“I have no idea what the terms East and West mean”, interview with Prof. Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Worcester College, University of Oxford. His latest book is “The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World”, published by Bloomsbury. The New Silk Roads on amazon.com and on amazon.co.uk.

East&West: When the Cold War ended, people thought the whole world was going to become “like the West”. Many still think that globalisation means that the entire world is bound to become “like the West”. To what extent this happened and to what extent this was wishful thinking?

Peter Frankopan: It seems to me profoundly ironic that we are convinced that everyone wants to be ‘like the West’. There are lots of things we do very well in Europe, the US, Canada etc; but also, clearly, many things we have done terribly in the past. So our assumption is that if we cherry pick the good bits from our history, we can safely ignore the bad. At this particular moment in time, furthermore, one might be forgiven to think the model we offer is not exactly very attractive with Trump and his wall, rioters on the streets of Paris, Brexit, the rise of far right parties across Europe and so on.

There was an expectation in many quarters that our system of liberal democracy would triumph. But that is not how it looked or looks to me. As it happens, other models of government are looking at least as resilient – if not more so, in so far as living standards and aspirations are rising. That is a pretty sharp contrast to almost all of ‘the west.’


E&W: How is the East changing the West?

PF: I have no real idea of what these terms mean. How do we decide who belongs where; and who decides this ? Where does Africa fit – and can/should we even think in terms of this continent as having any logic or congruity beyond the fact that can draw it on a map? So I think we should be careful using such labels, and even more cautious about talking about ‘values’ or ‘changes’ etc. Do western values include the Holocaust ? if not, why not ? Do ‘eastern values’ mean something different to someone living in Turkey, C Asia, India, Pakistan, China or elsewhere – and do they mean the same to all people living in these countries? So I don’t think it is interesting or helpful to think of questions in these terms.

E&W: Will the world speak Chinese in 100 years, like it speaks English now? Is China even interested in global dominance? Or is it more within its chords to project its influence more subtly?

PF: I don’t know. But I also don’t know if or why it matters. For centuries, Europe worked in Latin, long after the Roman empire. But linguistic preference had nothing to do with past political systems, rather it was about finding common means of communication. In that sense, English has an obvious advantage as it is almost everyone’s second language in the world. So it provides an obvious lingua franca. That probably provides some cultural capital for the UK (not only England of course); but I don’t think it necessarily means more than that.

Is China interested in global dominance? Well, I’d say this is a profoundly Eurocentric question. We think in Europe in terms of empires and dominance, because this is our understanding of our own past, and of course, one centred on reality. But it might help to stop and think what it is that China is doing, what for, and whether dominance is either achievable or desirable. Our fear of China is built on deep and latent orientalism and Sinophobia – and neither are particularly constructive to help understand the world of the 21st century.

E&W: Can the West, or more precisely, the US, come to terms with its relative loss of power on the global arena? Or are the US and China destined for conflict, as some experts and analysts say?

I am not an expert who gambles with my opinions. There are many who predict conflict and confrontation, and in fact some who actively advocate this. I would have to be much more intelligent to be able to see into the future and give as much certainty about what may come as others. Do we find it hard to come to terms with the relative loss of power – well, clearly the answer to that is yes. But c’est la vie: the owners of many of the best football clubs in the world, like Chelsea, Paris St Germain, Inter Milan and Manchester City are owned by people with immense wealth from countries like Russia, Qatar, China and Abu Dhabi. The 20th was all about Americans being eye-poppingly rich. Complaining about the wealth of others does no seem to answer a great many questions.

E&W: What can be the role of the countries of the historical Silk Roads in Central Asia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan?

PF: Many of these states are resource rich. That means they are important in regional and global exchange. They are also connector countries that have to read the wind blowing from China, Russia, Iran and the Middle East, Afghanistan, and South Asia. That makes studying them both interesting and important. Their survival and prosperity involves being able to adapt and react successfully to change.

E&W: And, finally, Russia. Will be it be forced to choose between East and West, or will it continue to be “prisoner” of its geography, without ever being able to join neither the East nor the West?

I don’t know why people think Russia, or anywhere else, has to ‘choose’. Why can Russia not be itself and have its own velocity? And are not all states prisoners of their own geography, in one way or another ? We spend a lot of time and energy worrying about Russia and projecting our emotions and fears on to the country. But I do not think we understand it very well at all.

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