In late 2013, the Future Powers met quietly in Astana. Their decision tells us much about 21st Century geopolitics, the balance of power, and the role of decadence in the decline of nations and empires.
The Chinese, Central Asians, Russians and Iranians are rebuilding the fabled Silk Road without the silk. In the short-run it will create a vast trade-zone independent of America, circumventing the West’s key strategies just as surely as bygone armies strolled over ancient China’s Great Wall, and modern Europe’s Maginot and Siegfried Lines. In the longer run it will weaken, or may even the collapse, the dollar, with America and Europe relegated to the status of Brazil today.
The old Silk Road brought precious textiles, medicinal plants and spices from Asia to the Middle East and Europe. It began even before the silk trade, and I have a small Ancient Egyptian scarab carved of lapis lazuli brought from far-off Central Asia. Later (twice as long as America existed), Augustus Caesar complained to the Senate about the volume of Roman gold sent abroad over the Silk Road paying for Chinese silk; some dress-length bolts of which sold in Rome for the price of a new house! Peaceful middlemen, such as the Kushan Empire of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, minted their own gold coins from Imperial Roman aureae melted down by the bucketful. By Europe’s Renaissance, one of Giotto’s patrons demanded more clouds and less blue sky on a fresco, to save on the costly pigments ground from Silk Road lapis (regardless, deep lapis-blue became the colour of the Blessed Virgin because of its popularity, rarity and expense). Riches, business acumen, and hope of trade sent Marco Polo up the Silk Road to fabled Xanadu, in search of Kublai Khan. Only sea-freight overpowered it.
Tomorrow’s Silk Road will differ from its historic predecessor, chiefly because it will serve an internal market. Rather than merely hauling goodies over wilderness between former Cathay and the Mediterranean, each modern participant has things to offer and things it needs. China is awash in deteriorating American dollars and burgeoning technical capacity, but needs oil, gas, minerals, and long-term commercial markets more reliable than the profligate, bankrupt West. Sanctions-ridden Iran is afloat in unsold oil. Russia has access to European markets and energy aplenty, while Central Asia, desperate for jobs and development, is rich in untapped natural resources and placed strategically for pipelines. Its partners are already making massive treaties and business contracts across the region.
Bet on stability. Although all but China and Iran may be threatened by Sunni-Islamist radicalism, all are ruled by strongmen. Some three billion people may be united into the world’s largest free-trade zone, from the Pacific to the Baltic, mutually beneficial and potentially escaping the innumerable growth-hampering trade-barriers erected by social-democratic welfare-states battered by powerful special-interest groups. The New Silk Road is a natural alliance.
The incomparable Asia Times reporter, Pepe Escobar, describes the recent intentionally underpublicized Astana summit in a piece well worth reading. It was Iranian President Rouhani’s first trip abroad; it brought Putin to the table with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a host of Central Asian leaders for what was more of a top-level working session and an insiders’ declaration of goals already accomplished than the usual Western “gab-fest” summits dominated by coverage of luncheon menus and insignificant spats among celebrity leaders. Were U.S. newspapers full of it? Were the Sunday political talk-shows focused on Astana? Do they, or you, even know where it is? (the capitol of Kazakhstan). I bet not.
With one notable exception, my elderly relatives become exclusively self-interested as they fall apart and draw nearer to death. Their conversation shifts to aches and pains, the shortcomings of their armies of doctors, and which old friends have croaked and which are expecting the Grim Reaper immanently. This is particularly true in the West and, though less common in cultures with larger and tighter extended families, it may be generally true among old folks overall. Among nations and empires too, methinks; and the bigger the empire, the more far-reaching the consequences. As Rome slipped into senescence and death, do you think that the predominant conversations were of the withdrawal from Britain that reverted to barbarism within a few short generations? Or what once-popular entertainer was “reinventing” herself and which tired politician was planning a comeback?
