Pacific Rim Report No. 45
The End of Global Empires
by Niall Ferguson, Ph.D.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He earned his doctorate in history at Oxford University.
Ferguson is the author most recently of The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (Penguin Press, 2006). His other books include Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 (Cambridge University Press, 1995) which was short-listed for the Longman/ History Today Book of the Year award; The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), which won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History; The Pity of War (Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1998), which was also published in the U.S. and Germany; and The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 (Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 2001), which was also published in the U.S., Germany, Italy, Spain, South Korea, and Turkey. In addition, Ferguson edited Virtual History: Alter-natives and Counterfactuals, a highly regarded book of ‘what if’ history.
He is a regular contributor to television and radio on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2003 he wrote and presented a six-part history of the British Empire for Channel 4, the UK terrestrial broadcaster. The accompanying book, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (Basic), was a bestseller in both Britain and the United States. The sequel, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, was published in 2004 by Penguin. He is currently completing a biography of Siegmund Warburg and has recently begun researching a life of Henry Kissinger.
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, is a Kiriyama Distinguished Fellow at USF's Center for the Pacific Rim, a historian, and a defense specialist. Among his numerous publications are North Atlantic Civilization at War (M.E. Sharpe, 1999) and The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam (Stanford, 1990).
The discussion recorded here took place on October 18, 2006 at the University of San Francisco.
We gratefully acknowledge the Kiriyama Chair for Pacific Rim Studies for the support that has made possible the publication of this issue of Pacific Rim Report.
Patrick Hatcher (Hatcher): Niall, Welcome. I was going through all your reviews, and I noticed that often you are described as a ‘popular historian’. I assume this is because you recently had this major cover article in Time Magazine, and your opinion pieces appear a lot in the Los Angeles Times, etc. Does it bother your that you are referred to as a ‘popular’ historian?
Niall Ferguson (Ferguson): Well, Patrick, I guess it is better than being an ‘unpopular’ historian [laughter], which is the obvious opposite. It is clearly designed to be in some measure a pejorative, isn’t it? But I have never quite understood why it should be a sin in the eyes of some academics to write for a wide audience. History is a public subject; it is not nuclear physics. You ought to be able to make most historical arguments comprehensible to any literate reader. For most of my career I have felt it is possible to write both in academic journals, which I continue to do, and to write academic books—there is no shortage of endnotes in The War of the World—but also to write for Time Magazine or do a weekly column in the LA Times because then I can reach many people. And I do think that history is important enough to be widely disseminated. If that makes me ‘popular’ I plead guilty.
Hatcher: I want to talk about the British for a moment. H.G. Wells once wrote a book that Orson Welles then took and scared the country with and which was later turned into two different not terribly good films. You decided to use the title of that book, but to change just one letter of it, so that the name of your book is The War of the World. Was this because you were afraid to write about Martians?
Ferguson: Well, yes, the allusion is very much to H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, plural, and you might well ask, why allude to a work of science fiction? The answer is that when you read The War of the Worlds, or indeed if you went to see the movie, the scenes that play out are scenes that in many ways happened in the course of the 20th century. That is to say, scenes of chaos, panic, death, and destruction as a city comes under attack from very heavily armed invaders. While what Wells imagined when he wrote the book back in 1898 was the destruction of London by invaders from the planet Mars, what happened in the course of the 20th century did not require Martians to participate; we did it to ourselves. Human beings conducted attack after attack on great cities, including of course London during World War II, laying waste to some of the greatest cities of Europe and, indeed, of Asia, and that is really why I changed the title by one letter to War of the World, because what happened in the 20th century in my view was an extended ‘war of the world’, not two world wars alone, but a succession of waves of extraordinarily violent conflict. And the signature act of 20th century war was the destruction of cities. In that sense I think that Wells’ inspiration was a rather prophetic one. Even though it wasn’t Martians who did it, the scenes that he envisaged came to pass, and I found it really a very helpful way of trying to capture what this book was about.
Hatcher: In the book you give us a series of places where one would have been, like you, ‘lucky’—you were born at a certain time in a place called Scotland such that you escaped both the trenches of World War I and the aerial bombing of cities in World War II, while if you had been born at another place at another time during the 20th century—like the 1930s and 40s in Central Europe—things would have looked rather bad for you.
Ferguson: I think that one of the key things to understand about the extraordinary violence of the 20th century is that it was very concentrated in space and time. It wasn’t evenly distributed. California was not a very dangerous place. Ukraine was a very dangerous place. It was a very bad idea to be born in, say, Czernowitz in 1904. It wasn’t a bad idea to be born in Glasgow in 1964. I got off incredibly lightly. What the book tries to do is to explain something which, when you put it like this, sounds rather obvious: why were some places so much more dangerous than others? And why were some years so much more lethal than others? Why was 1942 such a terribly dangerous year, and 1962 not? That sounds a little banal, but actually it is vitally important for the argument of the book because most explanations that you may already know for 20th century violence, and there are plenty out there on the library shelves, don’t answer that question. Whether they invoke extreme ideologies, or technology, or wicked leaders, the problem is that none of the existing theories helps you to understand why Ukraine, and not California, was so violent. So, the book attempts a theory of conflict that answers that question, tells you about the timing, and above all tells you about the location.
