The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

Sep 26, 2006

The twentieth century was by far the bloodiest in all of human history. How can we explain the astonishing scale and intensity of its violence when, thanks to the advances of science and economics, most people were better off than ever before?


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us this morning.

Historians have been writing about the great conflicts of the twentieth century for some time now, but often with little imagination. Developments of the past one hundred plus years are usually defined by the reigns of certain monarchs, the administrations of specific politicians, and by the rule of a handful of dictators. Additionally, this historical period can also be seen through the lens of a number of major but time-limited wars: World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam.

But, as you will soon learn, this need not be so, for with the publication of The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, our speaker this morning provides an opportunity for us to view this historical period in a fresh and fascinating new way. With incredible erudition and ingenuity, Professor Ferguson forces us to see the full cycle of twentieth-century history as, not two world wars and a Cold War, but rather as a single entity of a hundred years of conflict that was interlaced with violent, frightening, and often genocidal warfare. This led him to ask: How did this all come to pass?

Building upon his previously acclaimed volumes on empire, economics, and financial history, Professor Ferguson argues that three things seem necessary to explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and the decline of empires. He argues that the confluence of these factors helps us to understand why so much happened at certain times, especially between the years 1904 and 1953, and why this savagery was so heavily concentrated in certain places. Professor Ferguson uses these themes to reinterpret and resolve the central paradox of why extraordinary progress in science and technology coincided with unprecedented violence, and why the seeming triumph of the West in reality planted the seeds for the decline of Western dominance over Asia, which he believes is leading towards an inexorable shift in the global balance of power towards the East.

Niall Ferguson is not your average historian. His books incorporate military, political, and economic history, as well as biography. He is at once innovative, provocative, prolific, and many would argue even brilliant, as he probes deeply into the past and comes up with original, and sometimes even controversial, conclusions, which in my opinion should only add to our interest and to his overall appeal.

Our speaker has taught at some of the finest universities in the world. He was trained at Oxford as an economist and supported himself as a journalist. He lectured at Oxford for about a decade before moving to New York University, where he was briefly professor of financial history. He is now at Harvard, where he is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, as well as a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College Oxford and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

His publications reflect his interest in politics, history, and economics, and include the award-winning The House of Rothschild, the widely acclaimed The Pity of War, Empire, and Colossus. The latter two were discussed earlier at the Carnegie Council, and the transcripts of these sessions can be found on our website.

I know that many of you in the room have had the opportunity to hear our speaker on previous occasions, but for those of you who have never had that privilege, you are in store for a very special morning.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a man who has been cited by Time magazine as one of the most influential people helping to shape our view of the world today. By the end of the hour, he may have influenced the way you view the past as well. Niall Ferguson.


NIALL FERGUSON: One of the reasons I'm so prolific, ladies and gentlemen, is that it gives me an excuse to have breakfast with Joanne. We've got to find out some other way of meeting, though, because this is exhausting.

It's a huge pleasure to be here this morning. In a sense, Joanne has already rather brilliantly sketched the argument of this book, leaving me with relatively little to say. Let me try and explain a few things about it and set out what I think its implications are for the present—and, indeed, the future. These, I think, are the things probably most on your minds.

Why is it called The War of the World? Did I go and see Tommy Cruise in a Steven Spielberg film? No. It was inspired by the original novel H.G. Wells wrote in 1898, The War of the Worlds, which, if you remember, describes the destruction of London, rather than New York, in an alien invasion.

As I was reading Wells's extraordinary work of science fiction, it struck me how prophetic it was, because, time and again, the scenes that Wells describes—of a city thrown into turmoil by invaders using powerful technology to destroy buildings and people alike—that vision came true. It happened in city after city, from Louvain in 1914, to Seoul in the Korean War. Think of London in the blitz. Think of Poland in 1939. Cities laid waste. It suddenly struck me that this was the key leitmotif of twentieth-century conflict. And I hardly need to suggest to an audience in New York that that theme is by no means played out.

The irony is that it didn't need Martians to wreak havoc in so many cities in the world. There was no need for Wells' alien invaders. We did it to ourselves. It was human beings who, time and again, destroyed the cities inhabited by other human beings. And what's fascinating is how often it was done as if the victims were aliens. With terms like undermensch (subhuman) invented to describe the opponents in conflicts, it is perhaps not surprising that twentieth-century violence was so exceptionally destructive of human life.

So The War of the World, singular, is an attempt to explain why the twentieth century was so astonishingly violent, not only in absolute terms—after all, the world is more populous than ever—but also in relative terms. If you work out how many people died violently in the course of the twentieth century, it was of the order of 180 million. One estimate puts it at one in every twenty-two deaths; that is to say, one in every twenty-two human deaths in the twentieth century was violent, not natural.

