Niall Ferguson’s "War of the World"

Niall Ferguson

China is out-manufacturing us.

Islam is outbreeding us — even as Muslim sects tear each other apart.

The price of all-the-world’s energy, oil, is going nuts.

The Anglo-American end of the Atlantic alliance seems to have spiraled down in embarrassment in Iraq.

These are the fresh elements in the Scots historian Niall Ferguson’s recurrent War of the World nightmare. And they extend the theme in his subtitle: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.

Ferguson’s monster page-turner (all 767 of them, including fascinating notes, acknowledgements, bibliography and an appendix about war deaths) is notionally about the past. The war in his title was the 50-year “Age of Hatred,” from Japan’s war with Russia in 1904 to the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The scary point, though, is that the three-E root causes of the Fifty Years War as Ferguson tracks them through Central and Eastern Europe a century ago all turn up anew in the Middle East today and tomorrow. Ferguson’s lethal E’s are: (1) Ethnic hatred, or the break-up even of intermarried “pudding” populations like Sarajevo of old, or Beirut; (2) Empires in the falling-apart stage, more dangerous than empires in full bloom; and (3) Economic volatility, which can undo social harmony whether prices and profits are shooting up, down or sideways.

I read Ferguson with rapt fascination, but with my dukes up. After our last Open Source encounter in March, he inscribed his book Empire (2002) “To Chris … who thinks me an appalling old imperialist, which I’m not.” I observed on our page that Ferguson “is more nearly a beguiling young imperialist with a fierce nostalgia for British rule.”

In his celebratory tome on empire, he enumerated all the reasons that Americans make lousy imperialists: it’s not in our history, or our blood, or our present day finances, or our skill set. And still Ferguson urged the US literally, in Kipling’s words without Kipling’s ironies, to “Take up the White Man’s Burden” and plunge with full force into Iraq in 2003. His newspaper columns in recent months sound to me all too ready for a double-suicide war between Iran and Israel.

Simon Schama acknowledged Ferguson on our air last week as one of his best friends in the history-writing game and, at the same time, his “arch enemy” as to what history is telling us today. In this conversation we will be counting on the anti-imperial David Rieff to keep Ferguson honest and the conversation on the level.

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