Hatcher: One of the things that I noticed about the book is that you don’t take well to old-fashioned economic explanations. The old explanation for the coming of World War I involved economic collapse, or fear of economic collapse on the horizon, when in fact you point out that those years between 1890 and 1914 saw a burst of global economic activity during which nations were getting richer and richer, so that rich nations went to war with each other, and obviously not because their economies were failing.
Ferguson: That is absolutely right. One of the key themes of the first part of the book is that we have lived through an age of ‘globalization’ before. Currently we are experiencing the second great age of international economic integration, but the last one ran from around 1880 to 1914 and in that period it is really quite impressive how much trade their was, how much migration there was, how rapidly economies grew; it was a time of unprecedented economic advance. So it is very hard to come up with an explanation for the First World War that relates it to economic crisis. It won’t work at all. On the contrary, what I try and show, and I want to stress that I am always very interested in economic questions, is that in many ways what happened in 1914 was a complete bolt from the blue, particularly for investors, who ought to have been among the best informed people at that time. I did a little exercise which was to look at whether financial markets anticipated the outbreak of the First World War. If they had, investors, particularly investors in London, would have unloaded German securities in advance of the conflict. But what the evidence shows is that they were completely taken by surprise by what happened. Within a matter of days the realization that there might be a problem in the Balkans turned into a complete financial shut down. You might not know this but most of the world’s stock markets actually closed their doors on July 30, 1914, and they stayed closed, including the New York Stock Exchange, until January 1915. So the war created a financial crisis; it wasn’t the product of one. It was actually the cause of one of the biggest financial crises of all time.
Hatcher: You have an interesting way of finding things out. You talk about the tribes who went out to gather “nutrition” and “nubile”, using two ‘n’s to point out that in the old tribal situation, if there was a tribe near you that was rich, you went and stole all their goods and women. Now, do you postulate that this happened even between the Germans and the French in 1870 and 1914? Were they after each others’ resources?
Ferguson: Well, this is a part of the book that draws on evolutionary psychology, not something that historians think much about. But I wanted to see if I as an historian could learn anything from the work that my colleagues in that field had been doing. And of course much that is written about evolutionary psychology is concerned with pre-history, with a world of wandering tribes that was “nasty, brutish, and short.” My sense is that many of the impulses that evolutionary psychologists detect in primitive man which still lurk, I think, within civilized man, do have a bearing on 20th century conflict because in many ways what happened under certain circumstances was that primitive impulses were unleashed, and this is why a number of the more hideous episodes in the book involve not just organized killing of armed men, but also systematic rape of women.
In fact rape is one of the extraordinarily repellant features of some of the worst violence of the 20th century. The Armenian genocide is accompanied by acts of sexual violence; there are acts of sexual violence by the Japanese as they ransack the city of Nanjing, or Nanking as it was then known. When the Red Army advances into Germany in the later stages of World War II more than a million women are systematically raped. This, it seems to me, is an extremely important part of the story that I am trying to tell. What I am trying to ask is why the beast was unleashed, to put it very crudely. How was it that the most primitive kinds of behavior which we would associate with tribal, prehistoric warfare, appeared in the context of some of the world’s most civilized societies? After all, Germany in the 1920s was in many ways the most progressive society in the world; by general agreement it had the best universities, and its population was among the world’s most educated. And yet out of Germany emanated the ultimate horror of the Holocaust, which, incidentally, also had its sexual dimension. Those of you who have seen the film Schindler’s List will perhaps already have gained some insight into that. But it is in fact very striking just how much sexual violence went on simultaneously with the genocidal violence perpetrated by the Wehrmacht and the SS, particularly on the Eastern Front. So, this is a book that is concerned with some very dark, dark episodes in modern history, and they trouble me because they shouldn’t have happened in the 20th century, a century of unprecedented economic progress. And they shouldn’t have happened in Germany of all places, where it seemed that education had reached unprecedented heights on the very eve of Hitler’s dictatorship. These are troubling questions but they seem to be terribly important. If we could understand what it is that unleashes this kind of prehistoric or tribal violence we may just be able to stop it from happening again.
Hatcher: In your book you do a wonderful job of explaining how ‘race’ is an essentially unscientific category, and yet you quote Herman Goering has having said that what came to be called World War II was ‘a racial war’. So, it appears to be your view that people all too easily operate on the belief that racial categories are meaningful, regardless of what science has to say about it.