Silk Road fallout is notoriously hard to predict, but still somewhat clear. More than a decade ago, the Chinese began dumping dollars wherever they could, snaffling up mines and farms from Asia to Africa even at imprudently high prices, in order to shed reliance on their major customer before the American drunks could print enough currency to destroy the dollar. They still have trillions to get rid of, and are investing eight billion in one Central Asian pipeline alone. Moreover, the New Silk Road will trade chiefly in Chinese currency, not dollars. That would remove somewhat less than half the world’s population from dollar-hegemony and reduce US power and profits considerably.
Meanwhile, Asia will have all the oil and gas she needs, and supply Europe as well, adversely affecting America’s Saudi ally. Iran, paid in Chinese currency, will buy low-cost goods from China (as we all do), so they can better ignore Western sanctions. This much is virtually assured, even given the currently deplorable Central Asian infrastructure.
Indebted and self-obsessed, America’s loss of economic dominance seems certain too: a high-tech steel-mill here and a new pop-star there hardly outweigh the weakening factors. America still leads dependably in technical education and invention, but is witnessing a near race between her cities going bankrupt. Also weakening is U.S. authority abroad.
The global anger over unlimited U.S. surveillance, the international raspberry against America’s proposed war in Syria, and European trade sanctions against Israeli “settlements,” suggest an empire in retreat. Meanwhile, Iranian President Rouhani’s Western “peace offensive,” whether sincere or not, will benefit him over time in a world increasingly outraged at Bully America that ignores international law and treaties long after a Cold War that let them get away with it. The causes of diplomatic decline are far bigger than Mr. Obama’s hapless diplomacy; indeed, a more truculent American president would only make things worse for his country. But what Americans notice, fixated on hollow displays of partisan upmanship at home and abroad, is as fundamentally pointless as gestures in ancient Kabuki theatre. Shouting at foreigners, in particular, is tantamount to parents howling at their tattooed rebellious kids, telling them which spoon to use for the dessert-course; if there was even ever a time for it, it’s long passed.
What can be done? Little except at the fringes. First, it is neither surprising nor objectionable that Silk Road neighbors band together to solve their economic problems. Their growing wealth will help us even if they become less obedient geopolitically. The Silk Road’s three billion newly-enriched people will buy even more irreplaceable US products (say, Cokes and Disney movies, new medicines and high-tech fertilizers) but have no need to kowtow (say, on U.S. surveillance or Middle Eastern policies). Meanwhile, America’s military is spreading across Africa apace, costing fortunes for what? For a military confrontation with Chinese-leased copper mines when efficiency and trade are today’s and tomorrow’s peaceful battlegrounds? U.S. strategy there is just another costly and useless Siegfried Line, driven by a military vested interest resembling so many greedy others at home. But Americans wander “eyeless in Gaza” (and most everywhere else), fixated on internal details like my aged relatives focus on their arthritis. Everything becomes just another opportunity to talk about ourselves, griping like old people losing muscle-tone and balance.
Second, The Imaginative Conservative editor/founder Winston Elliott often quotes historian Will Durant on the dependable decline of empires. Yes, America could strengthen its future through moral, economic, and political reform, and she just might try. But it won’t recreate the world; it won’t restore all power to a handful of colonial powers with a bygone monopoly on industry and technology. America’s concept of freedom proved popular, and so American bossiness must end. The kids are grown up. The U.S. can strengthen at home, behave less intrusively abroad, and maybe buy another century at the top-table, but she won’t be the only one dining. (True conservative Americans may celebrate the spread of industriousness, opportunity, self-reliance, and potentially cleansing competition between different cultures; while the complaining nationalist ideologues will inadvertently show that freedom was only their facade, their excuse for arrogance and bullying).
My sad bet, however, is that America ignoring the epoch-making New Silk Road tells one all he needs to know. Tired, prematurely old and self-obsessed, America has stopped listening. She will keep obsessing and misunderstanding, and everyone else will increasingly ignore her, until the time comes to phone the mortician.
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