In the mid-1990s, an American writer published a book arguing that Marco Polo never visited China, but pieced together stories from merchants he had met in the Middle East.
Evidence cited mostly consisted of things the Venetian did not mention in his hugely popular book about his 13th century travels, such as the Great Wall of China. The skeptical book has been mostly debunked, not least because the Great Wall was mostly built centuries later, and because it is unlikely that the traveler could have remembered so much minutia about salt production and his detailed description of the use of paper money, including the 3% charge for converting worn-out notes for new ones and the intriguing observation that paper money was mostly used in trading zones while more feudal agricultural reasons in the southern regions used cowrie shells and precious metal coins.
Today there is much talk about the new Silk Road, a revival of the long-distance exchange routes that Marco Polo was the first European to write about. And increasingly such talk – whether excited or worried - is linked with China, an emerging superpower whose President, Xi Jinping, launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013.
It’s easy to forget that the Silk Road revival campaign began long before. Eduard Schevardnadze, the last foreign minister of the Soviet Union and the first president of Georgia, banged that drum in a 1990 speech in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok. Just three years later the European Union launched its own “New Silk Road” project in Brussels, envisioning a transport corridor linking Rotterdam to Romania and stretching on to Samarkand and eventually Shanghai.
The idea flies under many flags, and as the BRI version has a hefty maritime component, arguably even the U.S. flag, as U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 promise to overcome distance and ideological differences and “build a bridge” to China marked a major turning point in what became known as globalization.
Today there is also a lot of talk about building walls and dismantling multilateralism, mostly due to a negative political climate in wealthier regions. A more important concept and goal might be connectivity.
The human relevance of Marco Polo’s story lies less in exactly what he did than in the world he revealed and opened up – ultimately inspiring even Christopher Columbus’ fateful discovery of the Americas, which ironically led to the withering of the silk roads and the magnificent cities sprinkled across Central Asia that gave them hustle and bustle.
Will today’s revival plans prevail? Will the silk road become an “orchestra without a conductor”?
Marco Polo returned to Venice with bags of precious gems, but he found the time to tell his story only because of a military mishap that saw him spend time in a Genoa jail. His biography’s message is perhaps that there will always be ups and downs.
But his broader tale is that human welfare is not achieved by trade alone but by “relating to each other”, as articulated by Alberto Zucconi, an Italian psychologist peaking in favor of the new silk road paradigm as co-chair of the World Academy of Art and Science, an association set up in 1960 with Albert Einstein an early backer.
The silk roads have always been a crucible for pluralism. A madrassa in the central square o Samarkand – where an Iranian architect designed the mausoleum for Tamerlane, who for awhile resurrected the Mongol Empire of Genghis Kahn for whose grandson Marco Polo had worked – sports a mosaic featuring two tigers, an iconic example that just how Islamic bans on graven images have been flexibly interpreted over the centuries.
Currently there is some geopolitical jousting over China’s role as an active sponsor of the New Silk Road. But in the long run, all evidence suggests that success will promote contact and exchange among civilizations and drive history out of the doldrums and into its natural multipolar state.
Today, one of the theoretical architects of turning the silk road into a gigantic world infrastructure project is the Chinese economist Justin Yifu Lin, a peripatetic like Marco Polo who served as a soldier for Taiwan, defected to China, earned a PhD in the United States and worked as chief economist of the World Bank. His reasoning, outlined in his 2013 book “Against the Consensus” and pitched to western peers such as Paul Krugman, was that in the wake of the great financial crisis and ensuing recession, the American and European approaches of fiscal austerity and money-printing would only inflict self-damage, whereas a sustained investment plan aimed at “breaking connectivity bottlenecks” in lower-capacity parts of the world would create jobs and generate demand in developed and developing countries alike. Such a plan would, he suggested, beat “digging a hole and paving a hole.”
Opportunities already exist - include trains, railways, tunnels, bridges, ports, bridges, roads, airports, pipelines, power stations, electricity grids and a vast array of logistics services –and as noted above, all of the world’s power blocs have in their own way formally championed the idea.
Currently there is some geopolitical jousting over China’s role as an active sponsor of the New Silk Road. But that’s mostly noise. No country has the ability to act alone at such scale, and in the long run, all evidence suggests that success will promote contact and exchange among civilizations and drive history out of the doldrums and into its natural multipolar state.
Enabling a positive outcome will require the creative and courageous spirit of those tigers on the wall of the Samarkand madrassah. It will require new forms of finance – eagerly sought anyway given negative interest rates – and corporate governance structures. And it will benefit enormously from initiatives such as India’s Mausam, an arts-and-culture oriented exchange-and-exploration network subscribed to by 39 countries impacted by the monsoon winds that took Marco Polo back from Sumatra to Venice.