Ferguson: Clearly one of the most devastating and destructive ideas of modern times was the notion that there were biologically distinct races and that indeed these races had some of the characteristics of different species. Now that idea, which really originates in the mid-19th century becomes, if you like, fully operational in the 20th century, and not only in central Europe. The idea, of course, is put into practice through legislation in the United States, where prohibitions on intermarriage across racial lines were really quite widespread up to and beyond the Second World War in some states. Indeed Adolph Hitler was able to use American legislation as a template for the Nuremburg laws that prohibited German Christians, or so-called Aryans, from marrying Jews. He explicitly acknowledged the debt that he owed American lawmakers when he devised racial legislation for Germany. So, the idea of race is an almost global concept. It has global reach; people believe that races are quite distinct and should be kept distinct, more or less everywhere. This is despite the fact that we now know a great deal more about the nature of human genetics, and that races are in fact very poorly specified categories in biological terms. So, the idea of separate races that almost have the characteristics of different species, for all its unscientific failures, is an incredibly potent, nearly universal idea, which in certain places in certain times becomes the basis for genocidal acts. In that sense it is in some ways the most toxic idea to come out of the 19th century and be applied in the 20th.
Hatcher: One paragraph in the book that has caught the interest of reviewers takes up the topic of “the descent of the West.” To quote:
“The story of the 20th century has sometimes been presented as a triumph of the West; the greater part of it has been called the ‘American Century’. The Second World War is often represented as the apogee of American power and virtue; the victory of the ‘Greatest Generation’. In the last years of the century, the end of the Cold War led Francis Fukuyama famously to proclaim ‘the end of history’ and the victory of the Western (if not the Anglo-American) model of liberal democratic capitalism. Yet this seems fundamentally to misread the trajectory of the past hundred years, which has seen something more like a reorientation of the world towards the East.” Yet, Niall, some of your Harvard colleagues don’t see a decline of the West, but rather a revitalized Western civilization with American ‘soft power’ at its center. And when I go to Beijing I see everyone there dressed in blue jeans, listening to hip-hop on their I-pods, and consuming American fast food. The triumph of a globalized form of American culture would seem to be fairly complete.
Ferguson: If you had gone to Japan in the 1930s you would have been very struck by the fact that the Japanese dressed like Europeans, danced like Europeans, had an army and navy that were modeled closely on the those of Europeans, and yet it would have been a mistake to conclude from this that the West had triumphed over Japan. On the contrary, what Japan had done was to adapt from Western models precisely the tools that it needed to strike a blow, and a very heavy blow, against Western dominance. When I talk about the decline, and I will tell you in a minute why I prefer the word ‘descent’, of the West, what I mean is that compared with the dominance enjoyed by Western empires in 1900, the West had clearly lost ground, and really quite a lot of ground, by the end of the 20th century.
The zenith of Western power was the beginning of the 20th century because at that point nearly all of the rest of the world was under some form or other of Western rule. India was ruled by 950 British civil servants. The Chinese empire, which was disintegrating, was disintegrating in large measure because its entire commercial network was being taken over by European powers who were so self-confident that they felt able to intervene in China’s internal affairs, to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, and to proceed to ransack the Forbidden City for trophies to take back to their museums. There is a sense in which we forget just how dominant the West was in 1900. It could only really decline from that zenith and I argue that the process of rebalancing—and I think the world had become crazily unbalanced by the end of the 19th century—begins in 1904 when Japan, using Western technologies, defeats Russia in a war for control of Manchuria. The Russo-Japanese War begins a fundamental reorientation—and I use the word deliberately—a reorientation of the world that gradually chisels away at Western dominance.
I think that one should understand the 20th century as a series of imperial crises in which one European empire after another faltered and fell apart, losing control particularly over Asia, but also in some measure over the Middle East, and other parts of the world, too. It is a very American notion that somehow the 20th century is a triumph. It is not a triumph if you consider the West as a whole. If you think in terms of the West as being the West European, or indeed any European empires and their successful colonies of settlement then really the 20th century saw a rather dramatic decline in Western power. And although the United States has sought in more recent times to reconfigure old forms of Western rule, whether in Indochina trying to shore up some remnant of the French colonial order, or very much more recently in Iraq as it has tried to reconstitute British rule in Mesopotamia, it has failed! How can this be a triumph? The kinds of things that the Americans have failed to do, whether in Vietnam or Iraq, were easy a hundred years ago.
Now that seems to me to be a very compelling piece of evidence that we are long past the apogee of Western power and I think this descent is only going to continue. Not only in economic terms, but in demographic terms, the West is becoming steadily less and less important. I will give you just one example: fifty years ago the population of Iran was roughly half that of the population of the United Kingdom. Today the two populations are about the same. By 2050 the population of Iran will be fifty percent larger than that of Britain. The demographics are really quite stunning. Europe a hundred years ago exported people and populated this country. Today European birthrates are below the natural replacement rate and Europe is being colonized in large measure from the Near East and North Africa. So I find the arguments about the ‘end of history’, the ‘triumph of the West’, and the ‘American Century’ wholly implausible. Such things are a complete optical illusion; we are kidding ourselves.
