Book Review: ‘The Dawn of Eurasia,’ by Bruno Maçães

A treatise on the future of world order, woven into a narrative of historic events, with a facts-on-the-ground travelogue injecting a sense of reality throughout.

Against the backdrop of increasingly assertive great powers comes this timely book by Bruno Maçães, Portugal’s former secretary of state for European affairs. The Dawn of Eurasia is a bold attempt at rechanneling the narrative on today’s and future crises that are the result of the disappearing borders between continents previously seen as disconnected.

For the readers of this website, the in-depth discussion of China’s Belt and Road is perhaps the most important reason to read this book. However, China’s initiative does not happen in a vacuum. For this reason, the book also examines Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the European project in a similar fashion.

Thinking about space

The author lays out a clear theoretical foundation early on. Stretching the concept of Eurasia beyond its use in the natural sciences, Dr Maçães applies the concept to history, politics, and art. As such, Eurasia is much more than a geographical concept. In fact, it forms a “descriptive term for a way of thinking about a new moment in political history.”

By treating Europe and Asia as a unified political space, it becomes clear that the Eurasian supercontinent is one of competition between different political models and visions. With borders become increasingly diffuse, cultural and civilizational differences are reinforced.

At least in their function as transaction nodes, the Eurasian borderlands are almost entirely underdeveloped and cannot even attempt to bridge different cultures and encourage trade – in goods as much as ideas. What interpenetration we see happening between Europe and Asia will develop there, through a civilizational project one can certainly encourage and direct.

Now that their interests lay far beyond their national borders, the new great game between great powers will increasingly play out in the borderlands of Eurasia. As a result, the EU, Russia, and China form three different models in Eurasia. This second age of globalization thus forms an unstable compound of heterogenous elements.

Here, the book becomes particularly interesting.

Differing visions of world order

After discussing the prevalent theses of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, Dr Maçães proposes a third way of understanding world politics. While the whole world is indeed moving towards a modern society, the author disagrees with the idea that there is a universal principle guiding this evolution.

In fact, Dr Maçães argues, there are different paths towards an ideas of what modern society means. The competition between models is the distinctive trait of the Eurasian age. This idea is of course nothing new. Francis Fukuyama in a 2016 article already laid out a similar perspective about competing models of economic growth.

The three main players on the Eurasian chessboard, as Maçães describes, hold conflicting and contradictory views on world order. This conclusion stands in contrast to the EU’s assumption that there is a neutral framework for rules. Instead we ought to view the world more in strategic and competitive terms.

From camels to trains

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s vision for Eurasia. With its project, China wants to guarantee its access to raw materials, find new markets for capital investments and develop its Western and Central provinces. These goals are pursued through expansion in Central-Asia and Europe. While having a clear economic dimension, Dr Maçães demonstrates:

The ancient Silk Road was less about trade in goods than about cultural exchange, the movement of ideas, religions and people. That will also be the case with the Belt and Road. The spillovers from infrastructure and trade into politics, culture and security are not a bug in the project, but its most fundamental feature.

Going further, the author describes a discussion with Wang Wen, the executive dean of an influential think-tank at Renmin University. After a brief analysis of the 2015 Vision and Action plan, the author views China’s vision as a “theory of economic integration that strongly relies on political power.” As a result, the BRI forms the first transnational economic policy.

After receiving criticism for using an overly European perspective, the author ponders the question whether geopolitical considerations are decisive, even if the Chinese leadership does not describe its project as such. As the author writes:

Political and economic power: it is not difficult to get to one from the other in seamless steps. Even if the Belt and Road project is all about economics, that does not mean it is not all about politics as well. Shared beliefs [such as] mutual respect, mutual trust, reciprocity, equality, and win-win co-operation also include an implicit appeal to Chinese ideas of a hierarchical system where China enjoys a special place.

Here, Dr Maçães demonstrates his clear-headed approach towards visions of world order, such as the BRI.

Competitive integration across Eurasia

From burdensome checkpoints in Xinjiang and a meeting with the Russian secret service on the Sino-Russian border to Europe’s inner sanctum in Brussels, Dr Maçães takes us on an interesting journey across a Eurasian continent that is growing ever closer.

The year 2017 was fraught with crises in the West. With Brexit and the wider rise of nationalism, the danger for the liberal order is now seemingly coming from within. As Dr Maçães demonstrates, the impact of forces from without also has a direct impact on the domestic front. This, according to the author, is a direct result of changes taking place in Asia.

We can no longer deny the shifts happening outside our borders, nor we can deny their existence. For this reason, The Dawn of Eurasia forms the ideal guide to understand the new age of globalization, which sees differing models increasingly competing for supremacy.