Review: The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan

Rating: 2 out of 5

I found that I had a problem with this book. We have a British author who wants to re-centre the world, and yet the book he writes is more Anglo-American than many others. Not only this, the author does not even do courtesy to the Spanish and Portuguese, noting that in those languages the people “call” themselves by other names as if the English version was what the people would have recognised at the time. This hypocrisy surrounds this entire work, though it is not without a saving grace (which I will get to). 

Firstly, however, I need to continue with the downsides. The author has also written explicitly and singularly in economic terms. The political and military aspects are entirely ignored. Although this could be justified for the military side of history (following von Clausewitz), it looks a bit ridiculous to be talking of in a primarily economic frame about decisions that were taken for political/ideological reasons even if there was a concurrent economic benefit. This betrays to me an unwillingness to compromise in his own beliefs and a need to frame everything through the same set of terms — and of course the next question should ask what other inconsistencies I missed.

Secondly, the author tries to condense everything down so we cover civilizations in Northern and Southern America over a few paragraphs. I guess they didn’t fit into the “re-alignment” that the author was preaching about. Similarly, the Kingdom of Mali enters the picture relatively and is the only locale altogether in Africa that gets mentioned (other than a statement that Vandals crossed over the Strait of Gibraltar and a brief memo on Nasser). Australia and Japan do not exist, nor does Russia in its various incarnations — the development of their state is featured but after that the polity disappears into oblivion until the author needs an enemy for Great Britain. Chapters are devoted to mid-20th century Iranian and Iraqi policies which are relevant, but perhaps not that relevant.

Thirdly, I do not know who is meant as the target audience. Some very specific historic terminology does not get explained and some historical characters who the author does not feature are used as points of comparison. Depending on the time and place covered, slightly different background information may lead to a very different understanding of the author.

Lastly, I did promise a few good words about this work as well. It is the first one I have read that deals, summarily, with the Islamic Revolution and takes us forward into the 21st century from there. I suspect that the author wanted to relish the anti-Americanism of these times and that is why he focussed in this time and place, but it does work. American policy throughout the Middle East gets called into question, as it should be. I believe, however, that the author would have been better off trying to condense this or to separate this into a different work for the style and depth change considerably compared to the preceding chapters.

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