Hatcher: Well I am sorry that Donald Rumsfeld is not here to hear this. The Pentagon, of course, might view things differently, along the lines that in 1945 the ‘American Century’ reached a high point and remained there, that it turned the entire Pacific Ocean into ‘our’ lake with our headquarters at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and our great fleets controlling all entries and exits. Another way in which some Americans might see their power as undiminished is in the area of the “imperialism of free trade” as Lenin put it, or certainly in the area of military power, something that perhaps America relies too heavily upon.
Ferguson: Patrick, the point I am not making is that the West is ‘finished’ or ‘over’. The point that I am making is just that the West’s power is significantly less than it was a hundred years ago, and that the trajectory, and I use that word in the book, is for that trend to continue. The Pacific was dominated by Western powers a hundred years ago; that hasn’t changed. The military dominance of the West, though, was much greater then because the other armies of the world, including Asian armies, were so badly armed. That is not true anymore. The gap is significantly narrower than it was in 1900, and that is the point I am making; not that the United States has ceased to be a superpower—it clearly still is, in military terms, sans pareil (without any equal), but there is no guarantee that that will continue to be so. Three hundred million is quite a large number, but there are other countries of significant larger populations, and I don’t need to tell you, of all people, that on present trends China’s GDP will be equal to that of the United States as soon as 2031. Some people think even sooner.
The trend is the thing, and the trend seems to me to be a long secular trend, going back at least a hundred years, for Western power to wane. The power of the East had been so reduced in the 19th century. Think of the humiliation of India, reduced to being a mere British colony. Think of the humiliation of China, its empire torn apart, in effect carved up by Western powers, its sovereignty routinely violated. We have come a very long way from there. And don’t forget that although 1945 looks in many respects like a great American victory, it was in some ways a qualified, even a tainted victory. The outcome was certainly not what had been intended in China; ultimately I would argue that the Soviet Union, which was as Asiatic a power as it was Western, was a far greater victor in 1945, and for a time Stalin was in the happy position of having puppets not only in Europe, but in China itself. So the American highpoint, which clearly was around 1945, was not absolute; it was always qualified by the existence of a very powerful Russian empire that extended far across Asia right up, indeed, to China.
Hatcher: And when that Russian empire fell apart in 1989, a statement came out of the earlier part of the Bush dynasty that there was a “new world order,” which is to say America’s order. What do you make of that?
Ferguson: Well, that phrase of course has become, as our audience’s reaction shows, a comical phrase that we use only with irony now. One of the questions that I ask in the epilogue of the book is, what exactly was the significance of 1989? Because at the time Francis Fukuyama wasn’t alone in hailing it as a great victory, a great breakthrough, a moment of supreme triumph for Western values, and particularly for Anglo-American values. But I am not so sure that it was. In another sense 1989 saw the beginning of the end for one of the last great empires run out of Europe—the Soviet Union. As it fell apart, a great land mass ceased to be policed or governed out of Moscow. Ten years before, many more significant things had, I think, happened, that portended something very different from the ‘end of history’. And indeed I argue that 1979 is a more important year than 1989. 1989 seems the end of a chapter that had begun in 1917, the last gasp of Russian imperialism.
1979 is interesting because it sees not only the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, which was a very important event for the English speaking world, but also the Iranian revolution, which I think was a more profoundly important event than the end of the Russian revolution. That year also saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States, an extraordinary moment, actually, when it became quite clear that he was intent on throwing the Chinese economy open to trade with the United States and indeed to foreign direct investment. So I think 1979 set a whole new group of hares running, and the directions that they ran in were not at all congenial to Western dominance. The ‘new world order’ in that sense was an illusion if it meant American ‘hyper-power’, another term from that era. In fact the 1990s quietly belied the notion of Western or American hegemony by showing just how these reverberations from 1979 would actually change the world and change it in ways that wouldn’t be particularly beneficial to the United States.
Hatcher: In the middle of the book I noticed that you are less than enamored with the foundation of international law commonly seen as coming out of Nuremburg because you see some deep flaws there. Would you explain those flaws to us?
Ferguson: Most of you, I am sure, know the flaws in the legal basis for the Nuremburg trials—the retrospective character of many of the charges, and the extent to which the law was made up after the fact. But to me the biggest flaw in the process was the presence of Soviet judges, as it were, sitting in judgment on their former allies, the Nazis! This was in a sense the great hypocrisy at Nuremburg considering that when this premeditated war began in 1939—remembering that premeditation of war was a crucial part of the charges against the Nazi leadership—the Soviets had been among the premeditators; they had been on Hitler’s side. So there were enormous elements of hypocrisy at Nuremburg in that respect. There are other aspects of the Nuremburg process that, from a historical perspective, look flawed. One of the problems of World War II was that it could only have been won by making terrible moral compromises. Just to give one example: in the 1930s both Britain and the United States had condemned the use of bombardment from the air of civilian populations in warfare, and yet strategic bombing of both Japanese and German civilians became an absolutely central plank of Allied strategy in the later years of World War II, and it was done on a scale that the Germans had never dreamt of. So the more one reads of the, I suppose, ‘moral attitudinizing’ of the Nuremburg accusers, the more queasy one feels when reflecting on what the Allies themselves had done in pursuit of victory. I call 1945 a ‘tainted’ victory because in so many ways the democracies had to compromise themselves morally to win that war: one, by allying ourselves with a tyranny that was in many ways every bit as bad as that of the Third Reich, namely Stalin’s Soviet Union; and two, by using methods of war, like strategic bombing of civilians that really cannot be regarded, in terms of international law, as anything other than criminal.
