People shopping in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China
People shopping in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China © Rov Haviv/VII

Twenty five years ago, hope was in the air. The Berlin Wall had fallen and Germany, divided since the end of the second world war, had reunified. Mikhail Gorbachev was leading the 15 republics of the Soviet Union towards a loosening of ties that would soon result in their independence — after the drama of a failed coup in the summer of 1991 by hardliners trying to stand in the way of the winds of change.

Beyond Europe, the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison prompted joyful scenes in South Africa, as did the constant emphasis that “Madiba” placed in speeches and interviews on peace and reconciliation, rather than revenge and violent revolution. Transition away from repression to freedoms could be seen everywhere — in Chile, for example, where General Augusto Pinochet finally relinquished power at the end of the 1980s to a civilian, democratically elected regime. Then there was China, where the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989 saw the loosening of the state’s grip on the economy and a wave of liberalisation and privatisation in the years that followed.

There was hope even in Iraq following the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm. “Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated. Our military objectives are met,” President George HW Bush announced in a televised address on February 28 1991. Bush was sanguine, too, treating military success as the start — rather than the end — of a chapter. This was “not a time of euphoria, certainly not a time to gloat”, he went on; “we must now begin to look beyond victory and war”. Few had any illusions that Saddam Hussein would change his spots. But removing him would be difficult — and would come at the cost of antagonising allies in the Arab world. Besides, noted Dick Cheney, then US defence secretary, “the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many.”

Nevertheless, these were fragile times, and few doubted that transition could go wrong at any time. It would take the flap of a butterfly’s wings for violence to erupt on the streets of Moscow, Johannesburg, Santiago, Beijing or Baghdad — either as the result of the accelerated expectations of those wanting change, or because of a hardening of those determined to hang on to power.

It was not wild optimism to speak of “changes of almost biblical proportions”, as Bush did when he addressed Congress nearly 25 years ago; rather, the observation reflected the reality that something dramatic was happening. It seemed to be the end of an age of autocracy and repression. All over the world, dictatorships were being swept away. To be sure, there were still exceptions — such as the regime of Muammer Gaddafi in Libya, for example; but liberal democracy had triumphed as the political system par excellence. Some believed that we had reached the point where it was possible to talk of the “end of history”.

It seemed hard to argue with the observation that not only were all practical alternatives flawed, they had also all failed. The ideals of liberty and individual rights had triumphed. These were quintessentially western values, learnt at immense cost — above all in the course of the brutal 20th century. The world was not perfect but there was much to be hopeful about.

That sense of optimism and hope has long vanished. We live today in a world filled with the fear of the unexpected. America is at “a moment of transition”, wrote President Barack Obama in the opening statement of a review prepared by the US defence department in 2012, which underlines that the US faces unprecedented challenges from across the globe. It is a conclusion shared by the Ministry of Defence in London, which recently published a report observing that the next three decades will require Britain to face “the reality of a changing climate, rapid population growth, resource scarcity, resurgence in ideology, and shifts in power from West to East”.

Anxieties are also raised by more immediate difficulties and pressures. Sluggish domestic and global economies are one problem but issues such as repeated terror attacks in mainland Europe and mass migration — a topic on which the European Union has struggled to agree, let alone act — seem overwhelming and intractable. The devastating war in Syria and the loss of significant territory in northern Iraq to Isis are one end of the spectrum of despair that has seen the dawn of the “Arab Spring” and the promise of a wave of liberalism and a surge of democracy give way to intolerance, suffering and fear across north Africa and the Middle East. Few doubt there is more turbulence to come, not least because of the dramatic fall in the price of oil. This threatens to have an impact on the stability of states across the Gulf, the Arabian peninsula and central Asia, which are battling to balance budgets and being forced to introduce austerity measures after generations of living off rich hydrocarbon deposits. Economic compression and political volatility go hand in hand — and rarely resolve quickly and easily.

To the north of the Black Sea, Russia’s absorption of the Crimea and its involvement in Ukraine have destabilised relations between Moscow and Washington, as well as with the EU — in direct contrast to the trajectory of Iran, long a pariah state but now apparently reverting to the traditional role it has played since antiquity as the central piece of a jigsaw puzzle without which there can be no stability, peace and prosperity. And then of course there is China, entering its own phase of transition, in which the breakneck economic growth of the past two decades is slowing to a pace widely referred to as the “new normal” — consistent, but not dramatic. Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea, meanwhile, create new uncertainties. So much depends on how China engages with its neighbours and near-neighbours in the years ahead.

