Khorgos ICBC vice president Sakengali Nurtazin looking at an unrealized plan for the Kazakh side of a free-trade zone with China on the two nations' border, 2014. By David Trilling.
A Kazakh executive looking at an unrealized plan for Kazakhstan's side of a free-trade zone with China on the two nations' border, 2014. By David Trilling.

And Here the Twain Shall Meet: Eurasia’s Role in a Changing World Order

February 15, 2019
Dominic Ziegler


The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order
By Bruno Maçães
Yale University Press, July 2018

Eurasia as an idea is back, as this book makes brilliantly clear. Of course, it never went away. But as a geographical and geopolitical concept, Eurasia has for long seemed to inhabit a notably vague space and set of meanings, floating in between East and West and hardly ever crucial. A main contention of Bruno Maçães’s “The Dawn of Eurasia” is that modernization and the political aspirations that ride on its back are creating—or rather reconfiguring—a new Eurasian land mass, with China and Russia as two key players, and that this supercontinent is the most salient feature of an emerging new world order. At times this thesis risks downplaying questions around the role the United States will play across this space. But it is a compelling thesis for all that, and what the author underscores above all is not a move toward some new fixity. Rather a sense of latency means that, across this vast space, there is all to play for.

“Oh, East is East, and West is West”: When Rudyard Kipling’s 1889 imperial border ballad declared that the twain shall never meet, what Kipling implied was not just geographical distance; the chasm operated on a historical and indeed a moral plane too. Until the European arrival, no word existed for “Asia” among its welter of languages and local cultures. “European-ness” defined itself in contradistinction to Asia. Asian society was supposed to backward, stagnant, despotic, unchanging since antiquity. By contrast, Europe had made the decisive break, freeing itself from such an ancestral past. Europe now took a scientific, enlightened approach to human affairs—furnishing moral justification for overlordship along the way. Hegel put it thus: “The history of the world travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of history, Asia the beginning.”

Yet as Maçães stresses, processes now unfurling across the world’s largest land mass are among other things a reminder of the contingent nature of European dominance. Racing back from East to West today is the modernization that Europe first unleashed. At once emblematic of the phenomenon and its most grandiose exemplar is China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It encompasses dozens of countries and hundreds of billions of dollars in financing to lay down roads, railways, bridges, pipelines, fiber-optic communications and newly designated zones of economic production. The chief aim of all this “connectivity,” in the buzz word, is to make East and West meet for good, to bring Asia and Europe back to the same plane of existence, as Maçães puts it.

In this new space, the obstacles of the recent past—the Iron Curtain, China locked inside its Mao-made autarky, even the physical obstacles of the Himalayas, the Inner Asian deserts and the melting Arctic itself—are swept aside. Maçães shows brilliantly how modernization engulfing all before it is not made in Europe’s image, nor is it emphatically moving toward the end of history. On the contrary, the new Eurasian world is one of contrasts and contradictions. Integration does not dissolve differences and conflict. Rather, it heightens them. Everyone is modern now, but like unhappy families every place is modern in its own way.

The author has a doctorate from Harvard and is a former foreign minister of Portugal. He is a non-resident fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, and he advises on political risk. Yet he is no Davos man incarnate. What makes the book sing are his deftly reported travels through the heart of Eurasia in search of a place around which the region might be seen to pivot or, better still, offer up its elusive secrets. The quest runs through borderlands of darkness and chaos. Maçães’s dystopian tour of Grozny, the Chechen capital, is masterly; his description of the make-believe country of Transnistria surreal. The city of Khorgas, also known as Khorgos, on China’s western border with Kazakhstan, is in the middle of nowhere, but has been officially designated as the gateway between East and West. A vast future container port on rails, it is about as far away from the ocean as it is possible to get. It was so new it could not be seen on Google Earth, and the traffic lights had not been switched on yet. But on street corners large video screens carried project maps for Eurasian infrastructure, “bright arrows crisscrossing the steppes like comets.”

This is not modernity for its own sake, however. Just as recent interpretations suggest that the ancient Silk Road had less to do with trade than with cultural exchange and the transit of ideas, so Belt and Road’s spillovers from infrastructure and trade into politics, culture and security “are not a bug in the project, but its most fundamental feature.” China’s concrete-pouring on the supercontinent is in fact a giant project of international political engineering.