Hatcher: Nonetheless, there was at that time a ‘bulldog’ at 10 Downing Street who I believe said, to paraphrase, that he would go to hell and make an alliance with the devil to defeat Herr Hitler, if that is what it took. Clearly, as we move on to talk about Iraq, in the minds of leaders, at least, there are some things that edge into the immoral which they are nonetheless willing to take on for the ‘greater good’ as they see it.
Ferguson: The concept of the lesser evil is a crucial one here. But while it is important to realize that surely Allied victory was the lesser evil, we shouldn’t turn World War II into a morality play, which I think we are all too often tempted to do. And I don’t think Hollywood helps. We like to represent the Second World War as a wonderfully simple struggle between ‘good’ and ‘bad’; between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And yet the reality is that we in fact had to form an alliance with one of the world’s most brutal totalitarian regimes to defeat another brutal totalitarian regime. And most of the fighting was done not by British and American soldiers, but by the soldiers of Stalin’s Red Army. That is why I very carefully try to set out the scale of the moral compromise involved in attaining victory.
I sense in this country, even more than in Britain, a certain romanticization of World War II, maybe because we want to believe that it was won by the ‘greatest generation’; maybe it is because we venerate our fathers and our grandfathers, and that in many ways is a noble sentiment. But I think we are caricaturing what happened. The number of Americans who died in World War II was point-two percent of the population and that is a tiny number compared with the percentage of Poles or Russians who died. Something like 19 percent of the Polish population died. The percentage is a little harder to figure out from the Soviet numbers, but it is probably true to say that something between 12 and 14 percent of the Russian population died. That was the war. Our contribution was relatively small in terms of fighting, though in economic terms America’s contribution was enormous. But that was a very profitable contribution to make. The United States doubled its GDP by arming the Allies. The factories of California did very well indeed out of this particular undertaking. To talk in terms of ‘sacrifice’ when you look at the history of General Motors seems a little incongruous. I think we need to look at these rather disconcerting realities if we are to understand exactly what happened in World War II and, in a sense, to inoculate ourselves against the next round of sentimental Hollywood versions of events.
Hatcher: Thinking of what you just said, if we had been flies on the wall in the meetings between Tony Blair and George Bush, would we have heard them deciding to put aside the question of weapons of mass destruction and choosing instead to go forward with a moral argument to justify getting rid of Saddam Hussein?
Ferguson: I think the key in all decision making is to contemplate the scenarios that are worse than the one you want to see happen. One of the things that is central to this book is an attempt to analyze why the strategy of appeasement practiced towards Hitler in the 1930s was so flawed. It was flawed because Neville Chamberlain and, it must be said, also American politicians, were reluctant to act early against Nazi Germany because they believed with the passage of time their own situations, their readiness for war, would improve. This was completely false because it ruled out the possibility that the passage of time would benefit Hitler even more. There was a failure among decision makers in the 1930s to imagine a worst case scenario in which, for example, Hitler would do a deal with Stalin that would secure his eastern frontier; in which, for example, France would collapse in the face of the blitzkrieg leaving Britain entirely isolated. Now in just the same way in 2003 worst case scenarios did not seem to be contemplated by decision makers in Washington. On the contrary, they made the fatal mistake of embracing a best case scenario in which British and American troops would be greeted by, what was it, flowers and sweets? That is an extremely dangerous state of affairs.
You used the phrase ‘fly on the wall’. I have never heard Bob Woodward referred to as a fly on the wall, but as I read his new book I guess that is what he is because he seems to have overhead many of the conversations that you are alluding to. And what is striking about these conversations, to the extent that he has accurately recorded them, is how very seldom the worst case scenario was considered. I feel that is because nobody knew any history. After all, you don’t need to know terribly much about Britain’s 1917 occupation of Iraq to know that an insurgency was quite likely to follow because precisely that happened in 1920. And you didn’t need to know much to know that there was likely to be conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis once the Sunni stranglehold on power was broken. So there is a sort of double charge to be made against policy makers in 2003. They just didn’t think through the potential worst case scenario of a descent into civil war, but they also failed to learn from history. I was astonished to find in 2003 when I went to Washington that nobody seemed to know anything about the history of Iraq. They were keen to regard it as a sort of laboratory for an experiment with neoconservative theory. That really alarmed me. There was one point which really brought this home to me when I asked somebody what their model was for post-war Iraq. And that person replied, “We thought that the transition of the Polish economy in the 1990s went very well.” I said, “You think this is going to be anything like post-communist Poland?” They were nuts! And yet these sorts of illusions were really quite widely held in Washington when these plans were being made.
