_ Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator, Financial Times. London, 28 January 2018. Published for debate.
A former Portuguese Europe minister explores the transformations wrought by the return of the Silk Road.
The fact that you can travel overland from Shanghai to Lisbon seemed irrelevant during the cold war. The Berlin Wall divided Europe. Mao’s China was isolated and inward-looking.
But with the fall of the wall and the opening of China, these politically imposed barriers are coming down and the Eurasian landmass is once again emerging as a distinct entity, with great economic and strategic significance. In particular, China’s “Belt and Road” initiative is creating new infrastructure links that highlight the commercial potential of linking Europe and Asia by land.
Bruno Maçães believes that the re-emergence of Eurasia as a contiguous and coherent landmass is the most important factor in an emerging new world order. The 21st century, he argues, will not be American or Asian, but rather “Eurasian” — dominated by the interplay of the powers on a Eurasian supercontinent, above all China, Russia and the EU. This, he suggests, is simply a return to a historic pattern: “Eurasia happens to be the largest landmass on earth, the place where most of the great civilisations of human history were developed”.
As a former minister for Europe for Portugal, with a doctorate from Harvard, Maçães could easily have made his argument from the comfort of a boardroom or a senior common room. But one of the strengths of The Dawn of Eurasia is that the author has chosen to leave the Davos comfort zone and to travel widely in remote areas. As a result, he mixes his academic analysis with skilful reportage drawn from his travels. This makes the book both more entertaining and more convincing.
As well as being a shrewd geopolitical analyst, Maçães is a gifted travel writer, with a sharp eye and a dry wit. In a few pages, he can convey the absurdity of the vast but deserted tourist resort of Avaza in Turkmenistan; or the sinister menace of the Chechen capital, Grozny.
One advantage of on-the-ground reporting is that it often reveals life to be more complicated than theory. When Maçães comes across something that does not quite fit his thesis, he is honest enough to reflect on it. So, encountering the suffocating Chinese security in the province of Xinjiang, a crucial part of the new Silk Road, he muses that “it is difficult to see how China will be able to solve the contradiction between the desire to facilitate trade and movement while closing borders and subjecting everyone to permanent surveillance”.
A generic weakness of books that advance a big idea — such as the “dawn of Eurasia” — can be a tendency to over-stress both the originality and the importance of the central thesis. At times, Maçães falls into this trap. “The notion that Europe and Asia should be thought of as a single whole has been the precinct of geologists and biologists,” he argues in his preface. “But why only in the natural sciences?” he asks. “Why not in history, politics and the arts?”
But, in reality, ruminations on the geopolitical significance of Eurasia have been around since the birth of strategic studies. In 1904 Halford Mackinder, cited by Maçães in another context, famously defined the Eurasian landmass as “the World Island” — and argued that “who rules the World Island commands the world” (a prediction partially borne out by the titanic struggle between Hitler and Stalin). More recently, the historian John Darwin has argued in a much-lauded book, After Tamerlane (2007), that “The centre of gravity in modern world history lies in Eurasia.”
What is certainly true, however, is that the concept of Eurasia is re-emerging from the history books to become a central concern of contemporary politics. Maçães is one of the first authors to explore the significance of this development and he is a consistently interesting guide. He shows, for example, that both China and Russia are already thinking in Eurasian terms — China through its “Belt and Road” initiative and Russia through its recently created “Eurasian Economic Union”. The EU, however, has yet really to grapple with the idea of Eurasia. Maçães argues convincingly that this will have to change, since many of the external threats to the EU stem indirectly from the breakdown of a firm border between Europe and Asia. In different ways, the refugee crisis and the breakdown in EU-Russian relations over Ukraine are “Eurasian” problems.
But it may be a step too far to argue that Eurasia is, therefore, the key to a “new world order”. For that argument leaves open the question of the role of the incumbent superpower — the US. Maçães considers this question, albeit briefly, and makes the intriguing suggestion: “If the West ever falters, America will want to become less Western. As the fulcrum of world power moves away from the West, so will America.”
There is some evidence from both the Obama and the Trump eras that this process is under way. President Obama made a “pivot to Asia” a key element in his foreign policy. President Trump has appalled western liberals by showing a distinct admiration for the authoritarian rulers of Russia and China — alongside a certain coldness to the key institutions of the west, the EU and Nato.
But what both the Trump and Obama administrations seem to share is an almost reflexive determination to preserve US hegemony in the Pacific. This is a clear challenge to China’s ambitions to be the dominant power in its own immediate neighbourhood. It also suggests that the biggest strategic question facing a rising China is not the development of the Eurasian landmass but instead the struggle for power in the seas and economies of the Asia-Pacific region. In Eurasia, China has to manage relations with a declining Russia and a divided EU. By contrast, in the Asia-Pacific region, it faces formidable potential adversaries in the shape of the US and Japan.
n reality, China will not choose either Eurasia or the Asia-Pacific region as the sole focus of its strategic ambitions. Both areas will be crucial to the emerging balance-of-power in the 21st century. But while the US-Chinese-Japanese triangle has received plenty of attention, the struggle for Eurasia has been relatively neglected. The Dawn of Eurasia fills that gap nicely.