Chinese talk about “giving back” to others the fruits of development from which they themselves have benefited. But on the steppes of Central Asia, where so many civilizations were born, the point of the Chinese bulldozers is to wipe the historical slate clean. Rather than accept the West’s rules of global economic engagement, which China had no part in drawing up, Xi Jinping is here offering the Chinese version of a universal culture and values to challenge those of the West that have do with human rights, open government and liberal democracy. In what may be seen as a companion volume (“Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order,” published in Britain in December 2018 and forthcoming in the U.S. in March 2019), Maçães explores the theme further. In some ways China is returning to the ancient Chinese concept of tianxia, or “all under heaven,” in which China sat at the heart of both power and civilization. Relations among states were governed not by legal precepts but moral ones of dependence, gratitude and reciprocity—but also retribution. In that context, the opacity of the Belt-and-Road deals that poorer countries are striking with China is all of a piece. The whole project carries huge risks, for China and recipient nations. But for now, the bulldozers have done their work: Khorgas has no past, only a future.

China, of course, is far from the only actor in Eurasia. Russia, spanning much of the northern part of the supercontinent, could hardly fail to be one too. Vladimir Putin, like Xi, understands that in a world where international norms are no longer respected, power attracts. Putin thinks not along national lines but “in terms of larger blocs and, ultimately, in terms of the world order.” If he speaks for Russia alone, Maçães writes, he “cannot aspire to issue a direct challenge to Western political values, with their patina of universal appeal and validity.” Such calculations lie at the heart of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Putin creation encompassing former Soviet satellites from Belarus to Kazakhstan that projects Russian power into Eurasian spaces and attempts to make it the indispensable pole between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. Maçães offers a key insight into Putin’s rule: Chaos, including in the badlands around the Russian periphery, is not so much a challenge to his power but the conquerable thing against which his power is measured. If there were no chaos, he would be bound to create it. It is in that context that the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine should be seen.

The question now, however, is what role Russia will play to Xi Jinping’s China. The two countries’ rapprochement gives China tremendous strategic depth, able to draw on Russia’s raw materials and project power not only over former Russia domains but over Russia itself. Yet scratch a Russian, and suspicions of Chinese aims lie not far below the surface. Some strategists in Washington hope that better American relations with Russia, however rocky now, might one day work to limit growing Chinese power and influence in Eurasia. The thought is not entirely fanciful.

And so, what of the United States? Until the arrival of Donald Trump as president, it seemed the inarguable defender of the West and the European-derived values it has stood for. Trump’s denial of those values and his fondness for autocrats suggest notions of power that are different from those of his Russian and Chinese counterparts mainly in degree and sophistication. But what if Trump is not an aberration but a harbinger of a new American direction—power for its own sake? Maçães makes a provocative assertion: “If the West ever falters, America will want to become less Western. As the fulcrum of world power moves away from the West, so will America.” America’s abandonment of the West, as embodied in Europe and the universal values it spawned, will sound to many like a prediction too far. On the other hand, Eurasia’s capacity to preoccupy America is already there—something that America’s troubled relations with Russia and China amply underscore.

A great value of this book is to demonstrate how Europe has failed to come to terms with these new notions of Eurasia or with the power dynamics played out over that geographical space. In the European Union, Enlightenment ideals have reached a political end-game that shades into absurdity in a system of EU governance that too often operates on the basis of an intensely formulaic system of rules and norms that have taken the place of old-fashioned political leadership. Maçães calls this the “automation ideal,” as if it is the job of European politicians and bureaucrats just to tweak the algorithm from time to time.

Now the story comes full circle. Today it is Asia that is the continent of change and movement, Europe the continent of stasis. And, to put it mildly, in recent years “the automation ideal has become rather difficult to defend.” External shocks threaten to overwhelm a rules-driven system not designed for them. It should be no surprise that many of the shocks come precisely from Eurasia—the Ukraine crisis that has brought Europe’s relations with Russia to a nadir is a case in point. In a continent that for centuries has taken its way of life to the world, Europe’s instinct is now to retreat. The West badly needs to find a way to project its influence across Eurasia’s spaces without losing the values it stands for.


Dominic Ziegler

Dominic Ziegler is The Economist‘s senior Asia correspondent and Banyan columnist.

Photo credit: David Trilling

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.