Hatcher: You may think you meet many people in Washington who know little or nothing about history, but one of the phenomena encountered by historians of the United States, of whom I am one, is that American people are the most ahistorical people who have ever walked the planet. Therefore I wondered whether anyone at all was going to understand you when you appeared on Charlie Rose and said that Tony Blair had experienced a ‘Gladstone moment’ in deciding to contribute British troops to the invasion of Iraq. I doubt that very many Americans at all know who Prime Minister Gladstone was, about his relationship with Disraeli, about his liberalism which set him against empire and the imperial system, yet how he came to accept a moral argument convincing him to invade Egypt, which he did. Are you really telling us that Blair had a ‘Gladstone moment’?
Ferguson: Yes, I probably shouldn’t have used that phrase on Charlie Rose. I felt as I was saying it that I was losing even Charlie… The point is that liberals feel that good can be done in poor, disorganized, chaotic countries, and they feel a strong moral impulse to do good, which is an understandable impulse. And I thought Tony Blair should be understood as a liberal—he is in no respect a socialist although he has led the Labour party, which was once upon a time a socialist party. So, Blair had seen that military action could have benign outcomes in Kosovo. In Sierra Leone, which your audience will probably know less about, British troops had intervened in the civil war there with tremendous success; without much difficulty they had stopped carnage worthy of Heart of Darkness from being played out in the streets of Freetown. I had visited Freetown very shortly after that and there was a British frigate in Freetown harbor and a very small British force deployed inland. And peace and order reigned. So much so that the U.N. peacekeeping force that had been hiding in one of Freetown’s hotels for some considerable time felt able to go about their business. An old man came up to us in the street and exclaimed to my great amazement, “Thank God for Britain!” I never expected to hear an African, particularly an elderly African, say something like that.
And that is what Blair was thinking; he was thinking, “we have used our military power and we have done good; we have defeated Milosevic and prevented ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; we have intervened in Sierra Leone and prevented that place from descending into Heart of Darkness territory. Here is another opportunity; Afghanistan has worked well, now we can do the same in Iraq.” Gladstone had done something very similar before him; he had denounced imperialism when Disraeli had practiced it, but was drawn into the occupation of Egypt in the belief—and he did convince himself—that this was an act of moral courage, that it was conferring a benefit on the country. And I can see Blair’s seduction by the altogether different Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush triad, as, in a sense, the seduction of a liberal, who believed that military power could be used for benign ends, by a political grouping whose motives, to be honest, I still struggle to understand. I still genuinely cannot tell you what the objective of the project of the invasion of Iraq was because there were so many rationalizations and so many justifications offered at the time. I am still not sure that we will know, until the documents have been declassified, what the real objective was.
Hatcher: What would you suggest that this ‘colossus’, as you called the United States in your previous book, do now?
Ferguson: Well, of course, if people had paid attention to some of the arguments in my last book, we might not be in quite such a difficult situation [laughter]. In Colossus I argued that there was a major risk in undertaking an enterprise like the occupation of Iraq. The risks were that it would not be adequately resourced because of America’s financial deficit; there wouldn’t be enough soldiers sent because the U.S. does have a military manpower deficit; and the American public would lose interest quite quickly because the U.S. has a chronic attention deficit. And all of these things have happened. So it is very difficult now to come up with credible solutions. I do not envy James Baker [of the Iraq Study Group] his job because trying to devise solutions to this problem really is an extremely thankless task, and it is almost too late to prevent Iraq from descending into precisely the kind of civil war that I talk about in The War of the World in the context of central and eastern Europe.
What is happening is no longer an insurgency; it is a sectarian conflict, an ethnic conflict, between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, which has the potential to rip central Iraq apart, and particularly Baghdad. If you follow closely the reports coming from that country, with each passing week the number of sectarian attacks and the number of victims of sectarian attacks goes up. What we are seeing here is a classic cycle where violence begets more violence. Tit-for-tat killings are spreading beyond Baghdad and towards Kirkuk, and it is clearly out of control. It is clearly beyond the capability of U.S. forces to stop this. This has been a bad month for U.S. forces; they have sustained higher casualties than they have sustained for some time because they have been trying to stop this cycle, and they have clearly failed. So I am afraid I am not in the happy position of being able to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Maybe James Baker can. The rabbits that have so far stuck an ear out don’t look very promising to me. “Let’s ask the Syrians and Iranians for help” has to rank among the most desperate propositions in American political history. If it comes down to that then I really do despair. The situation is an extremely bad one and I think it is a bad one because of, to reiterate, a failure to learn from history and an inability to contemplate a worst case scenario.
