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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  • Old Nick

    Boy am I glad I found a new (i.e., functional in my crazy and ancient software) stream-source to listen to ROS live @ 7PM/4PM(Pacific).

    This should be an exquisitely riveting conversation!

    Can’t wait!

  • In the 80’s the book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, by Kennedy was an influential examination of history and projection into the future. I can clumsily boil it down to the idea that economic power drives national power and, in the long run, not much else matters.

    Does Mr. Ferguson buy into that still, if he ever did? If so, what’s to worry about other than China (and I contend that China will get derailed by unrest before it overtakes the US)? If not, is it because nations no longer matter as much as they did (and then what takes their place, loose confederations of religious groups)?

    Oil shortages will hurt, but the US will recover better than other countries once we put our skills to work in overcoming them. India and China and Islam will outbreed us, but they’ve been doing that for a long time. Global warming, bird flu, etc. will come, but we’ll weather them better than most. America’s reputation will rebound when we get a new administration.

    I’m a worrier by nature, but when I examine these fears I come out with renewed confidence in the US. Barring nuclear war and the very worst of Gore’s global warming forecasts, I think we’ll be alright.

    What is the one, single problem that Mr. Ferguson thinks will hurt the US the most?

  • Ben

    Ferguson is an interesting and pleasantly agitating read. I have a question – how does Ferguson see the idea of conquered populations naturally sorting out border lines that were arbitrarily drawn over them by previous powers being as much in play as their traditional ethnic rivalries?

    Isn’t there a modern colonial component at work caused from relaxing the last several hundred years of external domination at work in tandem with or independently of any ethnic tribalism and xenophobia as primary causes of human misery? Europe was still working on similar problems long after Rome retracted.

  • Although the three E’s are consistent, only “Economic volatility, which can undo social harmony whether prices and profits are shooting up, down or sideways.” seems powerful enough to effect unconscious change.

    Hatred whether subconscious or conscious, is eventually countered by guilt.

    Empire building is counterbalanced by over extension.

    But economics are only superficicially governed by social phenomena. US has been graced with much, but it’s greatest virtue is perhaps that no great ice age has befallen the North American continent in the relatively recent past. Little bugs and big alike lurk in the economic universe waiting to make their mark but hatred and empire have little impact upon them.

  • mynocturama

    Nice to see David Rieff is joining. I’ve been waiting/hoping for him to be on for some time now.

    Also, if the discussion needs a breather, may I (half) facetiously suggest asking Niall Ferguson for his thoughts on Scots tennis player Andy Murray. He’s quite talented.

    Just thought I’d throw that out there. Hope my posting privileges won’t be revoked.

  • mynocturama

    More seriously – I’m wondering about Niall Ferguson’s overall *philosophy* of history, whether he even has one, or, that is, consciously endorses one. Does he see history as a medium with its own meaningful development, a la Hegel? Or is it just the brute and dumb accumulation of human circumstance? Does he conceive it cyclically or linearly? What are its main driving forces? Does he see it leading anywhere, beyond the rise and fall of particular nation-states? These are broader questions I’d like addressed.

  • Whatever one thinks of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez I think his point yesterday at the UN that George W Bush thinks and acts like he owns the whole world is surely adding to the pressures that will bring this reluctant Empire down. Another choice bit I heard yesterday on the radio was Gore Vidal who said that even if we do no longer respect the rule of law (regarding things like torture) he hoped the laws of phisics still worked: that for every action there is a reaction. It seemed to me we have been getting some of that reaction in the UN in the last few days. And I do have faith in the laws of phisics – When a structure is as top heavy as our so-called Empire it has got to keel over. Besides of course, we elected the Devil. What else would he do but take us straight to Hell. Wake up and smell the sulphur!

  • avecfrites “If not, is it because nations no longer matter as much as they did (and then what takes their place, loose confederations of religious groups)?”

    It seems to me it would be corporations like the WTO – but as every yang must have its ying a world where the new balance of powers is between Global corporations vrs Religions – well it would make an interesting sci-fi scenario and yet I can see it already happening in some places.

