Some women love buying clothes, others geek out on owning new shoes. Me, I love books…so when the pattern from the Isfahan mosque on the cover of the Silk Roads caught my eye, it didn’t take long for me to pick it up.
What do you think of when you hear the name Silk Roads? Exotic pictures of camels carrying silks, spices and other treasures from China through to Europe? The modern Chinese initiative to connect China via many infrastructure projects with the rest of the world?
I’d thoroughly recommend Peter Frankopan’s book, “The Silk Roads” to anyone working internationally. I picked up a copy at the airport in Manila at some point when a storm delayed my flight. A friend had recommended it to me. I didn’t realise how relevant it would be for my work though. A few hours later on reaching Singapore, I didn’t want to put it down it was so engrossing.
“For centuries, fame and fortune were to be found in the west – in the New World of the Americas. Today, it is the east which calls out to those in search of riches and adventure. Sweeping right across Central Asia and deep into China and India, a region that once took centre stage is again rising to dominate global politics, commerce and culture.”Peter Frankopan “The Silk Roads”
Peter Frankopan is an academic at Oxford University, but don’t let that put you off. The style is entertaining making this hugely ambitious content so fascinating. Generally in the west, we have an extremely limited view of history, seeing it through the narrow lens of our own perspective. This book however, endeavours to show the swathe of events across the globe as well as demonstrating how the events of the past have contributed to the reality of our present.
The Silk Roads has the subtitle “a new history of the world”, but that doesn’t really do justice to the breadth and depth of the content. Each chapter follows a “thread” with a different theme. Eg The Road of Faiths or The Road of Black Gold. Those threads are then woven together into the “silk” that is our modern world.
Frankopan explains clearly how the threads of the old world come together to result in what he describes as “the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape, and which is now re-emerging”.
“A major reassessment of world history. The Silk Roads is a dazzling exploration of the forces that have driven the rise and falls of empires, determined the flow of ideas and goods and are now heralding a new dawn in international affairs.”Blurb for “The Silk Roads”
Although the central Asian region may seem alien, backward, violent and unapproachable to Western observers, it has always played a pivotal role in history in one way or another. Today the “black gold” currency of oil is the most obvious symbol of the geo-political power the region wields. However, there are additionally other natural resources (gold, rare earths, plutonium and uranium) as well as huge grain producing capacity on which the rest of the world depends.
The Asian Century
Many observers describe the 21st century as “the Asian century” & the power balance is shifting towards the east. The West is increasingly preoccupied with China. China on the other hand, is building relationships across the globe to strengthen both hard and soft power.
If the 18th and 19th centuries were a time of industrial revolution, the 21st century is a time of digital revolution. In this the Asian markets, especially China, are making huge strides forward. Many Asians, especially in China, are more willing to trade personal privacy for convenience compared to in the west. Consequently technologies such as AI and virtual reality are advancing at a pace which the average person in Europe can hardly imagine. Of course those technologies exist in the West, but in China they are already integrated into daily life.
The New Silk Road
China is investing huge sums in the One Belt, One Road Initiative (Chinese: 一带一路) and the countries along the partner routes are benefitting from those investments. Infrastructure projects, hard and soft loans, the list is almost endless. As Frankopan puts it “the Silk Roads are rising again”.
For anyone who is doing business internationally, this should be compulsory reading. Peter Frankopan’s explanations show how the geo-political constellations that we take for granted today have arisen from the events of the past. He illustrates the connections between historical events and present day realities in a way that is easily digestible even for those with a limited interest in ancient history.
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”Winston Churchill
You might be thinking, why should I as an international business person spend a week reading about the past? If you understand the events that explain how a nation reached their present economic and cultural situation you can better learn how to work with the people there. Demonstrating to a business partner that you understand WHY his country thinks in a certain way, enhances your chances of being seen as trustworthy and empathetic. Be curious, and learn about the culture of the markets you are targeting. This applies for all nations and cultures which appear strange at first glance.
Don’t repeat the errors of the past
By learning the lessons of the past, we may better understand the future and how we can shape events to our advantage. Many statesmen have reiterated the importance of learning from the past, to avoid tragic mistakes. This applies equally so in business. Comprehending the threads which make up the complex global geo-political and economic silk of the 21st century puts you ahead of 95% of your competition.
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