If you take the most explosive of all the conflicts, the one which is right at the heart of this book, World War II, roughly 60 million people died violently in that war. If you work out what percentage of the population of the world in 1939 that was, it's between 2 and 3 percent. None of the great wars of modern history—I hesitate to go further back than 1600, for reasons I'll explain in a second—had such a terrifyingly high mortality rate as that. So there is a question here about why the twentieth century was so violent.

Now, experts on thirteenth-century Asia assure me that Genghis Khan—who I used to call "Genghis" in my ignorance—killed comparable proportions, if not higher proportions, of the world population in his time. And it may even be that if we go back beyond the ancient world to the prehistoric world, that primitive societies were still more violent. Some primitive tribes have astonishingly high mortality rates, according to the anthropologists.

But that's not really the point. The twentieth century is astonishing because that kind of violence coincided with unprecedented progress. So there is a paradox here which makes the twentieth century really unique.

The average human being got maybe four times better off, possibly five times better off, if you try to work out a figure for per-capita gross domestic product. He or she was more likely to live in democracy at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning. In all kinds of ways, scientific and cultural, the twentieth century was a time of astonishing progress.

So it is really very important for us to try to understand why progress coincided with holocausts of violence, with some sixteen conflicts that claimed a million or more deaths. Seen in these terms, the world wars become part of a continuum of organized violence. The book is an attempt to explain why.

The best explanations are easy to remember. At least one person besides me in this room will be jet-lagged, and that person will be glad of the fact that my explanation is relatively easy to commit to memory. It has four parts, and each of them begins with the letter "E," which I find always helps under exam conditions.

The first is economic volatility. Now, why is economic volatility important? I know we're uptown, we're not on Wall Street, but give me a couple of minutes on this.

It's important because it helps you to identify the dangerous times. You see, it's crucial that the twentieth century was not evenly violent. Not every year, not every decade, was equally violent. There were huge spikes of organized violence, particularly between 1914 and 1945. I try to show that one reason for this is that the mid-twentieth century was by far the most volatile time.

If you look at fluctuations in growth, inflation, asset prices, the interwar period stands out as being roughly seven times more volatile than our own time. We have almost forgotten what volatility feels like these days. The last ten years have seen almost unprecedented smoothness in the pattern of economic growth in the world's developed economies. And yet, transport yourself back to the 1920s and 1930s, and you enter a time when economic activity went up and down like some kind of fairground ride.

So economic volatility, the first of my E's, helps us narrow down the timeframe, because we need to understand why, for example, the early 1940s were the most dangerous time of all time.

My second E is ethnic disintegration. This is terribly important. In many ways, it's the most important argument—and, I think, original argument—in the book. It matters because it helps you identify where violence happened, because, once again, it wasn't evenly geographically distributed. It was, in fact, heavily concentrated in certain parts of the world.

In a fifty-year period I identify, from 1904-1953, violence in the world was extraordinarily concentrated in two places: Central and Eastern Europe; and at the other end of Eurasia, Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. If you were born in those parts of the world, your chances of dying violently were much, much higher than if you were born in, say, Canada. That is extremely important.

Why? Because when you look at those places—look at an ethno-linguistic map of, say, Central Europe in 1900—what leaps out is what patchworks they were, ethno-linguistic patchworks, extraordinarily heterogeneous societies with enormously interlocked minorities.

Now, the key to understanding what happened in the mid-twentieth century is to realize that it was a process of disintegration. In 1900, these multiethnic societies looked remarkably stable. Indeed, in some places, particularly in the German-speaking cities of Central Europe, levels of intermarriage, coeducation, or any of the measures you might take when you were looking for evidence of assimilation and integration, suggested that problems of ethnic conflict were diminishing fast.

In a city like Hamburg in the 1920s, one in every two marriages involving at least one Jewish partner was to a non-Jewish partner. Half of these marriages were mixed. Looking at the world in the 1920s, you would have said that Germany was the place that had, in effect, solved what late-nineteenth century racists had called "the Jewish question."

But that would be wrong, because what happened—and it wasn't only with respect to Jews and Germans—what happened in Central and Eastern Europe in the period after around 1929 was an astonishing ripping apart of multiethnic societies.

I talk about the city of Chernovitz as just an example of what a multiethnic city looked like. It is now Chernivtsi in Ukraine, and very little remains of its identity as Chernovitz. But in 1900 Chernovitz was a great multiethnic Hapsburg city inhabited by German bureaucrats, German-Jewish academics, but also by Ukranians, Poles, Romanians. It was a kind of melting pot—and yet, it was a melting pot that exploded, that blew up, as if something went wrong in the recipe.

So ethnic disintegration is the key to understanding the location, if you like, of conflict, to understanding why Ukraine was a bad place to be born in and Sweden much less so.

My third component in the great equation of disaster also begins with E: it is empires in decline. Counterintuitively from some liberal perspectives, I argue that it is when empires decline and fall that violence is most likely to spike. It is at the moment of this dissolution that the stakes are suddenly terribly high and local elites do battle for, as it were, the political succession.