  • James Iffland

    Ferguson is a typically supercilious British historian who, as I write, is completely dismissing the horrendous impact of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. The ethnic violence we are witnessing is a direct outcome of the wrecking-ball applied to that country by Professor Ferguson’s country and ours. We have opened a Pandora’s box and now we are speaking with a sense of superiority to which we have no right.

  • scribe5

    This program is pointing out everything that is wrong with the so called “anti-Imperialist left.”

    Neither David Reiff nor Chris Laydon are historians yet the think they can pass judgement on historical research, and neither of them has a degree in philosophy yet they feel comfortable passing moral judgments on historical events.

    The hubris of journalist takes my breath away.

  • siennaf1

    Ferguson wants us to stay in Iraq because otherwise a bloody civil war will erupt.

    So we should sacrifice the lives of our young men and women in order to keep the Iraqis from killing each other?!

    We can stay there for another Hundred years, and as soon as we leave, the Sunnis and Shiites and Curds will be at each other’s throat.

    As a historian he should know that different ethnicities vying for the same land, fight until one is completely defeated.

    So let’s get out of there and stand back and watch the whole region explode – I just hope we have enough oil in our national reserve to wait it out.

  • “Ferguson is a typically supercilious British historian who, as I write, is completely dismissing the horrendous impact of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.”

    The invasion of Iraq was sheer idiocy, but it would be a mistake to overstate its significance.

    The Tanzanian and Kenyan embassy bombings, the 9/11 attacks, the Air India bombing, the Pan Am 103 bombing, (and possibly EgyptAir 990), the Cole bombing, various hospital, apartment, school, and theater attacks across Russia relating to the Chechen conflict, church bombings in Pakistan, disputes in Nigeria between people in the Islamic north and non-islamic south, Islamic separatists fighting in the Philippines and Thailand, barbaric mistreatment of women in many predominantly Islamic nations, repeated attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on tourists in Egypt, growing disputes between religious Islamists and secular authorities in France, the Netherlands and other European nations, the Theo van Gogh incident, riots over the cartoons, Islamic extremists’ ongoing efforts to destroy Israel, attacks on the Indian parliament and the recent Mumbai train bombing, the destruction of historical artifacts in Afghanistan by the Taliban, “honor” killings in the UK, and many other events predated or are unrelated to the Iraq invasion.

    All other major religions have managed to make some kind of an accomodation with modernism – to accept, albeit with some discomfiture – the ideas of secular government, women’s equality, and religious and ideological plurality.

    Islam wants to be part of the modern world but it does not want to make an accomodation with modernism. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Islamic religious authorities in one French city are demanding that the public swimming pool be divided into separate men’s and women’s swimming areas or have separate men’s and women’s swimming schedules because the idea of men and women swimming together offends their sensibilities. This is only a minor thing, of course, but it symbolizes the degree to which they expect to be able to impose their religious values on the larger, secular society.

  • jdyer

    Ferguson was very good, Reiff, on the other hand, was just grandstanding.

    His notion that the invasion of France by Hitler was stupid both stupid and wrong.

    Only some callous cad would see WW2 as a good thing because it led to the “liberation” of the colonies.

  • jordon

    what’s wrong with arguing noam chomsky is a great progressive historian?

  • 1st/14th

    Furguson was quite good. I though his comments on how empty the rhetoric of the “Marxist left” were empty and that it missed the bigger picture of what is really going on was on spot.

    I also found it more than a bit amusing how Christopher and Rieff were going into hysterics trying to convince Furguson to reinforce their worldview. And how dumbfounded they must have been to hear that the Soviets really were an order of magnitude worse in their exercise of power and ala Andrew and Mitrokhin, the idealized people’s liberation movements were really co-opted by the Soviets.

    But what I enjoyed the most was the way that Christopher and Rieff at one hand expressed a desire to see “historians running the world” and on the other hand wringing their hands when a historian (Furguson) deconstructed the most widely held dogmas of history that they use to justify their worldview.

  • 1st/14th

    Also, Ferguson’s comments on Reiff’s “emancipation of the colonized” being extremely bloody and that the new emancipated regions being immeasurably more brutal and less free than when they were colonies was one of the best summaries of whats wrong with Hobsbawmian history.

