Peter Frankopan

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Peter Frankopan

Professor of Global History at Oxford University

Peter Frankopan is a Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. He is also Professor of Silk Roads Studies and a Bye-Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge. He works on the history and politics of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia/Iran, Central Asia, China and beyond – as well as on the histories of climate, natural resources and connectivities.
Mr Frankopan is the author of three books: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015), The New Silk Roads: The Future and Present of the World (2018) and his latest The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (2023).

Jahangir’s World Times (JWT): “All roads used to lead to Rome. Now they lead to Beijing.” This was a fulgurant line in your book ‘The New Silk Roads’. Given the rise of BRICS and now coming of BRICS+, how, in your opinion, is this shaping of the world order moving forward? What will be some characteristics or salient features of this new world order?
Peter Frankopan (PF): The most important feature is uncertainty. We are living through a period of profound change and instability. This is clear from the point of view of geopolitics; of course, but also technology and climate change. New world orders experience birthing pains that are often accompanied by severe turmoil, suffering and oppression. But, at the moment, the world seems increasingly divided into three camps: the West; China and its close allies; and the grey majority of states that do not want to have to choose between the two. I am a historian rather than a predictor of the future; but I think it is fair to say that the thirty-year period of prosperity and cooperation that marked most (but not all) of the world is now over. We are now in a new phase. For what it’s worth, my view is that decisions made in the next decade in almost every domain – including climate agreements – will shape the world of the coming centuries.

JWT: How do you see the role of India in the Eastern Hemisphere? As China is an established superpower and India is also gaining momentum; then, what will be the diplomatic, economic and otherwise equation of this region? Do you see the West in general, and the United States in particular, becoming less relevant in this part of the world?
PF: I don’t think the US or West becoming more or less relevant unless people locally want it to become such. There are plenty of things we do wrong in the West – and these get vocalized a lot by excitable commentators in the media or by politicians and would-be politicians looking for sound bites and populist support. But we do lots of things very well. It is no coincidence, for example, that the brightest students in the world want to study at Oxford and Cambridge, at Harvard and Stanford. It’s no coincidence that the world’s wealthiest want to own apartments in London, Paris and New York: rather, fewer aspire to some of the world’s other supposedly great cities.
As far as India, China and others go, I suppose one could note that rising economic muscle power is a wonderful thing to behold but it is not straightforward to manage. How does one reduce inequality? What size military does one need, and who should decide what it is used for? How can governments deliver better outcomes for their own people by taking long-term decisions that improve the quality and length of life, but come at the expense of productivity and therefore of continued growth? How should states like India and China, or India and Pakistan, improve their relationships – or indeed, should they? None of these are easy questions.
JWT: Many observers and thinkers term the recent changes as the advent of minilateralism. Do you agree?
PF: Sure. Why not! I’m all in favour of cute labels that simplify complexity. If someone can explain what Sweden, Cuba and Jordan truly have in common – other than the same size population – they deserve a prize. Minilateralism seems to mean all of the world except a few big countries.

JWT: Do you think that China’s economic model, at some point in future, will clash with the businesses/businesspersons there? How do you expect China to continue to progress in terms of economy with some form of state control being intact?
PF: Yes. That clash is going on at the moment. But it has done so on many occasions too, not only under Communist rule, but since the start of recorded history, including during many of the dynasties that ruled China – and sometimes on several occasions during the same imperial reign. Do I expect China to continue to progress? Yes. I’ve no idea why some people find it easy to write China off on the basis of what they read in the newspapers that morning; from my point of view, China will continue to do what it always does: evolve.

JWT: As the world undergoes formidable changes – a metamorphosis of sorts, in Ulrich Beck’s words – how do you see the future of countries like Pakistan? We face conflicting foreign policy routes. With whom the countries like us should or would align?
PF: I would worry less about high diplomacy and the forging of alliances. The dizzying round of foreign policymaking is really important, but my attention would be a lot closer to home. All states that are successful share some pretty basic features. One is the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary; another is the stamping out of all and any forms of corruption; another is the successful and just collection of taxes; another is bureaucratic and administrative excellence; and another is the laser-like focus on meritocracy whereby talent is rewarded by performance rather than family connections. If one gets those right, one has the luxury of deciding what the long-term future can and should be – including geopolitics and alliances. Get one, or all wrong, and the house of cards comes tumbling down. I’ll leave it to each reader to decide what – if anything – can be applied here to the case of Pakistan or indeed to any other country besides.

JWT: Climate change is a pressing issue in the modern-day world. However, developing countries have to prioritize other things, like putting food on the table. How do you think this “de-carbonization dilemma” will play out in the future? How can countries align their economic imperatives with the moral obligation to reduce anthropogenic emissions?
PF: Well, this is an area I work in extensively at the moment, and so I would say that the framing of the question is part of the problem. It is perfectly possible to have a green and clean energy policy and introduce sustainable environmental protection while seeing economic growth. In some cases, one might need to accept a longer time-frame; but in today’s day and age, with solar, wind and other renewables falling to record low prices, not even that needs to be the case. Burning fossil fuels brings short-term gains and long-term expenses. It’s crazy not to think ahead.
One problem comes from how we teach our children both at home and at school: we should all do a much better job at explaining how to discard and deal with rubbish better; how to conserve our resources to avoid waste; and how to live more in harmony with the natural world. Again, this is simple commonsense. But it breaks my heart when I see people open their car window and throw things into the street in Pakistan, or dump rubbish by the roadside – thinking it is someone else’s problem. I wish that could change.

JWT: Do you think that carbon emissions would also be weaponized in the future, just like oil and gas? Is there a carbon-emitting countries alliance in the making?
PF: Nothing is impossible. But I’d be more worried about the monopolization of clean technologies at the moment. Everyone on this earth realizes that burning coal, oil and (to a lesser extent) gas is damaging and that we need to do things another way. The race is now on to find those new ways and to obtain, secure and protect the resources that will be needed. Like rare earths; or copper; or silicon, etc.

JWT: Is world peace, in your opinion, a utopia?
PF: Well, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen World Peace. There is always some part of the world where there is conflict and suffering. If one wants to be optimistic, as I do, then it’s worth celebrating the fact that the last three decades have been a time of hope for the overwhelming proportion of the population on earth. Of course, for many in Iraq and Syria, in Zimbabwe, Libya, this has been a time of horror and tragedy. But we have not done too badly until last year. The new invasion of Ukraine last year was a global turning point; that is why this event is so serious for us all.

JWT: What major events or developments do you see, in your crystal ball, highlighting globally by 2050?
PF: I am keen to avoid asteroid impacts; massive solar flares; a significant volcanic eruption; and the use of nuclear weapons. If we can get to 2050 without any of those, I’ll be a happy man. Even more so, if England defend their World Cup cricket title this autumn.

JWT: What was the most memorable moment for you during your trip to Pakistan? Did you try the Pakistani food? What was your favourite?
PF: I adore Pakistan, its people and its cultures. I have so many happy moments and memories. But there is one thing I’ve never done: played a cricket match there. That will be the fulfilment of my dreams. Ideally, against a team of similar old and out-of-shape historians or authors, as I’m not too keen on very quick 18-year-old boys or girls showing me their bouncer or yorker. And yes, the food! Give me a karahi any day of the week, and I’ll be happy.

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