Roughly, twelve empires declined and fell in the course of the twentieth century. That's a very large number, indeed. In fact, I think I can safely say that in no previous century had so many empires hit the deck. I think that helps explain again why the middle of the twentieth century was so tremendously violent. These great waves of imperial decline, which began with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in China, continued through the dissolution of the Romanov, Ottoman, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern empires in Central and Eastern Europe towards the end of the First World War, experienced another great wave of crisis when the Japanese unleashed their extraordinary assault on the European, and indeed American, empires in Asia. These times of imperial crisis produced great spikes in the level of organized violence.

If you want to go beyond that timeframe, think only of 1947, a date much on our minds. That, after all, saw in many ways the highest level of violence in the history of British India, at its end, at its moment of dissolution. It illustrates the key point. As the imperial authority wanes, those on the ground, in the localities, suddenly have a lot to fight for, and particularly in multiethnic societies. And, since most of the great empires were extraordinarily multiethnic, it's not surprising that in the time of imperial dissolution minorities found themselves vulnerable as never before to what was once called "the tyranny of the majority."

The fourth, and final, of my E's - just to recap for those of you revising: economic volatility was the first, ethnic disintegration was the second, empires in decline was the third - the fourth is Eastern ascendancy.

You see, we often misunderstand the twentieth century. We think of it in terms of the triumph of the West—or even the American century, although I think that was supposed to begin after World War II. I argue that this is a misunderstanding of the trajectory of modern history.

It was in 1900 that the West truly ruled the world. In 1900, 82 percent of the world's population lived in empires, and most of those empires were controlled by Western powers. By Western powers, I mean principally the European powers, but also the United States. It is an astonishing statistic to my mind. It also illustrates better than anything the sheer dominance of Western power.

When a relatively small percentage of mankind—and, after all, if you figure out the West as I do in the book, it was never as much as 20 percent of the world's population - such a small proportion was able to rule over the majority of the world's population, because 50 percent of the world's population lived in Asia in 1900, and only a very few (the Japanese) enjoyed anything resembling political independence.

I think the descent of the West—and I use the term advisedly, not to invoke the memory of Oswald Spengler, a man of whom I disapprove; I use the term because I want to connote, not only a crude decline from power, but also perhaps a descent in moral terms—the descent of the West is the key to understanding the twentieth century.

It was a violent and painful process. It was never smooth. That is why the conflict between Japan and the Western powers in Asia and the Pacific was so astonishingly brutal. We should not think of the transfer of power from West to East as a naturally smooth power. The twentieth century suggests that it has been punctuated by violence. That's why 1904 is such an important date. That's the moment Japan succeeds in beating a European empire for the first time, sinking the entire Russian expeditionary force sent to fight over Korea/Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese War.

I think I just have time to draw some conclusions from this argument for our own time.

In some ways, the problems that bedeviled the first half of the twentieth century were solved horribly; solved by ethnic cleansing, solved by genocide, solved by partition. The killing fields at either end of Eurasia—Central and Eastern Europe, Korea/Manchuria—ceased to be killing fields after 1953. And yet, violence didn't stop.

I try to argue in the epilogue that in many ways the Cold War wasn't cold at all; it was a third world war if you were in Guatemala or Cambodia or Angola. In fact, I call it the "Third World's war," because all that had happened was that violence was relocated to places that people in the dominant powers during the Cold War seldom saw. So violence didn't stop during the Cold War, and there is no reason to assume that it has stopped since the Cold War.

There is one part of the world today which already exhibits all the traits that I see as having been explosive in the mid-twentieth century. Where economic volatility, if you just look at growth rates in these countries for the past twenty years, is roughly five times higher than in the United States; where ethnic disintegration is already well underway, a region where a multiethnic city is in the process of tearing itself apart as we speak; and a part of the world where in my view—and those of you who know my last book, Colossus, will see what I am driving at—where in my view an empire is manifestly in decline. I am talking about the Middle East, and the empire I have in mind is, of course, the American empire.

To me the most troubling thing about the Middle East today is this conjunction of extraordinary economic volatility. Look at growth rates in Iraq and its neighbors since 1986. You are looking at the kind of volatility Central Europe experienced in the 1920s and 1930s.

Look at what is happening in Iraq. Against all expectations—and I include myself in this—a war between insurgents and occupiers has morphed before our very eyes into something very like a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, not to forget Kurds. The process whereby a multiethnic society tears itself apart is all too familiar to someone like me, who specializes in European history. We have been here before, and we know how it starts, how society's communities that have lived together relatively peacefully despite ethnic and sectarian differences suddenly turn on one another, and neighbor kills neighbor.