To understand the tensions and instabilities that are reshaping our world, we must look above all to the Silk Roads. First described as such in the late 19th century, though connected in myriad ways that go back millennia, the region that sprawls between the Mediterranean and Black Seas and the Pacific barely registers for many historians, more used to charting the rise and fall of the west. Yet while countries such as Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria may seem wild to us, these are no backwaters, no obscure wastelands. In fact, the bridge between east and west is the very crossroads of civilisation.

Far from being on the fringe of global affairs, the countries of the Silk Roads lie at its centre — as they have done since the start of history. The reconfiguration of each of these countries, and the relations they have with one another, have long dictated rhythms of global exchanges — of ideas, faiths, goods and produce, but also of violence and disease. The transitions of today are being driven by the rebirth of a region that once provided the axis on which the world spun. Far from witnessing the end of history, we are going back to its beginnings.

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall on November 11 1989
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall on November 11 1989 © AFP

But perhaps the most striking feature of the past 25 years is the retreat of liberal democracy — the panacea whose moment of triumph is now a distant memory. The countries that straddle the spine of Eurasia, from Istanbul and Moscow to the Pacific coast of China, have many differences as well as many similarities. The thing all have in common is that they are governed by systems closer to the traditions of royal courts than to democracies. At the heart is a powerful ruler, surrounded by a tight group of advisers and magnates whose interests are aligned. Those who are not deemed sufficiently loyal or overstep the mark are summarily removed from positions of authority.

This is a pattern that is familiar in Putin’s Russia, where figures such as Vladimir Yakunin, former head of the state railways, is the latest in a long line of those to have fallen foul of the Kremlin and been shut out from political — and commercial — access as a result. In China, likewise, a series of high-ranking serving or former members of the politburo have been disgraced, such as Bo Xilai, Xu Caihou, Chen Xitong and Chen Liangyu, accused of corruption or malpractice and removed from positions of authority in steps presented as a sign of the vigilance of the leadership. It is the same story in Iran, where the billion-dollar fortune amassed by Babak Zanjani proved valueless when he was recently found guilty of fraud and economic crimes, and sentenced to death.

In many of the states along the Silk Roads that mesh Asia together, presidential authority is absolute, usually reinforced by a crushing mandate that western politicians struggle to comprehend. In the most recent elections in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azer­baijan, incumbent rulers were re-elected with more than 80 per cent of the popular vote. Transparency, accountability and good governance are key pillars of liberal democracies; but they are neither priorities, nor even welcome, in many countries that are re-emerging today.

Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, civil society is developing along very different path. Limitations on freedom of expression in matters of faith, conscience and sexuality contrast sharply with those taken for granted in the west. Control of the media dictates what does and what does not appear in the press, while independent outlets are shut down if considered to be provocative. Take Turkey, where regular shutdowns of Facebook and Twitter have proved the first phase in more dramatic acts such as the forcible takeover of the Zaman newspaper by riot police equipped with water cannons and tear gas. In a country where “insulting the president” is a criminal act, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the confidence to declare that he would neither “abide by the decision or respect” a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court.

It is tempting to look at the failings of a world whose history we have paid little attention to and deplore the perceived lack of progress. It is important, though, to hold a mirror to our own world and the forthcoming US election, where the choice is likely to be between one of two rival courts — those of Clinton and Trump. World Bank figures show that inequalities in the US and UK are not only rising, they are more pronounced than those in many developing countries. And of course there is the misalignment of interests between the corporations and the state. Technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Uber have been built as disruptive businesses: their loyalties, as the face-off between Apple and the FBI over the unlocking of a terrorist’s iPhone has shown, are to customers and shareholders, and not to citizens; so too with corporates’ profits, where tax efficiency trumps all, at the expense of the state.

Perhaps we in the west are on our own trajectory away from the liberal democracy that we learnt to cherish — a trajectory that we ignore at our peril. We are living through an age that has much more in common with the distant past than it does with those days of hope 25 years ago.

Peter Frankopan is author of ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’ (Bloomsbury). He will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Monday April 4 and Saturday April 9.

Photographs: Rov Haviv/VII; Gerard Malie/AFP

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