Hatcher: In your book you have used a scheme based on key words all beginning with the letter ‘e’. Can you go over those again for us?
Ferguson: The argument of this book is really easy to remember because it devolves into four propositions, and each of them begins with ‘e’. So this is really for the benefit of the students here. I am a great believer in mnemonics; I got through my exams at Oxford this way. So there are three things beginning with ‘e’ that explain why certain places at certain times were so very violent in the 20th century. ‘Economic volatility’: it is when things really are going up, and down, and all over the place that instability is most likely to occur—that is why the 1930s were such a dangerous time. ‘Ethnic disintegration’: it is in ethnically mixed parts of the world that conflict was most likely to occur. The third one is ‘empires in decline’: roughly twelve empires declined and fell in the course of the 20th century. That’s a record. And the point that I make is that it is when empires decline that violence is most likely to occur. Think of 1947 in India. It is when the empire goes that the majority and the minority start to kill one another in earnest. The police are leaving and everything is up for grabs. Who will take over? And finally that fourth ‘e’ is ‘Eastern revival’ or ‘Eastern ascendancy’: that, I think, is what drove so much of the war in the Pacific—the ambition of Japan to become an empire of the first rank. So that is my simplified explanation for 20th century conflict. Take these things together and you pretty much have a formula for Central and East European crises or for the Manchurian-Korea story.
The disturbing thing is, that if you remember that list, there is a place which has all of these things pretty much going on today; it’s got the economic volatility, it’s got the ethnic disintegration; it’s got the American empire in decline. It is the Middle East. So, the book, although it is primarily a work of history, concerned with trying to rethink particularly the mid-20th century crisis, to recast our understanding of World War II, is also an attempt to draw some general lessons about what makes violence, really large scale violence, happen.
Just to offer a little footnote. One explanatory model that has been really influential in the last ten years has been the ‘clash of civilizations’ model that my colleague Samuel Huntington set out back in 1993 when he said that in the post-Cold War era it would be civilizations that came into conflict, and particularly Islam and the West. This is quite misleading. Most of the conflicts that have occurred since the end of the Cold War have in fact been within civilizations not between them. There have been, for example, ethnic conflicts in central Africa that have very little to do with Huntington’s grand ‘civilizations’. And what we see in the Middle East is the same story. It will turn out to be the war between Sunnis and Shi’ites that claims the most lives, not the intervention by the United States. And I think in that sense part of what I am trying to do in The War of the World is to make us understand what ethnic conflict is about. It is when neighbors kill neighbors that things get really nasty, more than when civilizations separated by oceans come into collision. And that I think is a really important insight for any multi-ethnic society. The United States after all that has been spared because it has been through remarkably little internal conflict in modern times. I hope that in that sense the book is more than just a history book, but offers something a little more profound about the nature of human conflict.
Hatcher: Thank you, Niall. Now we will move to that part of the program where the audience members get a chance to have at you.
Audience: What happened in Yugoslavia during Tito’s reign that kept the disintegration at bay, and what happened after his demise that led to the splintering?
Ferguson: This is a great question. I discuss the Balkans quite extensively in the book and visit and revisit Bosnia at a number of junctures. Bosnia is, of course, where the First World War began with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo; Bosnia saw some of the most bloody fighting during World War II; and, of course, Bosnia proved that history hadn’t ended in the 1990s by producing yet another hideous civil war. The puzzling thing is not only Bosnia’s violence but also its periods of peace. One has to somehow explain both. There is a wonderful novel I can’t resist mentioning in this context. Some of you may know it—The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric, a Nobel Prize-winning author. It is truly moving in the way it depicts the periods of peace and the periods of violence in the history of one Bosnian town, Visegrad. I have been to Visegrad. It is a very beautiful place, and it has this stunning bridge which inspired the novel and yet it is one of the saddest places I have ever visited because it was once a multi-ethnic town, and now it is an exclusively Serb town because all the Bosnian Muslims were either murdered or fled during the recent civil war.
So I looked closely at Tito’s policy and Tito’s policy is interesting because it is a policy that combines a measure of devolution with a systematic encouragement of integration. Intermarriage was really quite high right up until the end of the 1980s in Bosnia. Marriage between Serbs and Croats or Bosnians and Croats occurred to the extent that some one in twelve marriages was mixed. And that was partly a consequence of what you might just call the natural mingling of relatively secularized groups and it was partly a consequence of policy. Tito, who was himself of mixed parentage, saw the need to strike balances between the different ethnic groups and to ensure that in Bosnia a substantial proportion of public jobs, for instance, went to Muslims. Milosevic took a conscious decision to break up that order beginning in 1989. And one of the most difficult questions to answer is why.
