Editor's Desk

By Michael Hughes

To trade or fight, that is the question

Throughout history, groups of people, be they tribes, regions or nations, have engaged with outsiders in two ways: war or trade.

In some ways, this year’s annual international edition is a paean to the superiority of trade, with a roundup in The Front Line of international news, along with features on how ISEs have helped landscape the world’s modern international trade routes, reloaded quality culture in European companies and instituted enterprise risk management in Jamaica.

But sometimes trade begets war, or at least conflict. That’s evident in “The new Silk Roads: Prosperity or peril?” The cover story by veteran father-and-son team Richard E. Crandall and William R. Crandall details how China aims to revive trade routes that fell into disuse after the 20th century’s world wars.

Previously, silk, spices and other goods had moved across continents for a couple millennia. Trade exchanged ideas, languages and knowledge, a free flow from East to West and back, interrupted intermittently by the clash of war.

China envisions a series of highways, railways, ports and pipelines to increase trade and employment throughout the region. Naturally, many worry that the Asian behemoth will use the One Belt, One Road initiative to enrich itself and spread its authoritarian influence. Already, India and Japan have announced a competing effort.

But what if cooperation becomes as much a part of the 21st century as world wars were of the 20th? Adding infrastructure across 65 countries and in every continent but the Americas could jolt new markets, offering trade, cooperation and additional opportunities for industrial and systems engineers. After all, as Bublu Thakur-Weigold and Pavel Hnát argue in “Building walls – building supply chains,” the profession’s drive for efficiency helped shape the postwar supply chain landscape and globalization.

Even a conqueror as legendary as Genghis Khan realized that taxing trade beats smashing it. Some histories discuss how the Mongolian warlord recognized that sacking a city gave his troops a one-time boost. But taxing an intact city’s trade over and over kept the wealth flowing.

What can we expect as nations traverse the new Silk Roads? We likely won’t know for decades, but click through to find out where we start.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IISE. Reach him at mhughes@iise.org or (770) 349-1110.