In The Brookings Institute's recent surveys of Iraq, there are some astonishing findings that leap off the page. Sectarian violence is an order of magnitude higher this year than last year. Ninety-two percent of votes in Iraqi elections were cast by sectarian parties. In surveys, enormous percentages of Sunni Iraqis say that they have themselves experienced, or know people who have experienced, ethnic cleansing. All of this is unfolding because it seems to me the dominant empire in that region, which certainly exerted extraordinary informal power in the 1970s, is waning, losing credibility, losing control.

In 1920, it was possible for an English-speaking empire to quell an insurgency and stabilize multiethnic Iraq. But then the ratio of Iraqis to occupying forces was something like 20:1. Today it is 210:1. In other words, the odds of success were an order of magnitude that is smaller this time around.

That demographic transition is part of what I mean when I describe the descent of the West. Today the powers that I call the Western powers account for barely 10 percent of the world's population. The populations of the East have grown relatively. That means the prospect of Western power is, from the very word go, significantly diminished.

If I am right and the stakes are right here, this is a somber subject. If I am right, then the ingredients for a much higher level of conflict than we have yet seen in the Middle East are in place. That may sound shocking to those of you who think of the Middle East as a terribly violent place. But actually, the amazing thing about the Middle East is how small its wars have generally been, with the sole exception of the Iran-Iraq war.

We could see much more violence there. We could see violence of the sort we saw in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1940s, because the ingredients are all in place. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, The War of the World implies, to my deep alarm, the possibility of a sequel—a sequel played out, not in the killing fields of Poland/Ukraine, but in the killing fields conceivably of Palestine, of Lebanon, of the Persian Gulf.

On that somber note, which will ensure that I never get asked back to breakfast here—I promise light relief in my next book—I am going to thank you very much for your attention and invite your questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you very much for what was a very impressive and, as you've told us yourself, troubling analysis. I actually, I'm afraid, share your worries of your conclusion.

But I'd like to explore a little further your premises. If you look at the twentieth century as sort of this unbroken narrative of violence—and I agree totally about the 1904-1953 period—it seems to me one could suggest a slightly alternative narrative, with the founding of international institutions in 1945. You had in the first half of the century two world wars, countless civil wars, brutal dictatorships, mass expulsions of populations, genocide, the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Then, you had the creation of international institutions. Yes, the hiccup of the Korean war, which is why I agree with you we go up to 1953, but thereafter a system of rules of the road which, by and large, countries did follow, which facilitated small conflicts that in the past might have drawn in superpowers and ignited a wider conflagration actually being contained—the invention of UN peacekeeping, for example.

Yes, there were certainly horrors in the Third World. I'd be very curious—you probably have done the numbers—how they stack up against the 1904-1953 period. My guess is, despite the almost a million killed in Rwanda, that if you add up the numbers elsewhere, in these smaller conflicts you mentioned, I suspect you come to a good deal less than a quarter—perhaps even a tenth—of what the world suffered then.

So perhaps I'm being a bit provocative in suggesting that maybe there is an alternative narrative. Fifty years of horror, violence, unmitigated misery, fifty years thereafter of tempered violence—there has always been violence in human history, but a good deal less—distinguished by the existence of international institutions that made it possible to contain some of this.

Without in any way disagreeing with your worries about today and the identification of the factors that you've mentioned, all of which I think are worthy of a separate topic—but looking back at the past, is this not a sustainable argument? Can you give us facts, figures, numbers, and points to suggest that I'm wrong?

Well, there's one thing I can promise you about this book, is that it has facts and figures aplenty.

It's interesting in many ways to see how very violent the "long peace" was. That term, "the long peace," to describe the Cold War is one of the great misnomers of modern historiography. It was only peaceful if you were lucky enough to live within the borders of the superpowers or their close allies. But if you were unlucky enough to be in one of the theaters of proxy conflict—and I look closely at Guatemala and Indochina and central Africa—then it was a distinctly unpeaceful peace and a very hot war indeed. The numbers get very large, indeed, in Indochina. And one shouldn't forget that, even after the end of the Cold War, there were deaths of the order of a million-plus in central Africa's ongoing conflict.

So it is hard to buy the idea that a glorious new era of the brotherhood of man came into being with the advent of the United Nations. I often think of these peacekeeping forces as band-aids applied to a body suffering from an altogether more serious affliction than minor cuts and grazes.

The other way of thinking about this is to remember that international institutions were established after the First World War too, and weren't wholly unsuccessful. People forget that the League of Nations didn't fail at everything. Harry Hinsley showed that actually in a very substantial number of the conflicts that it sought to arbitrate in there were peaceful outcomes. When international orders fail, they tend to fail in the face of really big challenges. The question, of course, is whether the UN has ever faced a really big challenge of the sort that destroyed the League of Nations, when Italy and Japan, in particular, and then Germany, ceased to regard it as having legitimacy.