I argue in the book that he looked at the demographics and saw that they spelt trouble for Serbs. In Kosovo and in Bosnia there was a significant differential between Muslim and non-Muslim birthrates. The decision that I think Milosevic took was to play the nationalist card to save his own hide; when all the other communist leaders in Europe were being swept away, one survived, and it was the Serb communist leader Milosevic, by playing the nationalist card, and whipping up quite deliberately Serbian animosity towards Muslims and towards Croats. So there is an extremely interesting act of what I would call ‘political entrepreneurship’; Milosevic saw an opportunity to avoid a 1989-type experience and to extricate himself also from Yugoslavia’s economic plight because the place was pretty much falling apart. And this was the answer; the partition of Bosnia, in collusion with Tudjman, the Croation leader, and the licensing of ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs. Now that is the best that I can do as a summary of what happened in Yugoslavia. There will always be in any audience at least one person of Serbian extraction who will dispute violently what I have just said. If you want to do that perhaps we can wait till afterwards…
Audience: About 17 percent of Americans have passports as compared with over 90 percent or so of Brits. And roughly 50 percent of congress people have passports, which is an extraordinary thought. So we have not only this poor sense of history, but we have an unusual sense of place. As you know when Americans go to some exotic land where they speak another language and use another currency, they go to Canada. So the question is, how do we prevent America from pushing the button and blowing the rest of the world because we take this ‘us vs. them’ view?
Ferguson: It is fascinating, isn’t it, because the contrast is very marked in attitudes towards the rest of the world between, say, the British ruling elite of a hundred years ago and the American ruling elite of today. There is no question that if nothing else the British elite was a very cosmopolitan elite which had considerable experience of foreign countries and, indeed, of foreign languages. One of the things that troubles me at the moment is that if anything the trend is all the wrong way. If you follow the Pugh Global Attitude Surveys the United States is at its most unpopular in the world. The collapse of the legitimacy of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world has been one of the most astonishing phenomena of the last six years, and it is easily measurable. I will give you just one illustration. When asked today to rank different countries around the world by the extent to which they have a good opinion of them, my countrymen put Germany and Japan above the United States.
Now one of the vices of the British is that they think much too much about World War II; I think I suffer from this myself, but it was our finest hour, and it has been pretty much down hill since then. And so for the British to put the Japanese and Germans ahead of the Americans in a kind of global ranking is truly stunning; and we are among the most pro-American Europeans. If you ask the French or the Germans their attitudes towards the United States they are significantly more negative. I looked closely at these surveys recently and they reveal extraordinary things about attitudes towards American foreign policy. Even in Britain a very large proportion of people detect ulterior and malign motives in American foreign policy. The notion that the United States is motivated, for example, by the desire for control of Middle Eastern oil reserves is very widespread in Europe. It is taken almost as fact in France. So one the problems that Americans have is that when they do go abroad they find themselves less popular than they were before and I don’t suppose that makes the experience as enjoyable as it used to be. In that sense those few passports may not get renewed, to put it really crudely.
Audience: The first time you were here a couple of years ago you mentioned that George Bush’s speech before the United Nations would possibly go down as a moment that saved the United Nation’s credibility. In your book you talk about the role of empires, but what is the role of international organizations such as the League of Nations or the United Nations in the phenomena you cover in your book?
Ferguson: Well, I argue in Colossus that it is a mistake to think of the United States and the United Nations as being in some measure antithetical to one another, as often, I think, some Republican right-wingers did, particularly in 2003 around the struggle to get a resolution for war through the Security Council. The key point of course is that the United Nations was invented by the United States—right here in San Francisco—the better to legitimize American foreign policy and in the hope of improving on the League of Nations. And it has not done a bad job. It has certainly been more successful than the League of Nations, not least because the United States has remained committed to it. So I don’t take the view that we could somehow solve all of the world’s problems by junking it, which you occasionally hear the more reckless neoconservatives arguing. Even Mr. Bolton seems to have come to realize that the U.N. Security Council is a body you have to work with when confronted by rogue regimes like that of North Korea. I do think a realism has set in that was totally absent in 2003. The problem is what to do to make the Security Council work better. Clearly it is pretty dysfunctional institution. Although it did manage to come up with a resolution [on North Korea] it was a resolution that explicitly ruled out the use of force. I don’t regard that as a particularly major achievement.
One of the interesting questions that gets raised now and then is whether or not the Security Council should be reformed by being enlarged. This is really quite a popular notion. I am extremely skeptical about this because if it works badly with five permanent members, believe me, it is going to work even worse if you add some more. Reform of the Security Council would almost certainly make it worse. One of the recent proposals I saw would have created a system whereby Britain and the United States could have been out-voted by the other members of the Security Council using a system of ‘qualified majority voting’. Imagine a situation where we have a resolution passed against Britain and the United States with the votes of Russia, China, France, and I forget the other members that were to be added; I think Nigeria and Egypt were the new members that were going to represent Africa. I don’t think that is a credible scenario. So, in that sense I am rather boring about the U.N.; I think it is about as good as we are going to get.