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One literary topic that I have been fascinated with for many years is that of the Silk Road; both the ancient and modern variants. I have been fortunate enough to travel through many regions connected with the Silk Road (though Western China has yet to feature in those travels), and have learned much about its geography, history, culture, politics and its people. About 10 years ago I even completed my Master’s Thesis on an issue related to this topic. Great Game, Iron Silk Road, One Belt One Road, Ancient Samarkand and Bukhara: these images and thoughts stir my mind. So…any chance I have to read more about the topic, I am game.
“The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century” by Robert Kaplan certainly draws from this issue of the Silk Road, but dwells mostly on the modern version and its geopolitical machinations. This is not a book which moves through a thesis in straight form but is rather a compilation of Kaplan’s writings over the past ten years or so. Many of these directly address the Marco Polo geography (think Central Asian “Stans, Iran, Western China, etc.), but at times goes beyond this region. It definitely addresses U.S. and Chinese policy in the region to a great extent. A few of Kaplan’s points that stuck out to me are the following:
• Central Asia will be the place that reveals to us who has the upper hand in regional power.
• Pakistan will be the register that proves if China's “One Belt One Road” policy will work.
• The United States must move from a policy of domain control to one of domain denial in Asia.
• Assessing the Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” more than 20 years later.
• The dangers of Utopianism and the advantages of Realism in a Global context.
• The next 30 years of China's future will not be as easy as the last 30 years of Chinese history.
If any of these points strike your interest and find you wanting to know more about the topic, than I can highly recommend this book. It is a quick read. And, while I was hoping for a bit more than a compilation of essays in this book, it did inform me a great deal beyond my studies of the region. My only real complaint was that many of the essays are dated at this point, and a lot of history has happened in the interim; meaning, the book as a whole may not always read as up-to-date as the reader would wish.
Recommend Marco Polo’s World as a single point of reference on today’s world, and as a gateway to his other recent books: especially Monsoon, Asia’s Cauldron, and The Revenge of Geography.