25 years ago, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the future looked rosy. Liberal democracy, freedom and individual rights were on the march, triumphing over tyranny and repression. The end of the Cold War had brought an end to history, declared Francis Fukuyama. A quarter of a century on, that sunny picture has clouded over. History has come bouncing back, says Peter Frankopan, the Oxford historian and author of the bestseller, The Silk Roads, a major reassessment of world history which has won ecstatic reviews across the globe.
We are living in a time of transition. Migration, religious fundamentalism and climate change leave many of us anxious about the future. So too does the rise of China, the re-emergence of Iran, the actions and posturing of Russia and a Middle East that seems fragile and volatile, where the dreams of the Arab Spring have turned to despair, as conflict rages across north Africa and the Middle East.
How should we best understand what is going on – and how do we prepare for the new world that is emerging? In June 2016 Frankopan came to the Intelligence Squared stage to put these questions into an historical perspective. He was joined by the politician Kwasi Kwarteng, whose books on the history of empire and on finance have given him a rare perspective on global change and on the ways the West has engaged with other parts of the world, sometimes as he sees it with disastrous effect.
Frankopan and Kwarteng examined the rise of Asia and asked whether we are entering a new era where Europe is becoming not just less important, but potentially irrelevant. They also looked at the lessons that can be learned from the recent and not so recent past. As Frankopan argues so powerfully in The Silk Roads, history looks very different when viewed from different perspectives. The rhythm of change that we find so unsettling today has characterised previous centuries and is not only unsurprising, he claims, but actually predictable.
The globe has rotated towards the West for the last five hundred years. Now, as Frankopan explained, it is turning east, towards the new Silk Roads, largely funded by China, that fan out in all directions across Asia. Is it closing time in the gardens of the west, as our old comfortable democratic assumptions – and our comfort – fall prey to a world order that is changing at terrifyingly quick pace?