Oxford Historian Explores Central Asia’s Importance Beyond Being Bridge 

ASTANA – Central Asia played a crucial role throughout history in shaping global connections, but it does not always need to be seen solely as a bridge between other people, said Peter Frankopan, a British historian, professor, and author best known for his work on global history and the Silk Roads, in an interview with The Astana Times. 

Frankopan works on the history and politics of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia/Iran, Central Asia, China and beyond – as well as on the histories of climate, natural resources and connectivities. Photo credit: peterfrankopan.com

Frankopan teaches global history at the Worcester College of Oxford University. The British historian authored the 2015 international bestseller “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World,” which was The Daily Telegraph’s 2015 History Book of the Year and one of the top 25 most influential books translated into Chinese in the last 40 years.

In his latest book, “The Earth Transformed: An Untold History,” published in March, he looks at environmental history and climate and how they have shaped the human and natural past.

Historical significance of Central Asia

According to Frankopan, Central Asia has been a pivotal zone, serving as a crossroads that facilitated the transmission of genetics, food, language, and cultural practices between the north, south, east, and west. 

“But Central Asia doesn’t always need to be seen as a bridge between other people, right? So the people here and this region as a whole have their own histories that are fantastically important,” said the historian. 

He identified two key aspects of Central Asian history that captured interest – the role of cities as connecting points over short and long distances and the vital contributions of nomadic people, particularly in providing essential resources such as protein, dairy, leather, and textiles.

“I think that one can’t think about history without including nomadic peoples or the cities of classic Silk Roads as the two main drivers of global connectivities,” said Frankopan. 

While acknowledging the economic importance of sectors such as oil, uranium, and minerals in Kazakhstan, he highlighted the often overlooked significance of the country’s agriculture, specifically the wheat and beef industries. 

The scholar noted that understanding the fundamentals of history in today’s world requires a focus on necessities.

“In today’s world, you could ask exactly the same question about the building blocks of history. What I am interested in is very basic – calories; where do people get the food they eat? Second, where does that food come from? Is there enough water to grow crops, for sanitation, for hygiene, and so on? And third, what is the disease environment?” he said. 

Challenges facing Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan faces many challenges after Russia’s war in Ukraine, with the consequences rippling through the region’s economy. 

“In the short term, there has been a boom in imports from Europe and other countries through Kazakhstan to reach Russia. You take the view that whether it is good or bad, but that is one of the important drivers of complex economic model in the last two years since the invasion started,” he said. 

The second challenge lies in Kazakhstan’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels, a linchpin of its economy. Amid global conversations about transitioning to clean energy, including the latest COP28 in Dubai, Kazakhstan has made strides in investing in clean energy production. 

Frankopan raises critical questions about the transition’s impact on the country’s oil fields, particularly those in the Caspian Sea, and the broader job distribution in the energy landscape. 

“Phasing towards clean energies is something that has been done quite well in Kazakhstan – a lot of investment and excitement about how Kazakhstan could be a leader in clean energy generation,” said the historian. 

The third and perhaps most intricate challenge centers on Kazakhstan navigating a more confrontational and fragmenting geopolitical environment. 

“Is that a time of opportunity? Or is that a time of challenge?” said Frankopan. 

Water security 

Frankopan noted water security among the pressing climate change issues beyond fossil fuel production.

“The biggest climate challenge here in Kazakhstan is about water security. Some of those things have to do with growing populations. Some have to do with grain consumption, as we use more water for crops and irrigation. Often, that is very inefficient,” he said. 

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) projections show that Kazakhstan may face a water shortage, potentially reaching 50% of its needs by 2040.

Highlighting the regional dimension of the water challenge, Frankopan pointed to potential tensions with neighboring countries, voicing concerns about confrontation. He acknowledges that these pressures can flare up quickly.

“The challenge is that even if Kazakhstan can be self-sufficient, the next-door neighborhood may not be quite so lucky,” he said. 

Climate stress exacerbates existing challenges. Frankopan suggests that efficient water management, including better collection and utilization methods, is imperative.

“Kazakhstan is not alone in that position. I think most countries in the world have that, too. For all of us, it is about being more efficient with what we already have and having better ways to collect water, use it, and not waste it. Globally, about one-third of all food grown is thrown away,” he said. 

Optimism versus pessimism about the current geopolitical environment

Reading through news headlines today, one could easily succumb to the emotional roller coaster. However, Frankopan emphasized the importance of focusing on facts rather than succumbing to emotional extremes, noting that optimism and pessimism are emotions. 

“It is important to stick to fundamentals,” he added. 

For example, Frankopan said that despite the widespread narrative about growing fragmentation and competition between China and the United States, last year saw the highest level of trade between the two countries in history. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the bilateral trade in goods between the two nations reached $690.6 billion last year. Exports to China saw a boost of $2.4 billion, reaching $153.8 billion, whereas imports of Chinese goods surged by $31.8 billion, reaching $536.8 billion.

“The fundamentals are that although people are saying it is a catastrophe, and there is warfare everywhere, and we have seen shocking scenes in the Middle East and Ukraine, but by and large, most of us get on okay,” he said, urging caution against talking ourselves into a crisis fueled by fear. 

Reflecting on historical precedents, the expert draws attention to the origins of the First World War, emphasizing how European states, driven by fear of each other’s motivations, found themselves in a catastrophic confrontation that cost millions of lives. 

Adaptation is key

“We are clearly living in a time of enormous change. I already mentioned environmental, but also technological and geopolitical,” said Frankopan. 

Drawing an analogy to driving, he suggests slowing down and allowing yourself to adapt. 

“Because if you are driving very fast, something goes wrong, you crash and you die. If you are driving a little bit more slowly, taking things a little bit more calmly, then there is a chance to adapt. Adaptation is always the key, meaning talking and, above all, listening,” he said. 

He noted the importance of events such as the Astana Club to gather people with vast experience worldwide. “After all, you educate by listening and learning,” he concluded. 

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