The final point, which is really important when you measure conflict, is that one characteristic feature of the post-1953 world was the shift from interstate war to civil war. An enormous proportion of wars after 1953 happened within, rather than between, states. That was an ironic consequence of one of the forces of progress that we all, over breakfast in New York, unquestioningly approve of: democratization.

Democratization, unfortunately, tends to have an unforeseen consequence when it happens very suddenly in relatively poor multiethnic societies. It very often leads to civil war, as minorities secede for fear of the tyranny of the majority. This is a recurrent theme, it seems to me, not only of international relations, but also of American foreign policy.

Woodrow Wilson believed as much in democracy as he believed in international institutions, and both disappointed him in the end—well, I suppose, posthumously, in the aftermath of his death—as the order failed and democratization produced a series of terribly short-lived and unstable governments in Central and Eastern Europe.

I do also do short answers to questions.

QUESTION: Many of the world's empires in the past were built on trading and the search for raw materials. What you've described now as the rise of the East leads me to the question of what do we do about China. How do you assess China? It is now searching for raw materials to feed its own industrial growth. It is establishing its own political power with nations in Africa and South America and so on. So how do you see China in the rise of the East that you described?

NIALL FERGUSON: In my sketch of the world in 1901, I sort of try to set the scene on the 9/11 of a hundred years before 9/11. One of the points I make is that it was a world of multiple empires and a world in which conflict over natural resources was taken as a given, was taken as part of the natural order of things. In many ways, we are back in that world today, with some imperial powers disposing over vast quantities of natural resources and some not.

Remember, one of the implications of an argument about relative American decline is that the beneficiaries will be historic imperial powers: Russia, Iran, Persia, and of course China. We are seeing the empires striking back. And, of course, they know how to behave as empires perhaps a little better than the United States has done, at least since it went into imperial denial round about the time of the Philippines war a hundred years ago.

So I think this is a huge issue, and I don't foresee an entirely harmonious outcome to it, particularly because key players holding cards here can't be seen as necessarily friends of the American vision of a world based on "freedom."

The interesting thing to me is, not so much that China needs natural resources, as that Iran and Russia have them. That's as important, if one is trying to understand the coming international order.

But I think one should watch—and I'm sure you are watching—very closely the approach the Chinese take to this question, which is "no questions asked about human rights; give us the oil/gas." Now, if you are in competition with a power that is only really interested in resources and is not interested in some kind of trading of values, you are into a very different game.

It comes back to a crucial argument I made in Empire and in Colossus. Empires are not just about the acquisition of natural resources. They are as much about the export of values, the export of their own civilization. That's a powerful motivation for the transformation of international orders through history.

I, rather boringly, take the view that empires are what historians should study because most of what we call history consists of the doings of empires. The nation-state is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it has achieved much less historically than empires. And yet, we don't understand empires terribly well, least of all in this country, which has a very strange attitude towards empire—a desire to regard them in moral terms, as either all good or all bad; whereas, empires are both, they are capable of being both good and bad.

I think the aspirations of American power have, by and large, been relatively good—aspirations, not always results—but there are other imperial powers that are much less interested in exporting the idea of individual liberty, and China stands out as one of those.

QUESTION: First of all, thank you very much. When I listen to these four E's, it all sounds very deterministic and very fatalistic. Is there any alternative strategy—not necessarily the United States, but Europe, or people who would like to see a circumstance other than horrible wars in the Middle East and so on—that you can describe? Or is this simply a description of some sort of inevitability, sort of like another version of Marxism or some other deterministic theory?

NIALL FERGUSON: Thank you for that question. I'm happy to disavow determinism and historical explanation.

A few years back— more than I care to remember— I published a book called Virtual History. The introduction to that book was a kind of manifesto for anti-determinist history, in which counterfactuals, contingencies, alternative scenarios, play an absolutely huge part.

So no, this isn't a model that is deterministic at all. Right at the heart of the book, which I should stress has more about World War II than any of the other conflicts because it was the biggest, is an argument about how it might have been avoided.

And it very nearly was avoided in 1938. There was tremendous opportunity to stop Hitler in his tracks. I try to show, I hope in ways that haven't been done before, how easy it would have been to call Hitler's bluff over Czechoslovakia. Politically he was in a very weak position, economically he was in a terribly weak position, and militarily he was completely screwed— excuse my language—if he was confronted by a combination of the other European powers. That opportunity was missed, for reasons that I try to explain—perhaps French pusillanimity; perhaps British cowardice is putting it too strongly, a reluctance certainly on the part of Neville Chamberlain to see that action now would be preferable to action later.

So one always needs to remember when making arguments about foreign policy that they are concerned with alternatives. But at the time, in 1938, no one really knew what would happen if Britain played for time. A key argument, if you remember, in 1938, which won the day and beat the Churchillians, was that Britain needed another twelve months to be ready for the coming war with Germany. This was a fatally flawed argument because Hitler had the twelve months too.

