A millennium ago, Central Asia was as fertile in the arts, sciences, pluralism and philosophy as Italy during the Renaissance It was the profound intellectual hinterland of Islamic civilisation. The return of history is the return to that axis of exchange and interchange, even if the Eurasian nations involved are hallmarked by "traditions of royal courts", ie authoritarian systems rather than democracies.
Liberal democracy may indeed be in decline, in the West and beyond, partly overcome by its partner in crime and development, global capitalism. The previously constructive tensions between the public and private sectors in the West are melting away in the face of globalised capital and currency flows.
The inequalities and oligarchies that have grown in the West have eroded civic purpose, an idea in which liberal democracies are fundamentally rooted. Meanwhile, the nations of Eurasia aim to provide security alongside economic dynamism - cash and safety are a winning formula for many citizens. What the West offers - liberties and predictable institutions - may no longer be as attractive in the tough and threatening times ahead. Right or wrong, the simpler model of strong leader, security and economic growth, all bound together by national pride and fervour, may win out.
Frankopan may have a point. Yet, at the end of the day, both Fukuyama and Frankopan may be wrong. What we could be facing may be neither the end, nor the return of history, but its reinvention from unlikely places. Russia, China and Iran will face considerable challenges in ensuring economic growth and a steady supply of natural resources for their citizens. Indeed, Russia and China are already in economic competition in Central Asia, and guess who has the upper hand there? Similarly, Iran is still up to its neck in Middle Eastern geopolitics and it may not easily extract itself from those tortures.
The return of history may not be as smooth as it seems; competition in Eurasia may end up fiercer and more conflicted than the gentle passing caravans of the Silk Road. The idea that Central Asia will become again the heart of the world is an attractive one. But, we may need to look elsewhere for our "best best" for the future, places that, due to circumstance and history, may have better luck at navigating the difficult times ahead.
As examples, what about Latin America and India? The former has the advantage of a massive resource base, a proportionally small population, and enough elements of the old liberal order, without its stagnation, to ease the way forward. India, on the other hand, sticks out of Eurasia like a vast rogue spaceship. It is part of the Asian equation yet distinctly apart. But its advantage is not location, and certainly not demographics, but its inherent and implicit pluralism. As Sirdar Aqbar Ali Shah, an Indian-Afghan author and diplomat, once remarked: "The secularism of India is not rooted in modern Western concepts of materialism or atheism, but in the immemorial concept that the next man has as much right to his inner experiences as I.
It will be those areas of the world that do not repeat the past, whether Eurasian or Western, and that reach more deeply into our creative vaults that will most succeed. In place of the inevitable rigidities of authoritarianism, and the irony of a West today simultaneously unequal and over-regulated, India and Latin America may, each in their own way, deliver creativity and flexibility of mind.
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These are the key ingredients for us to meet our new and enormous challenges. They may combine just enough order, alongside some creative disorder, and just enough liberality of spirit to catalyse the discovery of truly new and effective solutions.
Indeed, it will be those areas of the world that do not repeat the past, whether Eurasian or Western, and that reach more deeply into our creative vaults that will most succeed. It may be time to think beyond the northern hemisphere as driver, towards the south, and then to stretch the mind even further.
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Beyond all these comparisons, there may be another place also at play. A large space where the old liberal order and the new authoritarians stare at each ardently but, for now, at a safe distance. Russia sees opposition to the United States in the Middle East as an opportunity to frustrate the American agenda, and Iran views that as most useful. And now the two seem to have found common interests in propping up the Iraqi and Syrian governments.
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Cooperation with Iran helps Russia achieve its goal of frustrating the Sunni Jihadis who constitute a serious long-term threat to Russia at home, prop up a useful regional ally in Syria, chip away at American prestige globally and, in the circumstances of the refugee crisis, force European leaders to deal with Putin if they want help to stem the refugee flow. The underpinnings of the Russia-China relationship are less solid. Chinese foreign investment in Russia fell by 25 percent in the same period. Nonetheless, Putin continues to make pronouncements about creating an alliance between the Kremlin and Beijing.
But there is little substance behind the rhetoric and symbolism.
In the post-Soviet region and the Middle East, Russia has shown that it is willing to use force to achieve its goals, and in both these regions, and in Europe as a whole, Russia believes that its interests are fundamentally at odds with those of the United States. In Asia, Russian interests are broadly aligned with those of the United States.
Given the incorporation of the Baltic republics and many former Warsaw Pact states into both the EU and NATO, any attempt to reinsert Russia as a great power in European politics would require some revision of the current order. Putin fears the current European system; it is hostile to his vision of Russia ideologically, economically, and geopolitically. Western observers find it difficult to believe that Putin is serious about his larger ambitions.
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We have become accustomed to thinking of the European order and the transatlantic alliance as so deeply rooted and so strongly grounded that they cannot fail. The institutional and legal ties that bind the EU together, and the deep links between security establishments and political circles that has marked NATO through almost 70 years of history, make these seem like permanent features of the landscape. One hopes that they are. Western observers tend to look at contemporary European politics through liberal internationalist and institutionalist lenses.
One may safely assume that older analytical tools are preferred in Moscow, and that Russian thinkers view Europe in classic power politics terms. The unification of Germany was the most important geopolitical consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union, and, given the relative weakness of Russia in the European state system, Germany had a free hand to remake Europe, especially in the East, to its liking. It would not be seen as a coincidence in the Kremlin that the boundaries and political arrangements in Eastern Europe since have looked more like a return to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk than to any other period in modern history.
As events since the euro crisis have shown, France and Italy, to say nothing of the other European countries, have lost the ability to mount an effective challenge to German domination.
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From the Kremlin,s perspective, this German system must be decisively weakened, if not destroyed, in order for Russia to achieve its necessary goals. The Soviet Union cannot be reconstituted, and Russia cannot reinsert itself as a decisive factor in European politics, unless this period of German hegemony can be brought to an end.
How can this be accomplished? Germany is a much richer country than Russia.
Standing in the center of post Europe, it has consolidated its power in European institutions and policies. Enjoying military and political backing from Washington, it seems secure against any military attack that Russia could mount. Yet, from a Russian point of view, this German Europe is not as solid as it looks. The transatlantic bond with the United States is potentially fragile; if the Americans continue to retreat from Europe, the value of the alliance will diminish.
At the same time, German control of the European Union is creating problems that the Kremlin can exploit. Countries like Italy and France are desperate for the growth that eludes them in the austere fiscal climate that Germany has imposed. Their hunger for more Russian trade is palpable; it is also likely that many in the foreign policy establishments of those countries would like to see German power in Europe balanced by other forces.
It was never the intention of Charles de Gaulle or Alcide de Gasperi for the European Union to become an instrument of German hegemony. For Russia, it makes sense to sprinkle sand into the gears of the European Union whenever possible. Supporting anti-Brussels political movements and using Russian economic resources to create rival political and economic establishments and firms in countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania have been effective in weakening the coherence of European policymaking and governance.
That Russian troops are now in Syria—source of the migrants who are currently causing political upheavals all over Europe and once again driving wedges between Germany and other states—will seem to the Kremlin like yet another useful card to play. From a Western point of view, this might look like sheer malignity; from a Kremlin perspective, it is a way of forcing its European neighbors to revise their political and economic arrangements in ways that take Russian interests into account. This is almost certainly wrong. Putin has two goals in Ukraine, both of which he has substantially achieved.