Niall Ferguson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Money and Power: Conversation with Niall Ferguson, John Herzog Professor of Financial History, New York University; November 3, 2003 by Harry Kreisler

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Lessons Learned

We started on this intellectual odyssey in Glasgow with Tolstoy. We went into history. But now we've come to policy. I guess the final question is, what can history contribute to the policy debate that we have today?

A lot. One of the things that's most striking about coming to the United States is the relative lack of historical awareness among policymakers. Decisions are based on a very small amount of American history. There is virtually no reference to the history of any other country. Now, you would have thought, perhaps -- at least I thought -- that if you're in the business of invading Iraq, it might be worth taking a look at the previous attempts to invade and transform the institutions of Iraq. We've, in fact -- and [when] I say "we," I mean the British -- have invaded Iraq three times in the last hundred years, and we undertook a very radical attempt to overhaul its institutions after the First World War. I found when I came to New York at the beginning of the war no discussion of this issue whatsoever. All one gets is a caricature of recent American history that goes something like this: "Vietnam was terrible. We mustn't do that again." And that's it. Some people say, "We mustn't do it again by never intervening in another foreign country," and other people say, "We must not do it again. We must make sure that when we intervene, we do it right." It's a tremendously unsophisticated debate.

If America is in the business of empire, and I think it is, whatever you name you give to this policy, then you have to learn from the history of other empires. It's simply not possible to talk any longer in terms of American exceptionalism, and to pretend that comparative history is something for the Europeans to do. Americans need to realize that what they're doing has a long, long history. The idea of transforming Mesopotamia, institutionally and politically, is not something that was dreamt up in the White House in the 1990s by Cheney and Rumsfeld. It's something that has deep, deep historical antecedents.

So though my interest is history and I see policy as something for policymakers, my principal interest, and it's become much more powerful since I've been in the States, has been to make policymakers aware of the historical dimensions of the problems that they face.

For the final question, how would you advise students to prepare for the future, where, clearly, America is going to have this important role, is going to be, I guess, a reluctant empire? How should they prepare and think about preparing?

When students, particularly undergraduates, come to me and say, "What should I be doing?" one important piece of advice I give them is to think about what languages they should learn, because powerful though the English language is, there will never be a time when the whole world speaks one language. There will never be a time when there is only one empire, in the sense that the future of not only of the world but of historical study is a future in which the weight of Asia grows, and, perhaps, the relative weight of Europe declines.

Now, back in the 1980s. When I was a student, I took a decision to learn German, because Germany still seemed to be a big deal. Sitting in Oxford trying to work out what to research, learning German and living in Germany and studying German history seemed like an extremely shrewd strategic move. I don't think it was a bad move. But now, I wouldn't advise a student to do that. I say there's a choice: You can learn Chinese, or you can learn Arabic, but you have to choose one. Perhaps, one day I'll have a student so brilliant that they can do both. But these are much more difficult languages than German. So it's a more difficult world we inhabit today. But the most important thing, particularly for American students, is to recognize that it isn't a unipolar world. It was never going to be. And the most important thing for a successful empire is to understand the other empires.

Niall, on that note, I thank you very much for joining us today for this fascinating conversation about your intellectual odyssey. Thank you.

Thank you, Harry.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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