I've always marveled that these extraordinarily clever people who ran His Majesty's Treasury, as it then was, didn't see this. And Hitler made much more use of the twelve months than Britain did, not least because in that period he managed to sign the Nazi-Soviet pact that secured his eastern frontier, completely transforming the strategic situation.

No, this isn't a deterministic book. Right at its heart is a really agonized counterfactual essay about how World War II could have been, if not avoided, then reduced in size. It would have happened in Asia. I think that's clear. I argue that it already had begun in Asia by 1937, if not earlier. But the war in Europe didn't need to be the way it was. There didn't need to be Dunkirk, that ultimate fiasco of British strategy.

And today I think the same applies. I do not think it is an absolute certainty that we could put money on that the Middle East will blow up. I do think we need to realize how it could blow up and how, as it were, a misdiagnosis of the problems of the Middle East, which I believe is current in Washington today, could accelerate this terrible process.

One of the arguments that I have made time and again is that there is no substitute for historical knowledge in dealing with international problems. The tragedy of 2003 was that key decision-makers had an almost complete lack of historical knowledge with respect to the state of Iraq—not only in this country, but also in my own country, where I'm afraid Mr. Blair, for all his rhetorical skills, stands out as one of the least historically literate of all British prime ministers—and the consequences have been very disastrous.

QUESTION: How do you see Latin America in your twenty-first century construct? Do you see it as a vassal of American power; or does it have independence, particularly if you look at east/west axis as opposed to north/south?

NIALL FERGUSON: This is a great question. Recently, I tried to understand Latin America better. It is extremely important always to admit what you don't know. I am not an expert on Latin America.

However, it's striking that Latin America had a kind of interwar experience similar to that of Central and southern Europe: failures of democracy, transitions to military dictatorship, and a kind of populism in politics, which in its rhetorical forms are very similar to what you encountered in, say, Spain or Portugal, not surprisingly.

So I started to ask myself whether we should be really worried about what was happening, say, in Bolivia, whether there was some kind of second wave, third wave, of Latin American populism that would destabilize the region. I also asked myself if this was a consequence of a diminution of American power.

Now, in Colossus I argued that American power had not been a tremendously benign force in the history of Latin America, and that in fact trying to treat Latin America as an extended backyard had produced a good deal more misery than it had produced happiness over a hundred years or so. In that sense, I rather approved of the relative neglect which has characterized American policy towards the region, at least since 9/11. It seems to have vanished off the White House radar screen somewhere right about then. I'm not sure that has been a bad thing.

The trouble is that in Venezuela you have another of these powers that in natural resource terms can punch well above its demographic—or, indeed, military—weight. We saw some of those punches thrown last week, rhetorical punches primarily. I don't think that Chavez or Morales are necessarily the future there, though.

There are some parts of Central and South America which have a potential for what I would call the politics of ethnic mobilization. The critical thing is whether there has been, and still is, a relatively disenfranchised indigenous American population that can be mobilized. In countries where that is not the case—and I think that is true in Argentina and in Brazil—these populist strategies don't seem to me to have much chance, and I think we can look forward to rather more moderate, if left-of-center, governments in that part of the world, or rather in those countries.

So I walked away from this complex story realizing that there wasn't a mega-trend at work, and that what was happening in Bolivia would probably not necessarily even happen in Mexico. It came very close to happening, didn't it, but it didn't happen. That has left me relatively cautiously optimistic about the future in that part of the world. I don't think that is going to be a twenty-first century conflict zone.

I'd like to draw you out a bit more on the previous question. I literally just flew back from Iraq, got back on Friday night. While all the ingredients you describe are certainly present, there are other things going on. About ten of the provinces are relatively quiescent, though those are largely the ethnic divides you described.

While I was there, twelve tribal sheiks at Al-Anbar, the most Sunni heartland, announced that they were going to provide 20,000 of their tribesmen to put down what they saw as violence that was getting out of control in Al-Anbar. Literally, a week ago today, I was with an Iraqi brigade commander in Baghdad who had an integrated unit, and in fact his personal security attachment included two Sunnis, two Shias, and two Kurds. He was insistent that those guys be part and parcel.

But the ingredients you describe I would still say are present. So what are the real implications then for policy? I mean you talked about Chamberlain in 1938 and the French perhaps confronting Adolph Hitler. Are you suggesting that we have the same problem with Mr. Ahmadinejad, as some people in Washington would describe him as the next Adolph Hitler? Is that what is required in terms of policy implications from your analysis, or are there other options?

And finally, a sort of secondary question, are we perhaps preparing for a different kind of war? The wars you described in the twentieth century were wars of empires, wars of nation-states. But now we are into this strange nether world of wars of Hezbollah, or terrorist groups, or criminal games, narco-criminals in Afghanistan, and the like, which really is a very different character of conflict.

Gosh, what great questions. Welcome back, and I'm glad you made it back safely.

