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During a recent visit to the Netherlands, Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford University and author of bestseller “The New Silk Roads”, addressed a room full of Dutch investors. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to listen along. His prime call to action: be aware of Asia’s rising prominence on the global stage.

As children, Europeans learn extensively about ancient Greek and the wonders of Rome – but what about Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, or Merv, located in what is now known as Turkmenistan and was the largest city in the world in the 12th and 13th century? “The excitement is to look at things from a different perspective,” says Frankopan, “there is a fragile, brittle world you didn’t learn about growing up. We (Europeans) are quite good at celebrating the best things in our histories, but less so at examining what failed.”

Merv Archaeological Site
Merv Archaeological Site, Copyright: World Monuments Fund

It may be difficult to imagine a fractured European continent, particularly for younger generations, but it was in fact the norm. “We have an assumption that growth and prosperity are the default natural pose, but it is actually unusual due to war.” Pax Europaea is unique, and should not be taken for granted; in fact, the European Union is one of the enduring symbols of this period of relative peace that we continue to enjoy. But some are beginning to question the future of the great institution, and the economy is certainly playing its role.

In November the OECD chief economist warned that high levels of uncertainty on trade policy and geopolitics had resulted in stagnating global trade, which is dragging down economic activity in almost all major economies – and Europe has been hit hardest. However, the stagnating European market does not bother Frankopan. “As a historian I like boredom, long periods where nothing happens. I prefer vanilla. What does bear examining is whether the EU is efficient and if it is gaining a more general sense of direction.”

Europeans are apparently becoming acutely aware of Asia’s influence on their direction, and Frankopan is lending his knowledge to contribute to this awakening. According to him, the appetite from executives and politicians to learn more about Asia is voracious. “Reading the tea leaves is worth the time. People can sense that we have reached a turning point, and now is the time to ask how we have reached it.”

Ctesiphon, Iraq
Ctesiphon, Iraq Copyright: Britannica

Therefore, as Westerners set out to develop their understanding of various Asian culture, policies, and politics, according to Frankopan it is of utmost importance to remember: “how China functions and what it is trying to do is extremely complex, and it doesn’t make the situation better by trying to simplify it.”

The reality is that the majority of westerners do not have extensive knowledge about Asian super powers, such as China. Herein lies the danger. When faced with the unknown, it is common for people to apply singular truths; this becomes toxic when accompanied by an underlying sense of fear, as these ‘truths’ are nearly always negative. 

I can attest that reading ‘The New Silk Roads’ helps improve one’s grasp of the elements at play. Upon completion, if you feel that it is just the tip of the iceberg, I urge you not to be deterred. A lot of us are struggling to accept the breadth of The Belt and Road Initiative which sets out to do no less than ‘boost mutual understanding, mutual respect and mutual trust among different countries; for world peace, stability and development.’ Perhaps these are insurmountable aspirations. Nevertheless, the initiative has already had a large impact, particularly on the African continent and central Asia .

Frankopan urges Europeans to resist remaining in a bubble, to “not only think about our own terms, but where we stand as part of a larger picture.” And while we are not the explorers we once were, we must do what we can to ensure that we keep pace with those explorers who are charting the courses of the future. As President Macron said in March 2019, “The age of European naivety is over.”

Written by Elizabeth James-Tingen