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Book Review: New Silk Road

Ben Simpfendorfer’s book, The New Silk Road (2009, Palgrave Macmillan), fills a critically needed gap in the international public policy literature on the implications of the new trade and economic alliances now being formed between China and several Arab nations.  His personal accounts documenting his extensive residency and travel in Amman, Beirut, and Damascus in the 1990s and Hong Kong after 2000 tell a story rarely told in the developed world.  His fluency in both Arabic and Mandarin Chinese give him a rare, unfiltered look at the emergence of both the Arab world and China as powerful global financial giants in the 21st century.

Vivid in its accuracy, without being ostentatious, Simpfendorfer leads the reader on a journey through the streets and bazaarsSilkShopof many cities as a way of conveying the pulse of the Arab and Chinese streets.  His book captures the grit and grime of the cities while, at the same time, fixing the scenes he describes within the socioeconomic context of the events he bears witness to.  As someone who is documenting the global shift of power from the post Bretton Woods Western world to the locale of the ancient Silk Road, he outlines the reasons for this rebalancing in clear and lucid terms.  He goes beyond the simple explanations stemming from oil geopolitics and explores the historical roots of the relationships between China and Syria, China and Egypt, and China with her other important alliances in Africa and the Middle East.

As a thoroughly wired economist who plays the role of participant observer he offers subtle insights into why this global power shift is taking place and how the West can best prepare for the diminution of influence that will inevitably come as a result of this shift.  His well researched and well documented facts and figures reveal the stark truth about the lack of language and cultural preparedness that is existent in America, and how that has worked to reduce her influence within these important regions.  He also shows how poor policy decisions by U.S. leaders to cut budgets for peace time efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world have contributed to misunderstandings that have undermined our foreign policy interests and contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the world.

People rushing through train station 4What becomes clear in reading this insightful book is that it is a story only beginning to be told.  This is just the first chapter of a very long tale about the transformation of the global balance of power.  He only touches briefly on such issues as currency reserves, national debt, and military strengths and weaknesses, among other things.  How these issues will factor into the equation are, of course, of paramount importance as the U.S. moves forward with her foreign relations in the Middle East and China. However, as a book that focuses on the trade aspects of these important countries, it gives some foreshadowing of issues to watch for as a newly emerging sea lane-based Islamic corridor is defined and the ancient Silk Road is reestablished.

The West would do well to heed the warnings set forth in this book.  A ‘Go Global’ initiative, much like the one advocated by China in the 1990s, and described in the book, would be a path worth emulating in order to curtail the current global economic crisis.  It strikes a hard blow to the arguments for protectionist policies by showing how these two important regions are passing by the old powers.

The world should listen to those that speak the languages, along The New Silk Road.