I don't think one should fall into the trap of thinking that the whole of Iraq is an enormous powder keg because, clearly, violence is very, very heavily concentrated in the center of the country, particularly in Baghdad. It is almost the inverse of Afghanistan, where the violence is in the periphery and the capital is safe. So there is a sense in which this is a story about a city, again going back to my earlier point.

It's not really Iraq that worries me. It's Baghdad that worries me, because once you get a cycle of sectarian violence in an urban setting, where localities have been "cleansed" of one particular group, then it is extremely hard to stop that kind of thing. You, therefore, look with some optimism at reports of statements like the one you mentioned by the tribal sheiks, because that is a sign that those tribal loyalties could, in fact, transcend the sectarian loyalties.

It's kind of funny, though, isn't it? We never heard anything about tribes in 2003 or 2004, or even 2005. If you did a search of The New York Times for "Iraq and tribes," you'd get nothing until suddenly, literally this year. That amused me, because I can remember arguing with American experts on the Middle East—I'm not an expert—that there was something to be learned from the British experience there.

"No, no, no, no. You don't understand how Saddam has transformed Iraq. The British strategy, which was to do deals with the sheiks, to do deals with tribal leaders, that's absolutely obsolete today. Now what we need to do is to prepare Iraq to be the United States of Mesopotamia, with a federal constitution, blah, blah, blah."

So the sheiks were there all long. They hadn't been obliterated by Saddam. The loyalties that they command may still count for something. I really hope so, because it turned out to be a pretty good way of doing business in that region for the British. And I think it's critical to notice that some of these tribes have mixed sectarian complexions; they are Sunnis and Shiites within a given tribe. That's hopeful.

But it is bad for the future, isn't it, when American policy starts reaching out to tribal leaders? It's very much in the manner of Gertrude Bell. It's good to see Gertrude Bell's name occasionally mentioned. It has taken a while for some of us to persuade the United States that she is relevant. I saw her name in the paper just the other day in a lament about the museum that she founded in Baghdad.

But coming back to your 1938 question, I'm reminded of the father of a friend of mine, who whenever he reads a Hitler parallel in the media says, "Oh no, it's the 1930s all over again, all over again." I think that's a really great line, because there's a terrible danger—and we've known that certainly since the 1950s in Britain with the Suez fiasco, since Vietnam in the United States—the danger of bad analogies with the 1930s.

On the other hand, I take Mr. Ahmadinejad very seriously, and I have written about this in the press a few times. It seems to me that the Iranian revolution, thinking historically about this, has reached its Napoleonic stage, or possibly its Stalin stage. We are into the second generation. The generation isn't composed in this case of the clerics who made the revolution, but of the soldiers who fought for it in the Iran-Iraq war.

He has all the hallmarks of a potentially very dangerous man. The fact that he concludes his speeches in the United Nations with an imprecation that the hidden imam should return, which of course implies the impending end of days, fills me with terror. The thought that this man leads a country that aspires to acquire nuclear weapons, and that he looks forward with enthusiasm to the Apocalypse, is a truly terrifying thing. In that sense, he has the potential to have a kind of Hitler-like destructiveness in the region, and indeed beyond the region.

The trouble about preemption—and the 1930s makes this very clear—is that you can't play the card more than once. The problem about preemption is that we have played it against the wrong country. Once you have played the card against the wrong country, you are a busted flush.

So the military options that periodically get floated and appear in Time magazine don't have credibility. There is no, to my mind, credible scenario in which the United States can unilaterally use military power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, because the international political fallout would be so huge. And indeed, apart from everything else, it might well stabilize a regime that we occasionally imagine liberalizing itself from within.

That brings us back to international institutions. There is no other option. I make myself very unpopular in neo-conservative circles when I remind those parties what the United Nations is, an institution with "Made in America" stamped on its base, which is the best institution available, with all its flaws, for addressing this kind of problem, and particularly the problems of international nuclear proliferation.

Whenever I hear Americans criticize the UN Security Council, I scratch my head in wonderment. What other institution in the world so over-represents Western power as the UN Security Council? If you are really interested in preserving it, don't change it. With all its flaws, it's our best hope.

Thanks very much.

We have time for one more question.

QUESTION: Ian [sic], when you were here last time with your book on empire, I remember I in particular—and I think others—queried you because you were, I wouldn't say an all-out, but a half-out supporter of the Iraq war. Your tune has somewhat changed. Is it because you see the failure of the war, or is it a larger context, that you see the failure of the American empirium, as you described it last time—and that's one of your E's?

NIALL FERGUSON: I argued that Saddam should be overthrown quite a while back, in a book called The Cash Nexus, before George Bush came to power. But in the books that I wrote after that, Empire and Colossus, and in my journalism—and I went back and checked—my argument was very straightforward: The United States is very unlikely to be as good at empire building as the United Kingdom was, because of its three deficits. It has a financial deficit; whereas a hundred years ago Britain was the world's banker. It has a manpower deficit, because Americans don't really want to go to hot, poor countries and get shot at that much; whereas the British, particularly the Scots, seem to love that. And, of course, American politics is characterized by what I rather crudely describe as the attention deficit disorder, where unless a policy delivers results within a two-to-four-year electoral cycle, it is abandoned.

