Dr. Peter Frankopan is a historian at Oxford University, where he is Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He works on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia Central Asia and beyond, and on relations between Christianity and Islam. In his recent book “Silk Roads. A New History of the World” he argues against a Western-centric worldview.
SLD: Your new book “Silk Roads. A New History of the World” is entered very much on Europe, or the West. What makes you think that? And are other perceptions of history not as centric as the European one?
Frankopan: Well, to answer the second question first, one is always most concerned about their immediate history first – you learn about your family history first, your uncles, your aunts, grandparents. Everybody puts themselves in the central position automatically. It’s a bias and prejudice that historians always need to be aware of. And about Eurocentrism – if I asked you right now to list me the biggest Arab pop star, China’s greatest emperor or any Byzantine poet, you would probably have to pass. Instead, I’m sure you can list me 25 German philosophers, more than 10 Italian composers and at least 5 British pop stars. And it’s only Western Europe that we’re focussed on, the same ignorance toward Byzantine is also fitting for Bulgarian history or culture, or Finnish. And that is because for the last 300 years or so, the West has been “The Winner”.
SLD: How did we end up here, how did the West’s victory happen?
Frankopan: The turning point happened when we came into touch with the Americas. Before 1500 there we’re barely any literary figures, composers or such that we’re important and still valuable to today’s world. Frankly, the going into the 1600s, Europeans we’re good at castle-building, fighting, and constructing hierarchical social constructs – meritocracy was the rule of the game. Elsewhere, say Byzantium and China, bureaucrats thrived by administering and re-distributing wealth. But the exposure to the Americas meant that over time, the amassing of wealth combined with technological advances in warfare, or the administration of violence, meant that the West ended up being better of than the rest of the world.
SLD: So where does this leave us now?
Frankopan: What I think is happening right now is that the West is playing catch up. Especially in academic institutions like your Harvard or my Oxford, people are realising that China, Iran and South East Asia are more than markets to export goods too. There’s an urge to quickly understand other cultures – why is it that we have to empty water bottles on inner-American flights just because Osama bin Laden in a cave in Afghanistan decided to export terror? How did we end up there and how can we reverse that?
SLD: What does that mean for today’s politics?
Frankopan: A lot. Let me start off by saying that I believe what we are seeing currently among political themes such as Brexit, the Trump administration and a resurgence in nationalism is, I believe, as drastic a shift in our histories as the access to the Americas was. It admittedly is difficult to follow the US Administration’s daily course reversals, but even in the grander scheme of things, we can tell that the West is nervous. By planning to or actually pulling out of trade agreements, whether that is TTIP or NAFTA, we interpret that the West is worried about emerging countries such as China, India, Russia or Brazil. Worried about actually losing jobs and business, but ultimately wealth and prosperity. We’re keen to sell to them, but not willing to import. Without judging whether this is a good or bad thing – it’s a fairly natural reaction – it’s a change that was not present before.
SLD: How does your role as a historian influence this understanding?
Frankopan: I believe that we historians can only re-calibrate. Either by saying “look, these are the things other civilisations did”, or by reminding people that the Holocaust happened, and the perpetration of homosexuals or minorities all reached their height in Western Europe or the US. And ultimately, as much as we have seen empires rise and “win”, we have equally see them fall into pieces and implode; so as a historian I see my responsibility also as one to shed light on how that happens.
SLD: How do we make sense of the world today? Do we cluster the world a la Huntington? Do we…
Frankopan: …Huntington was in a tradition of people who thought that he could manage the rate of change. He was convinced that if you saw the problem coming, you could protect yourself and your interests against him. And there are two ways of protecting yourself against change. Either it is to leave and ignore the consequences – like the British departure from India, or through incentivisation of trade, through force, building infrastructure, countries have tried to leave their foot in the door. Huntington wrote his book four years after the end of the Cold War, when the US seemed invincible, and was in my eyes merely trying to protect what the US had. But in my view there are forces to be reckoned with that are not yours to control.
SLD: What is then the driving force between clusters of influence? Because if you look at the European countries UK, France, and Germany, their main geopolitical incentives – economy, foreign policy, domestic policy – are somewhat aligned. However, you have this simultaneous cultural debate about what it means to be German, to be French, and so on, that defines the sphere you live in.
Frankopan: Absolutely. And it’s fascinating. These countries are, firstly, not accurately represented on the political level, at all. Apart from Angela Merkel these are all rich white men talking to one another. However, at the same time the EU member states have evolved the alliance to incorporate countries in the East, have somewhat redistributed wealth and education, and have taken up refugees. But no, we are not all pulling on one rope – Margaret Thatcher tried to stop the reunification back in the 90s. We still are somehow desperate to play idiotic games with each other.
SLD: But then how do you integrate all this into a coherent mass? Is Germany with its Leitkultur perhaps a model? Or do you as a historian have the worldview to call it nonsense?
Frankopan: Yeah – it’s nonsense. In Europe, you have small countries with large minorities and large countries with small minorities. Our yearning for our own unique culture and arguing which one is a leading culture is heading us in the wrong direction. We do compete with one another, not at last through arrangements such as Champions League football. Children in the UK are, age 6, 11, 15, benchmarked nationally in academia, sports, music. It’s this attempt to create hierarchies from a young age across Europe that can be damaging. And we then only ever focus on the top 0.01% that do become emperors, cultural figures or kings. In history, we ignore the periods of stability and are instead obsessed with Napoleon and Hitler.
SLD: What then is the role of Europe in the world right now?
Frankopan: Right now it is – perhaps I should add still – a hugely vibrant continent. If you go to any European and ask him who the greatest sporting personality east of Venice is, you’ll have to wait for an answer. Vice versa, in India you’ll be recited the entire Barcelona, Real Madrid and Arsenal squads. But that does not mean it will always be this way. Footballers, in this case, are like academics and influencers. They move where the money is. Oscar transferred from Chelsea London to an unknown team in Shanghai last summer. Yale, Northwestern and NYU have campuses already in the Middle East, the Louvre will be opening there, too. Importance is where wealth is.
SLD: How then do you feel about being a European?
Frankopan: Don’t get me wrong! I’m extremely proud and vocal about being European. But we are ignorant. We cannot consider ourselves the inventors of Human Rights if we experienced the greatest genocide in world history on our soil in the same century. We cannot condemn the Bosnians and Serbs for the Yugoslav atrocities without remembering that it was us who fought two World Wars against and amongst one another.
SLD: What do you do to not make history repeat itself and have, say, China be the next prosperous 300-year long empire? And what role is Europe playing in this big picture?
Frankopan: Funnily enough, all major problems these days are strung across the silk road. Russia and Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan/Kashmir, China and its struggle in regards to minorities. That’s what matters. But where are these crises on their cycle? Will the Chinese – regardless of whether it’s on purpose or not – build an empire beyond their borders? In Europe, we are much more emotional than rational in Europe. When we look at the Middle East, we don’t connect it to Central and East Asia. Historians make terrible predictions of the future, because volatility can magnify itself like cancer. But the likelihood of continued GDP growth in Asian countries combined with job migration eastward and uneven capital distribution within Europe. And simultaneously, we have never seen mass processes, organised by Social Media, happen in Western Europe. So we can only look ahead with great interest.
SLD: Dr Frankopan, thank you very much for your time.
The photo of Peter Frankopan is by Johnny Ring