Niall Ferguson Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The War of the World: Conversation with Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, Harvard University; October 19, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Insights for Contemporary Policies

I'm going to show your book again, and I want to segue into the present. You cover a lot and we have only an hour. I want to focus on a point you make about the British response to the Nazis. I culled from what you were saying two points, one, that Chamberlain's government misperceived when they could have actually acted against Hitler and stopped him, and then secondly, that the British military understood that it was caught between a rock and a hard place; that is, the security of the British isles and being able to stop Hitler on the Continent, on the one hand, and then protecting the empire. They could not do both. So, in both cases these were important issues that affect the outcome as we were leading up to war. And these insights have implications for today.

Yes, I think that they do, although one has to be very, very careful about drawing any kind of analogies with the 1930s. It's done much too readily today. I hear, once again, terms like "appeasement" being trotted out by Secretary Rumsfeld, we hear this extraordinary neologism "Islamofascism" to characterize terrorists. I'm very skeptical about these analogies.

What I argue in the book is that in 1938 there was a tremendous opportunity to stop Hitler early because Hitler took a huge risk over Czechoslovakia by threatening to go to war on behalf of the German-speaking minority in the Sudetenland. If Britain, France and conceivably also the Soviet Union had called Hitler's bluff and forced a confrontation, either he would have had to back down or he would have had to wage a war in a very vulnerable situation, because Germany was not ready for war. His military commanders told him that, they would've been fighting not only the Czech army but they would've had to defend their borders in east and west against potential intervention. Germany's economic position was not very secure, and Hitler's domestic position was in some ways quite flaky at this point. It was a fantastic opportunity to stop him in his tracks, and it was missed -- missed, in large measure, because Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the people around him completely underestimated Hitler's vulnerability and exaggerated what they would gain from another twelve months of peace. This was the fatal mistake. They said to themselves, "We're not quite ready for war, we don't have enough fighter planes, the Germans may be able to bomb London." Indeed, they exaggerated that threat quite seriously. "What we need is time. If we only had time we could be more ready for war than we are right now. So, let's just do whatever it takes, including selling the Czechs down the river, to get another twelve months."

What they failed to realize -- it's an elementary mistake but a profound one -- is that twelve months also gets given to Hitler under those circumstances, and with those twelve months Hitler did much more to secure his position than they were able to do. In particular, Hitler strikes his deal with Stalin which completely secures Germany's eastern frontier. Now, once that happens, the war breaks out on a basis far more disadvantageous to the Western powers than it would have been in 1938. So, I see 1938 in rather Churchillian terms. There's a huge missed opportunity. Instead of flying, as he did, three times to Germany to appease Hitler, Chamberlain should have stopped taking his calls and essentially said, "Bring it on." I hesitate to use that phrase, but he should certainly have called Hitler's bluff, because I think either Hitler would have gone ahead and found himself in a war that would have been quite hard to win or he would have had to fold, and that would have damaged his prestige pretty badly.

Now of course, I used the phrase "Bring it on" deliberately, because there's a potential inference you could draw from this. You could say, "Here's an argument for preemption, that in fact, what was needed against Nazi Germany was action sooner rather than later and that leaving it until '39 made matters a great deal worse, because by '39 the dictator was stronger." You can make arguments about the Middle East that follow a similar pattern, though as I've said, you have to be very careful. There are no Hitlers in the Middle East: Saddam was not Hitler, Mahmoud Ahmadinjejad is not Hitler. These are very much lesser mortals, if you like, certainly less dangerous regimes. On the other hand, when you start talking about nuclear weapons, you enter even more dangerous territory than Britain was in, in the thirties. Goering had the Luftwaffe; even the Luftwaffe's bombers weren't particularly large. He was a long way from even the possibility of a nuclear weapon.

So, there are some pretty big strategic lessons to be learned from the thirties; we just have to be quite careful how we go about learning them, because these analogies are not perfect and Iran clearly isn't the Third Reich.

What about this conflict between the requirements of protecting the British Isles versus protecting the empire?