So my argument has been that if the United States is serious about Iraq it has to address these deficits. It can't do it on the cheap, it needs a lot of boots on the ground, and it is going to take more than four years. I consistently argued that throughout the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and after.

It was convenient for liberal press, particularly in my own country, to misrepresent that argument and to bracket me with the neo-conservatives, but actually I have been a thorn in their side. My favorite line was to say, "You will need to be in Iraq for forty years if you wish to make a difference." I said that repeatedly. That's how long the British were in Iraq, and even that only achieved a very partial stabilization and prosperity. So from that point of view, I think I have been a fairly consistent skeptic about the likely chances of success.

But I'm glad you called me Ian, because I was hoping to say, "Well, I know Ian said all that, but I'm Niall. Ian couldn't make it. That notorious neo-con hawk, imperialist running dog who supported the war doesn't dare show his face."

But actually, I do have one regret, and I have written about it, and I have said it before and I'll say it again. I think if I had known how badly the occupation of Iraq would be botched, if I had known how mismanaged the postwar period would be, if I had realized how frivolous decision-makers in the Department of Defense were about the number of troops that would be needed, about the economic resources that would be needed, and about the timeframe that would be needed—if I had known all those things in 2003, then I would have been an ardent opponent of the invasion of Iraq, and I regret that I wasn't.

JOANNE MYERS: One last question.

QUESTION: You mentioned historical knowledge just a second ago. I want to ask you a question, as an historian, about the role of memory in all of this. It's one thing for administrations who barely can go back to learning the lessons of forty years ago. It's another for people like the Northern Irish, the Bosnians, the people in the Middle East particularly, who dwell on events that have happened centuries earlier, and gnaw at the wound and keep festering the kind of violence that emerges from those historical events so long ago. How do you deal with that kind of mindset which dwells in memory and fosters this kind of violence in so many of these areas where that violence pervades?

NIALL FERGUSON: That's a great question. If there's one thing worse than ignorance of history, it's erroneous knowledge of it. That, again, is where the historian has an extremely important role to play.

You mentioned Bosnia. How often in the 1990s did we hear the pat phrase "ancient hatreds" used to justify a policy of inaction, a policy which London, above all other capitals, led? And yet, when you look at the history of Bosnia, it is extremely hard to characterize it as a history of ancient hatred, because for long periods of time this extraordinarily complex, multiethnic border land was not riven by hatred.

The subtitle of this book in the United Kingdom was "History's Age of Hatred." Part of what I wanted to try and do was to make hatred a more intelligible historical concept, because it is badly misunderstood.

What makes hatred happen? What makes neighbors kill neighbors? It's so hard for us to imagine. I mean New York is a multiethnic society. Can you imagine if people on the Upper East Side started to massacre one another on the grounds of some ethnic or sectarian difference? You laugh. And yet, in Sarajevo people once, not so very long ago, would have laughed at the same notion.

I hesitate to make light of this, because we need to make an enormous leap of imagination, we who are accustomed to relatively smoothly functioning multicultural and multiethnic societies, and that leap of imagining is to try to understand how relatively sophisticated cities, not as rich perhaps as New York, but in many ways as modern—go to Sarajevo; it is not the Dark Ages there; it was a highly sophisticated society, secularized, in which religion played a relatively minimal role. I looked in extreme detail at the levels of intermarriage that characterized Bosnia. They were very high indeed; one in fourteen or fifteen marriages was a mixed marriage, right up until the 1980s.

So hatred is not something that, I think, is naturally and spontaneously occurring. Actually, I think fusion and integration and assimilation are the norm. People aren't designed to engage in organized violence. That's why, even in the twentieth century, the majority of people died peacefully.

We need to understand how it is that neighbors can be incited to slaughter their neighbors, how families—and this happened on many occasions in the twentieth century—can be torn apart by ethnic hatred, and mixed marriages can suddenly become the pretext for murder. It has to do with a combination of demagogy—you need political entrepreneurs willing to play the hatred card—and also a kind of dormant primitive impulse, to take issue with and mistrust "the other," that civilization exists to repress. That is the very essence of hatred.

No one, least of all people in the Western world, should delude themselves that their society is somehow completely immune, because it wasn't so very long ago that these feelings of hatred activated us in the battles in the Pacific—and, indeed, in Western Europe—that ended World War II.

On that note, I will thank you all very much, indeed, for your attention.

JOANNE MYERS: I want to thank Niall for an extraordinary morning. As he said, there is no substitute for historical knowledge, so I suggest that you buy his book. Thank you.

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