Silk Road or Great Game?

A famous cartoon from the British magazine Punch about the Great Game

Sorry to be delaying further posts about my trip to Uzbekistan. I’m waiting to be able to include my pictures, which means waiting for Shannon to return to Almaty. I borrowed her camera but not the cable to connect it to my computer. In the meantime I’d like to share with you a question that’s been lodged in the back of my mind for some time now.

A huge volume of the post-Soviet literature about Central Asia, if not actually the greater part of scholarship, employs one or both of two metaphors to characterize the geo-political and economic situation in the region and its prospects. According to these metaphors, Kazakhstan and the four other post-Soviet Republics are either caught in the midst of the “New Great Game” or are part of a “New Silk Road.” Politicians, journalists and academics, unable to resist the poetry of history supposedly repeating itself, incorporate these metaphors into their analysis of contemporary Central Asia, presumably to suggest precedent for one or another international political and/or economic configuration or prognosis. But (and here’s my question) which is it?

This question’s importance resides in the potential for these metaphors to guide policymaking, and the two metaphors each suggest dramatically divergent options. Rhetorically, the “New Great Game” casts Russia, China and the US as the belligerents in a contest for resources (supposedly) reminiscent of the 19th-century Anglo-Russian confrontation in Central Asia. In this original Great Game, the two imperial powers launched spies at each other to fight battles of wit and intrigue in the High Pamirs. Although Britain the Russia did not come to armed conflict in this region, Great Game historians generally assert the real threat, at the time, of this contingency – and contemporary uses of the metaphor also insinuate the possibility of violence.

In contrast, the “New Silk Road” imagery celebrates the recrudescence of the historical trade routes between the Far and Middle East that passed through Central Asia, particularly modern Uzbekistan. For centuries, the Silk Road was the pathway for goods and ideas to migrate across the continent, and it is no coincidence that the heyday of this region – and the growth of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand as cities of legendary culture and wealth – coincides with the vitality of transcontinental trade. The Central Asian Republics would, for obvious reasons, like to position themselves in the middle of a reconstituted Silk Road bridging East and West geographically, intellectually and in terms of the transport of goods, since that would be a source of import and transshipment tax revenue.

I consider this question of sufficient significance that I almost wrote my MPhil thesis on the subject; then I thought about turning it into a paper while on my Fulbright; finally, I’m addressing it in a blog post. The reason for this demotion, if you will, is not that I think the question has lost relevance, but because I think, first, that both of the metaphors are inaccurate, and therefore the implicit dichotomy between conflict and cooperation, war and trade, is spurious; second, and corollary to the first, I think that neither metaphor captures the reality of the situation.

With regards to the assertion that the metaphors are poor, one need only look to basic history. The Great Game was neither about control of Central Asia, nor did it take place in “Central Asia” as defined by the five post-Soviet Republics. Rather, most of the “action” took place in Afghanistan and the Himalayas as the British attempted to halt the perceived Imperial Russian advances towards British India, the colonial crown jewel (more about which here). The British never desired to dislodge the Russians from their Imperial holdings. Seen in this light, the Great Game was not about control of Central Asian resources, but it was about access, in this case Russian access to India (although some scholars question whether Russia did in fact have designs on India).

Moreover, as much as the Silk Road transmitted goods and ideas, it (although “road” really should be plural) also served to transmit violence, disease and xenophobia. It should come as no surprise that Genghis Khan’s army and rumors of “the Mongol hordes” or “yellow peril” traveled although roughly the same routes; it is likely so did the bubonic plague. And both before and after the Mongol invasion, many competing dynasties and peoples killed each other for the sake of controlling the roads to Russia, Iran, India and China. Therefore, rhetoric about the “New Silk Road” patently overemphasizes a selective historical narrative.

But all is not lost. A fuller historic appreciation of the Great Game and the Silk Road points to one aspect in which these two phenomena were similar: both represent, at their core, the importance and value of the ability to control access across Central Asia as an asset in itself. At its best, the Silk Road suggests the potential benefits of such access, and the Great Game demonstrates why and how competing forces may desire to guard against or limit such access.

This emphasis on access, more than the previous metaphors, speaks to the contemporary situation. The US wants northern access into Afghanistan; the Chinese want lateral access across Central Asia to oil and gas resources in the Caspian and, even more significantly, in Iran; Russians want to regain and maintain control of their pipelines pumping hydrocarbons from Turkmenistan in the south all the way to Moscow and Berlin. And everyone wants to limit the dominant northward-bound trade in heroine out of Afghanistan and into Russia.

However, this emphasis shares a further problem with the original two metaphors. In none of these interpretations are Central Asian countries afforded any agency. As much as the value of the Central Asian Republics is a function of their location, they are not any longer – at least since 1991 – simply areas of land over which other empires fight for conflicting rights of passage. Kazakhstan, since 2008 the world’s largest uranium producer, in particular will have greater leverage in the future to define and project its own interests. Once this is demonstrated to be the case, both the Great Game and Silk Road metaphors will cease to have any marginal utility and should be abandoned.

Sometimes history repeats itself, but it does not necessarily do so. Toying with old and misused metaphors only muddies the waters and makes the reality of things harder to grasp.


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