Niall Ferguson: Q & A

Historians in the News

WHEN THE Glasgow-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and I got together in his office last week, he asked if he might prepare tea before we launched into a discussion of his new book, ``The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West."

Gracious as the offer was, in England, where Ferguson, 42, spends part of the year as an Oxford research fellow (he's also a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and the Los Angeles Times), he is known less for his disarmingly good manners than for inciting controversy. In ``The Pity of War: Explaining World War I" (1998), he proposed that the 20th century would have been less murderous had Germany won the First World War-a thesis that could easily irk an Englishman. In ``Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire" (2004), and in numerous newspaper pieces, he challenges Americans to rethink their place in the world.

Ferguson maintains that the United States is unquestionably an imperial power, but because Americans don't like to think so, the US often fails to fulfill its imperial responsibilities. One crucial case in point for Ferguson is Iraq, where, in his view, an imperial power less in denial about itself would have known that such an invasion required forethought, vast resources, and the willingness to stick around for a very long time.

The theme of empire is central to the new book, as well. Ferguson believes the real problem with an empire shows up when it declines, at which time genocidal hatred is liable to break out among the ethnic groups it had governed. That's what happened, he argues, in the extraordinarily-often interethnically-violent 20th century, and what he worries may be underway in the Middle-East.

But before delving into the thorny issues, I had to lay a rumor to rest.

IDEAS: Is it true, as The New York Times reported in August, that you are part of John McCain's brain trust?

FERGUSON: I've met Senator McCain, and we've talked. That's it. I don't know where the idea that I'm part of his kitchen cabinet came from. In Britain we call electioneering the ``silly season," where such stories go around.

IDEAS: In ``The War of the World," you take it for granted that empires are the great engines of world history. But aren't other forms of political organization viable?

FERGUSON: Sure, but empires constantly recur. Most of what we call history is the history of empire, back to ancient times. They leave pretty good records of their doings.

IDEAS: What about nation states?

FERGUSON: For one thing, nation states are a relatively recent phenomenon: Even at the beginning of the 20th century, 82 percent of the world's population lived in empires. And the problem with transforming empires into nation states-Woodrow Wilson's central idea, and that of nationalists in Asia and Africa-is that the process is extraordinarily bloody. To imagine an ethnically homogeneous nation state is often to imagine ethnic cleansing....

Read entire article at Harvey Blume in the Boston Globe

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