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.

image 2The 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.

Image 3What 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.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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9 replies to this post
  1. Do conservatives complaining that America’s empire is in retreat imply that conservatives favor empire for themselves? If so, realize that other countries have conservatives too. Also realize that the weakening of America started when other countries started to recover from WW II and sharply accelerated when the global economy went into full swing. There is no national loyalty in the global economy when there is money to be made.

    • I would suppose there is a lot of ambivalence; on the one hand, many conservatives distrust America’s imperial ambitions and don’t like to pay for policing the world, an effort that more than often simply backfires. On the other hand, that this is happening because America itself is caving in from within is bad news for all Americans who don’t follow Alinsky.

      I would think that any ‘conservative’ whose complaint is that America’s empire (or imperial ambition, since we never really fully reached ’empire’) is in retreat is probably not fundamentally very conservative at all.

      The concern that we will not merely have a balancing power but be sidelined into ruin is a valid concern; if American talent begins fleeing to Russia, despite its supposed human-rights abuses, this will be a sure and final sign that the ‘United States’ sun has begun to set.

  2. This has happened before. After the rise of Islam in the 700’s, trade on the Silk Road slowed and stopped because of the taxes placed on trade by the Muslims and also because Europe was reeling from the collapse of the Roman Empire, which had many causes but a tipping point seemed to have been a climate catastrophe around 430 AD. Europe was producing fewer items in demand down the Silk Road but the elite still wanted their luxuries. As a result, Europe exported much of its gold and once it was gone, trade all but stopped. This pushed Europe deeper into economic stagnation and resulted in land becoming the basis of wealth and the establishment of feudalism.

    This time isn’t all that different. The West has been shipping its wealth to China and the Middle East for oil and cheap products. The US in particular has been hollowed out and is consuming the last of the wealth built up by our productive forebears. Manufacturing has been shipped overseas and the loss of those high paying jobs has meant more service sector jobs. These can’t sustain an advanced economy. Now, computers and other machines are displacing service sector workers as they did industrial and soon will make greater inroads into skilled labor jobs.

    The effect of all these lost jobs is the destruction of capital. Without capital, nations wither. No capital means no power or clout. No power or clout and no money for trade means increasing isolation which hastens the cycle. We are simply repeating the mistakes of post-Roman Europe on a far grander scale and one likely to end worse since so many people are urban and even the rural folks are dependent on the modern systems of oil and electricity.

  3. Capitalism has helped to develop a lot in the past centuries. It is maybe imperfect but has shown to produce progress and wealth for many people. Not all of course. It has shown to be superior to communism and other models, and i know about communism, I was living in such a country. Unfortunately, since the 80′, capitalists have forgotten that the core of it is the capital, which means savings. Savings of money and resources. The Eurasian new silk road did not forget it. The huge amount of dept and waste of resources of most Western countries will make people slaves of their own system. No freedom anymore apart in some useless propaganda songs.

    • People who favor capitalism because of the wealth and progress it has produced neglect to point out the costs that others have had to pay for that wealth and progress. It is paid by people who are invisible to us and that is why we can say that capitalism isn’t perfect but it is good enough.

      Actually, the 80s capitalists, as opposed to the capitalists from the Bretton-Woods system are simpleminded extremists. They think polar opposites where those who fulfill their social responsibilities are regarded as slaves while the rest are fleeing to some fictitious island refuge.

      What we have today is as bad as the communism of the past. And the reason is because we focus on extraneous variables and neglect the important ones. Go to the neoliberal capitalist Russia and see if one is any freer than those who lived in the Soviet Union. In either case, what you have is elite-centered gov’t. So perhaps the capitalist-communist continuum produces the same amount of freedom, unless, course, you are one of the elites.

      • Having spent a bit of time in Russia, I can definitely say it is “more free” in the sense that I could do what I wanted and not be accosted in the street by the Politsia. Granted, I only saw Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg, but I would say that aside from the turmoil of the 1990s and early 2000s capitalism has done much good for Russia, though I concede your points about the current situation politically there.

        I’m not sure that what you speak of is actually the case. Capitalism’s basic points have not changed. Ever. It is true that capitalism becomes as bad as socialism when ethical restraint and prudent regulations are removed from its system, but I don’t feel that American capitalism has quite gone that far. The costs we pay for the wealth and progress we have is mostly that of the sweat of our backs, or at least that’s mine and my father’s experience. It’s effort and dedication and frugality. Problems begin when we take it for granted, as we have.

        • I don’t think we can separate what happened before from now. Especially considering the continued persecution(martyrdom) of members of the press, the exaggerated charges against oppositional rock groups that perform spontaneous songs in churches, and the exaggerated charges against activists such as Green Peace.

          No, capitalism, like socialism, has different forms. Today’s neoliberal capitalism attempts to unshackle the private sector’s elite from almost all social responsibilities from environmental responsibilities to the responsibility to support the infrastructure to the responsibility to support society. That is that today’s capitalism attempts to free private sector elites from regulations and from taxes. And if we add to that the free flow of capitalism where countries no long have the power to control the flow and value of their own currency, what you find is that a state’s democratically elected gov’t is answerable to elite international investors rather than that actions of investors in a country being answerable to an elected gov’t.

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