This is one of the ways in which the situation is really different in the thirties, that the great English-speaking empire has vast commitments, territorial commitments and military commitments, on the other side of the world. As they sit down and review their strategic options, British decision makers have a problem on their hands, because they are vastly in excess of what Britain's military can possibly defend, the obvious case being the Singapore military base which was supposed to be a new strong point for British power in Asia with a potential for a very substantial naval presence that would notionally deter Japan or anybody else from attacking British assets, but which was, in fact, indefensible in the event of a European war, because you couldn't possibly send the ships there that you would need in home waters. So, British strategy, to use Paul Kennedy's famous phrase, "a function of over-stretch": they do not have the financial resources to defend all these places at once. They know it, so they have to just sit there and hope that they don't get hit by the perfect storm, and the perfect storm is simultaneous German, Japanese, and Italian attack. And of course, they do.

That illustrates the danger of hoping that the worst-case scenario won't happen, because by and large, if you just hope that, it generally does.

If you look around the world today, what region seems to have this mix of elements that are at the core of your analysis of this earlier period?

I had an epiphany as I was concluding the book. I remember sitting down and thinking, "Okay, I think I understand now why Central and Eastern Europe, and Manchuria Korea in Asia, were such dangerous places. It's economic volatility, it's ethnic disintegration, it's empires in decline. Why does that seem strangely familiar? Where could that possibly be said today?" And there's an obvious answer, because the Middle East today has all three of those elements in place already. Economic volatility -- I worked it out. It's been four or five times more volatile than the U.S. economy over the past twenty years. Ethnic disintegration? Well, what's happening in Baghdad and central Iraq as Sunni and Shiite Iraqis kill one another is an almost perfect illustration of the kind of cycle of ethnic violence I describe in the book. And you've got an empire in decline: the United States which had a hegemonic disposition in the Middle East, certainly in the mid-1970s, is now incapable of managing what by nineteenth-century standards is a relatively small colonial operation, to try and stabilize Iraq, and looks potentially like a busted flush in nuclear non-proliferation.

It's not great to have those three things simultaneously happening in a region, and my fear is that, far from our having a clash of civilizations on our hands between Islam and the West, what we actually face is a huge clash within civilization, i.e. within Islam, between Sunnis and Shias but more generally, it seems to me, this is the potential to escalate beyond Iraq's borders, because many of the countries that border Iraq are ethnically mixed. It's only in the far east that you have largely Shiite Iran, and the far west of the Middle East that you have largely Sunni Egypt. In the middle you've got a whole bunch of countries that share with Iraq a multiethnic character. So, the nightmare scenario is that what we're seeing in Baghdad, escalating sectarian conflict, could in fact become more widespread. And there, I think, there is a good analogy to be drawn with the 1930s and 1940s. It looks an awful lot like what happened in Central and Eastern Europe. Interestingly, Middle Eastern countries are at roughly a level of economic development today as places like Poland and Ukraine were back in 1930.

If the hope was in the unipolar moment, as it was referred to in the public debate here in the United States, it was that the American empire, which we deny is an empire, would bring to this part of the world a stability and an order. I guess one would have to say that the two instruments by which that would be done would be democratization on the one hand, and America's unbalanced technology in the military realm. Your book talks a lot about those two instruments -- well, primarily the military instrument, as a way to save lives and use capital to win wars, to do all sorts of things. So, bring your analysis from the book to what you see as problematic, if you do, in such an effort to bring order to this region, which you've just described as being very much like the ones you were describing in the other period.

I suppose the United States -- and this is also true of Britain -- has a double advantage. It has a very, very good political system, democracy with the separation of powers, the rule of law, and all of that, and it also has tremendous technological strength in the realm of weaponry, as well as in the civilian sphere. This, of course, makes it both an attractive place and a powerful place. But there's a problem. One of the problems is that democracies tend to recognize the perils that they face rather late in the day. It's quite hard, in fact, to be an effective preemptor as a democracy, because even if you're right, it's still much harder to persuade people of the legitimacy of a war than if it's a war of retaliation.