  • Luke Lambert

    I thought the show was great. Ferguson’s perspective makes a lot of sense to me. I’d encourage doing more shows with similarly intellectually engaging guests.

  • scribe5

    jordon Says:

    September 22nd, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    “what’s wrong with arguing noam chomsky is a great progressive historian?”

    Because Chomsky is no historian. He is a wind bag taken seriously only by the likes of Chris Lyden. (I almost wrote Chris bin Laden!)

  • Plaintext “Hatred whether subconscious or conscious, is eventually countered by guilt.”

    That is – no offense – a very modern notion. It’s more common in history for people to feel nothing resembling guilt after raiding the next tribe’s camps for women and loot and slaughtering the unwary. It’s just the way things were, back when

    Don’t discount hatred as the powerful motivating force that it is, even if it’s hard for us here and now to understand it.

  • “Plaintext “Hatred whether subconscious or conscious, is eventually countered by guilt.”

    That is – no offense – a very modern notion. It’s more common in history for people to feel nothing resembling guilt after raiding the next tribe’s camps for women and loot and slaughtering the unwary. It’s just the way things were, back when”

    I agree. And especially if you are raised in a violent, coarse society. Iraq, for example, has been ruled for years by cruel, violent men, and had a long, bloody war with Iran. I doubt very much that the Sunnis and Shiites who are kidnapping each other, drilling them full of holes with power tools, then killing them and dumping the bodies where they are sure to be found, feel much remorse for their actions. (I used to look forward to reading the NY Times on Sunday mornings while enjoying my coffee and breakfast. But their reports have become so gruesome that I have no appetite for breakfast. It’s sort of ironic, because we got into this war partly because the Times was such a lapdog on the invasion plans, failing to question the Administration’s reasons or apply a professional degree of skepticism. So if I stop subscribing they only have themselves to blame)

  • Am I missing something? I haven’t read Mr. Ferguson’s book and I am sure it is full of interesting historical details that make for a good read and put the meat of evidence on the bone, but it seems to me that his “model” is nothing we haven’t heard before. The power structure breaks down (Emperial, national, regional, etc.), add in economic hardship and one ethno-cultural group turns on another. Should we be surprised?

    He might have thrown in another E for environment. An example is the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake when in the confusion, panic and fear, some Japanese in response to rumors of Koreans poisoning wells and rioting, decided to beat and kill hundreds of them before the police and army could restore social order.

    Perhaps the more systemic abandonment of African Americans in New Orleans is another example.

    I would suggest the four “E” model will better be able to account for the social upheaval expected from the effects of global warming.

    What do you think Mr. Ferguson?

  • Potter

    siennaf1’s post above captures my thoughts regarding Niall Ferguson’s certainty that we can’t leave Iraq now or soon. Chris allowed the subject to be brushed away too quickly without a challenge to examine beyond the immediate probable results. It may be so that we should not leave but it would be interesting to examine the pro’s and the possible inevitability of what will happen in any case. We hear mostly the ( immediate) con’s and then the conversation ( usually) stops.

    Ferguson’s analysis or theory is very interesting and helpful. Maybe it’s brilliant. It’s an enticement to reflect on history with new eyes, organizing our view of it into a pattern that may very well hold for the future. So yes- if there were a Nobel in history, perhaps Ferguson should be considered.

    Thanks for the show.

  • Ben

    Re: scribe5 Says: September 22nd, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    Yup, Chomsky is a linguistics professor and not and accredited history prof, and is a muckraking leftist political agitator as well. What equivalent mind from your bookshelf would you prefer to swap him with for this topic?

  • Pogopedia

    The premise and promise of your program is what radio is all about. And you people deliver supremely!

    Thanks for being such a wonderful oasis.

    Since the broadcast timing is such that I seldom get to listen live, I am just now enjoying the conversation with Niall Ferguson. I would like to suggest a bit of my lexicon for GWB’s Middle East Crusade –“Hydroponic Democracy.” (I can’t seem to pin down a similarly sonorous alternate prefix meaning “blood.”)

    I think my Halloween costume will be Alfred E. wearing Johnny Appleseed’s metal pot on his head, rapturously casting the seeds of democracy on the pavement.

    – Tom

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