Niall Ferguson: Interviewed about The War of the World

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The bestselling author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, and Colossus, he also writes regularly for newspapers and magazines all over the world. Since 2003 he has written and presented three highly successful television documentary series for British television: Empire, American Colossus, and, most recently, The War of the World. He is the author of the new book The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.

FP: Niall Ferguson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Ferguson: Thank you.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Ferguson: After The Pity of War, which is all about the First World War, I thought for a long time about writing a sequel about the Second World War. About ten years ago, I started accumulating material, focusing in particular on the ethnic conflict in Central and Eastern Europe that seemed to lie at the war's heart. But the more I thought about it, the harder it became to write a book essentially focused on Europe 1939 to 1945. I realized that there was a much larger, global conflict that I needed to write about that started long before 1939 and continued long after 1945. The War of the World is the result.

FP: So can you summarize for us briefly your thesis in regards to your re-evaluation of the Second World War?

Ferguson: That there was no such thing. There were multiple conflicts that we choose to lump together, following the example of Churchill. In reality, the war in Asia began in 1937 and was primarily a war for the future of China. There was also a war for empire in Africa, which began even earlier, when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in 1935. The European war should have begun in 1938, but the British government foolishly gave Hitler another year before confronting him. The really big wars - between Germany and the Soviet Union and between Japan and the United States - didn't begin until 1941. I also point out that some parts of “the Second World War” were much more violent than others. A tiny proportion of Americans were killed in the war (0.2%). The figure for Poland was nearly two orders of magnitude higher (19 per cent). The book's central question is: Why were some places and some years in the twentieth century so much more violent than others. And I offer a three-part explanation. Violence was worst where three things coincided: ethnic disintegration, economic volatility and empires in decline.

FP: What empires in your view are declining and which ones are on the rise?

Ferguson: The United States is in pretty good shape as a nation state, but its overseas empire is clearly on the wane - not just in the Middle East but also in Central America and East Asia. Note that this empire is informal rather than formal in character. It’s a loose edifice, made up of military bases, multinational offices, cultural franchises and missionaries.

On the rise - or rather the rebound - are Russia and Iran, the energy empires. And rising even faster, of course, is China, the export empire. Note that all three have long imperial histories. I don't count the European Union as an empire; it’s just a loose confederacy-cum-customs union.

FP: What stage are we at in terms of the War of the World?

Ferguson: I would like to think that it ended some time ago, fading into the very different pattern of violence we associate with the Cold War (what I call the Third World's War). But I fear that it has the potential to resume in the Middle East. All the fatal ingredients are currently in place there: ethnic disintegration (see Baghdad), economic volatility (just track the oil price) and an empire in decline (the United States).

FP: How would you define the terror war? How would the U.S. and the West be most effective in combating it?

Ferguson: The war was supposed to be against the perpetrators of 9/11 and their associates. But after Afghanistan, that was rather lost from view. Otherwise, much more pressure would have been directed against the Al Qaeda network's main bases: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Western Europe (especially Germany). Extending the war to Iraq confused the issue, since Saddam's links to Al Qaeda were close to non-existent.

The most effective way of winning this war is not with soldiers in Humvees, much less air strikes. It's all about human intelligence - infiltrating and disrupting the network to prevent further 9/11s.

FP: Who is our enemy in this terror war? Why are they enemies of the West?

Ferguson: The enemy are radical Islamists committed to using terrorist tactics like suicide bombing against the United States and its allies. Though some people use terms like “Islamo-fascists” to describe these people, in fact they are more like the Bolsheviks and anarchists of 100 years ago. Their objectives are revolutionary. Their network is international and in large measure invisible. Their tactics are to use atrocities like blowing up civilians to publicize their cause and attract new recruits. The leaders of radical Islamist organizations like Al-Qaeda are enemies of the West because demonizing the United States and Israel is a way of mobilizing young Muslims and persuading them to put aside sectarian and other divisions within the Islamic world. Their real enemies, however, are moderate or secular regimes in the Greater Middle East.

FP: Is radical Islam’s threat, in your view, greater or lesser than Nazism’s and communism’s was? Are you optimistic or pessimistic that the West will prevail in its conflict with radical Islam?

Ferguson: Much less of a threat (think of the sheer destructive might of the German and Soviet armies in World War Two) ... so long as the Islamists don't have the Bomb. But there is reason to fear a nuclear Iran or, worse, a nuclear Al Qaeda. Can the West prevail? Militarily, yes, though the cost may prove to be much higher than we realize today. Culturally and demographically I am not so confident. I am not even sure we can still speak of “the West,” so successfully have the Islamists and their allies exploited divisions between the United States and Europe.

FP: What are, for you, some of the greatest lessons of history?

Ferguson: The obvious one is that politicians who think they are learning from history usually get the history wrong and make bad decisions. How many mistakes have been made by Western politicians, determined that they should not repeat the mistakes of the 1930s, identifying a foreign leader as the new Hitler? Still, I can think of three lessons that emerge from my book The War of the World:

1. That high levels of economic volatility are highly destabilizing to most societies, but especially multi-ethnic ones;

2. that processes of ethnic integration can rapidly and violently reverse themselves; and

3. that it is when imperial orders decline and fall that violence tends to peak on the imperial periphery. There are worse things than a stable empire.

FP: Is there any explanation for human evil?

Ferguson: I would point to evolutionary biology. Nature and our pre-history did not design men to be altruistic towards other men with different genes. To put it bluntly, we are genetically programmed to kill strangers, since they were once our rivals for nutrition and reproductive resources (women). Civilization is a project to prevent men from reverting to the law of the jungle. Unfortunately, civilization quite easily breaks down.

FP: So in terms of your emphasis of evolutionary biology in your explanation for human evil, tell us a few of your thoughts on the socialist dream of building a new man. Throughout the 20th century every time the Left attempted to build a heaven on earth it created a hell. What are your thoughts on the leftist urge for earthly redemption and the monstrous earthly incarnations of that urge?

Ferguson: It wasn't just the Left who dreamt of building utopia on earth. As Michael Burleigh's work shows, there were political religions on the Right as well - what else was Nazism but a dream of the perfect (Aryan) man? And let's not forget the liberal utopias of the pacifists and libertarians. Unfortunately, man has already been perfected by evolution, to be the most biologically successful species on earth. And many of the traits we picked up along our prehistoric way - particularly the talent of the male of the species for organized violence - guarantee that the utopian visions of liberals are doomed. By contrast, utopias based on class or race have been built. They just were very horrible.

FP: In terms of the greatest evil, which human being do you think embodied the greatest evil of the 20th century? Stalin? Hitler? Mao? Pol Pot? What would you say? Or can one say?

Ferguson: In War of the World Hitler was chosen in this context because he was able to seduce and lead to destruction a much better educated populace than Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. Germans in 1933 had near total literacy and the best universities in the world. They had experience of democracy dating back to the 1870s. Their economy was among the world's most advanced. Persuading millions of them to risk violent death in pursuit of mad goals like the “ethnic community” and “living space” took truly diabolical evil.

FP: So overall, is there anything humans can do to make things go right and stay right with modernity? Or are we hardwired to cause disaster once we achieve some kind of relative harmony and prosperity?

Ferguson: We are certainly hardwired for violence, but only under certain circumstances. But if we avoid economic volatility and excessive political fragmentation, it seems we are much less inclined to kill one another. Remember, even in the worst decade of all, the 1940s, only a minority of deaths were caused by violence.

FP: Niall Ferguson, it was a privilege and honor to speak with you.

Ferguson: I enjoyed the questions very much. Luckily, we are also hardwired to think and converse.

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