumbai and beyond.”

It was a vision that was not set out on the spur of the moment, but had its roots with S. Frederick Starr, Chair of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and one that had been pored over by officers at U.S. Central Command. The U.S. could have taken the lead across the region, making connections, spurring development, supporting new projects, and shaping the future. Instead, the idea died a slow and silent death, overwhelmed by problems with the rise of the Islamic State militant group, the killing of Gaddafi and state failure in Libya, the failed dawn of the Arab Spring, civil war in Syria, the confrontation with Iran, Russian involvement in Ukraine, and a host of petty squabbles behind the scenes in Washington about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. And there lies the problem behind being a superpower: with fires burning in all directions, it was not surprising that focus should have been lost on what matters.

The opportunity that had been spotted disappeared back into thin air in the U.S.; but it was grasped with both hands in Beijing. In September 2013, President Xi Jinping announced a major new initiative to build ties across Asia during a visit to Kazakhstan. Just a few weeks later, an order of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China showed that considerable thought had gone into what galvanizing the old Silk Roads meant. “We will set up a development-oriented financial institution, accelerate the construction of infrastructure connecting China with neighboring countries and regions and work hard,” noted Article 26, Section VII of the Declaration on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform, “to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road to form a new pattern of all-round opportunities.”

This was no kneejerk reaction. Rather it was a reflection of joined-up thinking on the part of Beijing, part of a rational and deliberate plan to take the lead across Asia. The aim was, and is, threefold. First, to secure China’s long-term economic and strategic future through access to energy, raw materials, and energy; second, to play a role in reconfiguring the countries lying to its west (but also to the south, in South East Asia) where the prospects for growth are strong, but where there are also significant fragilities that might not only have negative impact but potentially prove contagious; and third, to fill a void that is being left by the retraction and withdrawal of the United States and by the countries of the West.

Nowhere is that more evident and obvious than with the collapse of U.S. aid money to Pakistan in the last decade. As recently as 2011, Pakistan was the recipient of around $3.5 billion from Washington, split between funds related to military activities in Afghanistan and regionally, security linked expenditure, and economic development. That sum has dropped by nearly 75 percent according to Reuters in 2017—partly as a result of the global U.S. recoil, but also because of the disengagement from Central and South Asia, generally.

The key question for the next four years—which will, of course, have implications that run a long way into the future—is: What does the Trump presidency mean for the countries along the Silk Roads? A new future is being offered by Beijing, one that is problematic, complicated, and sometimes even suffocating for countries at low starting points, controlled by small elites that see China’s interests with OBOR as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get rich quick (or get even richer, quicker).

As the U.S. pulls back and thinks about “America first” and the rest of the world second, countries like Pakistan, the Central Asia Republics, Iran and the states in the Middle East are likely to come under unprecedented pressure from new suitors—and not only from state actors in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Islamabad, Delhi and elsewhere. As we have already seen in Iraq and Syria, independent groups with no affinity to national boundaries, and/or charismatic leaders claiming to have religious, spiritual or political authority over their followers may well prove destabilizing and challenge both the integrity of national boundaries and the sovereignty of states themselves.

It is too early to tell just how Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” will play out, and just what the impact will be on other parts of the world if his presidency results in a turning-in of the U.S. to focus on domestic affairs alone. Some cynics might say that this will offer a golden age for Asia in particular to take charge of its own destiny and forge a path that sees neighbor having to engage with neighbor in the absence of a familiar influence whose role over the last six or seven decades has led to mixed results. But a new dawn is breaking. This is the moment for a new start. And like all new starts, there is the duality of outcomes: the birth of a golden age; or disaster.

The world of 2017 is one that is going through a phase of profound transition. That in itself is not unusual, for history shows that dramatic shifts have happened often in the past. As a historian, it is difficult, dangerous and even foolhardy to try to predict the future. It does not take much to change the course of what happens next. A butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can have an impact on what takes place thousands of miles away. For history teaches respect of how fragile the world is that we all live in. Those in positions of authority, influence, and power should always reflect on what can be learned from studying the past. But that moral has never been more important to pay heed to than it is today.

Dr. Frankopan, a historian at Oxford University, is the author of the bestselling The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. He has written for The New York Times, Financial Times, and The Guardian.

From our Feb. 25 – March 11, 2017, issue.

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