Preemption just isn't as attractive as lashing out after a Pearl Harbor event. It was extremely hard to persuade Americans that they needed to become involved in World War II. And let's not forget that it is only after Pearl Harbor that they do become involved. I looked at some length at the opinion polls, which tell us fascinating things about Americans, that early on they're quite hostile to the Axis, but they're deeply reluctant to compromise their neutrality and actually fight the Axis. So, that's one problem, and I called it in an earlier book, Colossus, the problem of the "attention deficit disorder," the short time horizon of democracies. When they do intervene militarily they want quick results, they quite rapidly lose patience. So, that's one problem about being a democracy.

The problem about being, as it were, a techno-warrior, relying heavily on sophisticated weaponry, is that while it may make you very good at blasting cities from the air -- and we've got increasingly good at that since the bludgeon-like strategic bombing of World War II; we've achieved the smart bomb that can fly down the chimney of, oh dear, the Chinese embassy but it was supposed to be a major Serbian asset. We have, in fact, perfected aerial warfare. The trouble is we've got so good at that that we've forgotten the rather more old-fashioned form of military activity which is low intensity conflict, street-to-street fighting, patrols, curfews, human intelligence. In a sense, our very strength was our ability to substitute capital for labor. That's what aerial warfare was all about, killing Germans with the minimum number of allied lives being put on the line. It was tough luck if you were flying one of those bombers but it was preferable than throwing wave upon wave of infantry divisions against the Axis powers. But the more good you are at that sort of sophisticated warfare, the less good you're likely to be at what might be called post-conflict operations. We're seeing that very clearly in Iraq, that for all its tremendously sophisticated weaponry, the United States turns out to be quite bad at the constabulary duties of empire.

As a historian you must get very frustrated at the extent to which the policy debate distorts history. We mentioned already the concept of "Islamofascist" appeasement. All of these very important policy debates get implicated in a distortion of what history demonstrates. Of course, there's always an argument in history but this goes beyond that. How do we deal with that? Besides getting everybody to read your book!

Well, that would help. That would be a good start!

No, I think this is a really important point, because what we see at the moment is an attempt to interpret our present predicament in a rather caricatured World War II idiom. I mean, "Islamofascism" illustrates the point well, because it's a completely misleading concept. In fact, there's virtually no overlap between the ideology of al Qaeda and fascism. It's just a way of making us feel that we're the "greatest generation" fighting another World War, like the war our fathers and grandfathers fought. You're translating a crisis symbolized by 9/11 into a sort of pseudo World War II. So, 9/11 becomes Pearl Harbor and then you go after the bad guys who are the fascists, and if you don't support us, then you must be an appeaser.

This is really, really misleading, because I don't think, in fact, 9/11 bares the slightest relation to Pearl Harbor. How long have you got? We could go through it point by point. It's clearly something very, very different. I think this language is being used mendaciously to play on the very strong pull that World War II still has on our emotions.

I'm fascinated by the fact that the most popular computer games among young males include to an extraordinary extent World War II games. They're vastly more popular than any other history context game that proliferate. In a way, I see this in my young sons' gaming habits. They're fascinated by Medal of Honor, and I'm trying to persuade them to adopt a more sophisticated game called The Calm of the Storm, which actually is a historically well-informed game.

But we are drawn to World War II, and therefore when politicians want to make us feel that we're fighting the good fight, that we're on the side of the angels, they can use World War II era language and distort our predicament. As a historian, my only possible response to that is to run around writing books, op-eds, and doing television interviews, trying to persuade people that "Islamofascism" is a fantasy. If anything, bin Laden is more like Lenin than he is like Hitler, because he's got a vision of international revolution, he's certainly an anti-capitalist, he'd like to undermine the United States partly by economic means, he's very good at recruiting what Lenin used to call "useful idiots," too. So, there's a parallel to be drawn, but I think it's more with Bolshevism, pre-1917 Bolshevism, which was, in many ways, a terrorist network of extreme Communists. That's a useful parallel but of course, it has much less moral salience than the "Islamofascist" cliché.

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