Marco Polo and the Mongol Hordes

One Belt, One Road in Historical Perspective

The leaders seeking to rebuild connections across Eurasia’s vast landmass might not like to be compared to the great Mongol warlord and empire-builder Genghis Khan. The harder edges of Mongol rule—whole cities razed, bones and skulls scattered over vast territories—are the exact opposite of the hopeful images that China, in particular, hopes that its trade initiatives will inspire. But to understand today’s efforts to reconnect Eurasia, the Great Khan provides useful lessons.

The Mongol Empire, which lasted from the early 1200s to the mid-1300s, stretched from Khiva to Hangzhou, Krakow to Karakorum. The Mongols were not the first people to trade over the Silk Road, but no one did more to facilitate exchanges across the vast Eurasian landmass. Travel times decreased, and overlapping customs tariffs were eliminated. The Mongols established a postal system, and built the roads that Marco Polo travelled. If the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative works a fraction as well as did the Mongols’ trading bloc, Beijing will consider it a great success.

Yet not all Eurasian exchanges were positive. Silk and spices traversed Eurasia, but so too did viruses and bacteria. The spread of the Black Death, which killed even more people than did Mongol armies, was likely facilitated by the Mongols’ success in rejuvenating Silk Road exchanges. Other effects of Mongol rule were unexpected, such as the rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which long collected taxes on cross-continental trade and remitted the proceeds to its Mongol overlords. When Mongol rule finally dissipated, the Grand Duchy began to build an empire in many of the lands Genghis Khan formerly controlled.

The success of the overland Silk Road trade routes, however, fueled their own demise. Great wealth flowed to the powers that dominated Eurasian trade—first the Mongols, later others—inspiring jealousy and resistance. Portuguese and Spanish adventurers took to the Atlantic in the 1400s, seeking a water route around Eurasia. When Columbus finally landed in the Caribbean, he hoped he had arrived in an Indian spice port, breaking the monopoly on Eurasian trade.

The greatest power shift of the last millennium—the rise of seaborne empires centered on Europe’s Atlantic coast—was driven, therefore, by competition for Eurasian trade. After the Spanish or Portuguese explorers, sea-borne transit was cheaper and, for a long time, faster, than travel by land. For several centuries, technological innovation in sailing outpaced that of land-based transport, pushing more Eurasian trade away from Silk Road caravans into the hulls of the growing fleets, soon steam-powered, that plied intercontinental trade routes.

The rise of railroads might have changed this. Russia’s tsars, who in the centuries after casting off Mongol rule united the territory from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, realized the strategic implications of a trans-continental railroad. In 1916, they finally finished a line through the Siberian tundra, the first railway to connect the Atlantic and Pacific via Eurasia. But their empire fell the following year, and the Soviet Union, which inherited the Tsarist railway infrastructure, was too insular and to inefficient to turn the trans-Siberian into a challenger for sea-borne or, increasingly, air-borne trade.

Now it is China’s turn. Like its predecessors, China’s efforts at unifying Eurasia are driven by several factors: a desire to boost trade, a need to find new markets for firms struggling with overcapacity at home, and a desire to set the rules of the new Silk Road. Will China be more successful than its predecessors?

The fate of Genghis Khan and the Russian Tsars provide some lessons. One is that uniting Eurasia’s economies is only in part a technological challenge. The Trans-Siberian railway did less to boost Eurasian trade than might have been expected, because politics and bad management got in the way. Beijing is betting, at least for now, that soft power coupled with cheap loans can reduce trade barriers despite Eurasia’s thorny politics. The Mongols exercised soft power too, supporting literacy, trade, and some religious freedom. But the Khans also paraded their enemies’ severed heads on the highways that crisscrossed their empire, a reminder of the hard power that undergirded their rule.

Economics dictates that trans-continental commerce is likely to increase. Efforts to cut shipping time and transaction costs on Eurasian trade routes, whether proposed by China, Russia, or anyone else, are only to be encouraged. Yet history suggests that the struggle for control of the lucrative trade between Europe and Asia is unlikely to be left solely to businesses, nor will it be determined solely by commercial factors. Eurasian trade routes have always been a matter for high politics and for grand geopolitical designs. Marco Polo may have benefited from the Mongols’ efficient roads, but it was the cavalry of the Mongol Hordes that cleared his route to China.

Dr. Christopher Miller is Associate Director at the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University.

This essay is a part of our Big Questions series.