Silk Road redux: The return of history?

The inequalities and oligarchies of the West have eroded the civic purpose on which liberal democracies are rooted.

A general view of the Gaochang Ancient City on the Silk Road in Turfan, China [Getty]
A general view of the Gaochang Ancient City on the Silk Road in Turfan, China [Getty]

Recently, historian Peter Frankopan predicted that the Silk Road of Central Asia will symbolise the centre of our future and a “return to history”.

His statement stands in stark contrast to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History” that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, proclaimed the liberal order as the inevitable choice across the world. Sooner or later, Fukuyama said, liberal democracy would end up the “steady state” across the world.

Some may be surprised to learn that Fukuyama also warned about the dangerous consequences of that development, the arrival of the “Last Man”, a term he borrowed from Friedrich Nietzche. This is a state of deadening apathy that comes from a lack of challenge in the flat and boring world of successful liberal democracies.

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He predicted that humans would then seek excitement and meaning in high-risk activities such as danger sports, international relations and business entrepreneurship.

State of alienation

Ironically, we may have achieved that state of alienation with neither the end of history nor the victory of liberal democracies, and we can thank the spread of social media for that.

Peter Frankopan points in another direction completely. Instead of the “end”, he says we have the “return” of history in the form of the dynamic authoritarian states of Eurasia.

Russia, China and Iran are the most salient examples, and they are bound together through the a resurgence of the famous Silk Road that bridges east and west through Central Asia, “the very crossroads of civilisation”.

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Indeed, a millennium ago, Central Asia was as fertile in the arts, sciences, pluralism, and philosophy as Italy during the Renaissance.

A millennium ago, Central Asia was as fertile in the arts, sciences, pluralism and philosophy as Italy during the Renaissance...


It was the profound intellectual hinterland of Islamic civilisation. The return of history is the return to that axis of exchange and interchange, even if the Eurasian nations involved are hallmarked by “traditions of royal courts”, ie authoritarian systems rather than democracies.

Liberal democracy may indeed be in decline, in the West and beyond, partly overcome by its partner in crime and development, global capitalism.

The previously constructive tensions between the public and private sectors in the West are melting away in the face of globalised capital and currency flows.

The inequalities and oligarchies that have grown in the West have eroded civic purpose, an idea in which liberal democracies are fundamentally rooted.

Threatening times ahead

Meanwhile, the nations of Eurasia aim to provide security alongside economic dynamism – cash and safety are a winning formula for many citizens.

What the West offers – liberties and predictable institutions – may no longer be as attractive in the tough and threatening times ahead. Right or wrong, the simpler model of strong leader, security and economic growth, all bound together by national pride and fervour, may win out. Frankopan may have a point.

A view of the Gaochang Ancient City on the Silk Road in Turfan, China [Getty] 
A view of the Gaochang Ancient City on the Silk Road in Turfan, China [Getty] 

Yet, at the end of the day, both Fukuyama and Frankopan may be wrong. What we could be facing may be neither the end, nor the return of history, but its reinvention from unlikely places.

Russia, China and Iran will face considerable challenges in ensuring economic growth and a steady supply of natural resources for their citizens. Indeed, Russia and China are already in economic competition in Central Asia, and guess who has the upper hand there?

Similarly, Iran is still up to its neck in Middle Eastern geopolitics and it may not easily extract itself from those tortures.

The return of history may not be as smooth as it seems; competition in Eurasia may end up fiercer and more conflicted than the gentle passing caravans of the Silk Road.

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The idea that Central Asia will become again the heart of the world is an attractive one. But, we may need to look elsewhere for our “best best” for the future, places that, due to circumstance and history, may have better luck at navigating the difficult times ahead.


As examples, what about Latin America and India? The former has the advantage of a massive resource base, a proportionally small population, and enough elements of the old liberal order, without its stagnation, to ease the way forward.

Vast rogue spaceship

India, on the other hand, sticks out of Eurasia like a vast rogue spaceship. It is part of the Asian equation yet distinctly apart. But its advantage is not location, and certainly not demographics, but its inherent and implicit pluralism.

As Sirdar Aqbar Ali Shah, an Indian-Afghan author and diplomat, once remarked: “The secularism of India is not rooted in modern Western concepts of materialism or atheism, but in the immemorial concept that the next man has as much right to his inner experiences as I.”

It will be those areas of the world that do not repeat the past, whether Eurasian or Western, and that reach more deeply into our creative vaults that will most succeed.


In place of the inevitable rigidities of authoritarianism, and the irony of a West today simultaneously unequal and over-regulated, India and Latin America may, each in their own way, deliver creativity and flexibility of mind. These are the key ingredients for us to meet our new and enormous challenges.

They may combine just enough order, alongside some creative disorder, and just enough liberality of spirit to catalyse the discovery of truly new and effective solutions.

Indeed, it will be those areas of the world that do not repeat the past, whether Eurasian or Western, and that reach more deeply into our creative vaults that will most succeed. It may be time to think beyond the northern hemisphere as driver, towards the south, and then to stretch the mind even further.

Beyond all these comparisons, there may be another place also at play. A large space where the old liberal order and the new authoritarians stare at each ardently but, for now, at a safe distance. And that is the Pacific Ocean.

Maybe the future heart of the world will metaphorically be that vast body of water that covers 30.5 percent of the earth’s surface area, rather than any land, even the richness of the Asian steppe.

The end and return of history meet across the Pacific in an invisible faultline, suggesting the potential for both creative and destructive tension. Who knows what interesting things may develop there over the coming time? And maybe it is also a hint that, in the future, there will be no single land that is the heart of the world.

John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.