Predicting the global future is never easy. Even the most knowledgeable and fair-minded observers of geopolitics frequently miss the mark. After the First World War, the German historian Oswald Spengler predicted the decline of the West. In 1964, the American political philosopher James Burnham opined that the West was committing suicide. In 1987, just a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yale’s Paul Kennedy warned that the US would likely suffer from imperial overstretch in its struggle with Soviet-led communism.
Like those three eminent observers, Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford, has accurately observed current global economic and geopolitical trends and pronounced a “transformation and a shift that is epochal in its scale and character.” It is a shift of the center of world power from West to East manifested in the rise of the Silk Roads. “All roads used to lead to Rome,” he writes. “Today they lead to Beijing.”
China’s One Belt One Road initiative, which is both a land and maritime Silk Road seeking to connect East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, is, for Frankopan, the driving force of 21st century geopolitics. He adduces three primary motivations for China’s Belt and Road initiative: (1) the need for stable and reliable access to energy and other natural resources; (2) to accommodate China’s transition from manufacturing to services; and (3) domestic and international security concerns. China’s main rival for global preeminence, the United States, views the Belt and Road initiative as nothing short of a long-term effort by China to replace it as the leading world power.
Frankopan describes what he calls a
series of ‘Great Games’ taking place, over competition for influence, for energy and natural resources, for food, water and clean air, for strategic position, even for data.
This is all true. The US and China are the principal rivals, but important subsidiary players include Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, and the countries of Central Asia. Largely missing from Frankopan’s analysis, however, are Japan, North and South Korea, and the nations of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim. Most of the latter countries, and at least one of the former, are wary of China’s geopolitical ambitions.
What is happening in Asia, Frankopan writes, is a Chinese leadership that promotes “increasing connections, improving collaboration and deepening cooperation.” He contrasts that with his view of a Europe characterized by “separation, the re-erection of barriers and ‘taking back control.’” He writes about the “paralysis” of Europe and its withdrawal from geopolitical competition.
Frankopan is sharply critical of the United States, especially the policies of the current administration. In his view, President Trump (who he calls “dictatorial”) has done nothing right. US policies and actions regarding trade, tariffs, economic sanctions, and nuclear agreements are all self-defeating. US policies have pushed China and Russia and China and Pakistan closer together. US policy towards Iran undermines the “moderates” in the Iranian government. The US is needlessly antagonizing its longtime ally Turkey. US efforts to contain China are counterproductive. “[T]he west,” he writes, “is in danger of becoming less and less relevant.” In his view, the US needs to understand what is driving the global shift and adapt to it. “Trying to slow down or stop that change,” he writes, “is an illusion.” It seems that Frankopan longs for a return to the more accommodationist policies of the Obama administration.
Frankopan couples his highly critical view of US policies with virtual silence regarding the still significant US lead over China in military power and the global reach of that power. Salvatore Babones, among others, has rightly cautioned against the notion that China is destined to replace the US as the leading world power. Indeed, China would be hard-pressed to succeed against what George Kennan once described as a policy of “long term patient but firm and vigilant containment.”
More fundamentally, Frankopan’s notion of a geographical “shift” in world power from West to East is overstated. Classical geopolitical theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford Mackinder long ago recognized the unmatched power potential of Asia due to demographics, natural resources, the spread of knowledge and technology, and geographical location. The geography of the Belt and Road initiative encompasses the region that Mahan in The Problem of Asia (1901) called “the debatable and debated ground” of Asia. Mackinder in 1904 and 1919 envisioned the emergence of a potential world empire based in the inner recesses of Asia. They both understood that an Asian land power could use the continent’s vast resources and population to become a great sea power and thereby threaten the world’s insular powers.
Frankopan nevertheless has accurately described current geopolitical trends. The Silk Roads are rising. China’s economic and political influence is growing. The US unipolar moment has ended. But, as even he recognizes, the rise of the East does not mean the decline of the West.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.