Sunday, September 24, 2006

Q&A with Niall Ferguson

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

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.

IDEAS: Why are you so insistent about the United States being an empire?

FERGUSON: For one thing, the spread of the United States across this continent is much like the spread of imperial Russia.

IDEAS: How do you fit Native Americans into this schema?

FERGUSON: Treated as loser peoples are treated all over the world in the 19th century. The United States is a normal empire in that respect, with little pity on those it is expropriating.

Today the United States plays an imperial role across the seas, exporting its power, its culture, and its institutions, as empires do. What's distinctive about American imperialism is its resistance to formal rule. For example, America wanted a United States of Iraq to spring into existence almost spontaneously, with only minimal assistance.

IDEAS: What do you make of the powerful anti-imperialist movements of the 20th century?

FERGUSON: One of the great ironies of anti-imperialism as an ideology is that it was refined and formulated by Vladimir Illich Lenin, whose Soviet Union became a souped-up version of the Tsarist Empire. The subject peoples of the Soviet Union suffered horrendous persecution by Stalin in the 1930s. So people who bought their anti-imperialism at that particular store weren't looking too closely at the storekeepers.

IDEAS: What seems strikingly absent from your account of history is any hope for amelioration.

FERGUSON: I disagree. I start "The War of the World" by stressing that the 20th century was unprecedented in terms of material, scientific, and even political progress. It was also the bloodiest century ever. That's the paradox at the center of the book. That's what we have to explain. I try to explain it in terms of the disintegration of empire, ethnic hatred--the English edition is subtitled "History's Age of Hatred"--and economic volatility.

I do not at all aim to deny human progress. I would love to see the 21st century avoid such calamity.

IDEAS: What's your prognosis?

FERGUSON: At the moment I'm quite pessimistic. The really troubling thing is that all the things that happened in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s and `40s could happen in the Middle East now. The ingredients are there: You've got ethnic and religious hatred, economic volatility, and an empire-- the American empire--declining and losing control. Not a great scenario.

IDEAS: But you supported the invasion of Iraq.

FERGUSON: I argued that if it was to be done, it should be done well or not at all. But I didn't oppose it. With the benefit of hindsight, I regret that. It was a disaster to commit so few troops and to have no coherent plan for reconstruction. It was in defiance not only of British imperial history but of successful American occupations--for example of Germany, Japan, and Korea, where the United States stayed long enough to change institutions.

But typically, American interventions last only a few years. In the case of the Middle East, the result will be turning Iraq into a Haiti on the Tigris.

IDEAS: How do you understand radical Islamism? Is it, as some say, the successor to Marxism?

FERGUSON: It is. The great category error of our stime is to equate radical Islamism with fascism. If you actually read what Osama bin Laden says, it's clearly Lenin plus the Koran. It's internationalist, revolutionary, and anticapitalist--rhetoric far more of the left than of the right. And radical Islamism is good at recruiting within our society, within western society generally. In western Europe, to an extent people underestimate here, the appeal of radical Islamism extends beyond Muslim communities.

IDEAS: To people who might once have been drawn to Marxism?

FERGUSON: And for much the same reason. Here is a way to reject the impure, corrupt qualities of western life and embrace a monotheistic zealotry. That's very satisfying.

IDEAS: Why is Europe more vulnerable than the United States?

FERGUSON: The United States has at least two religions, one being religion per se, the other being the civic religion of the Constitution. These are powerful integrative forces. To become an American is a transformative experience, and I'm impressed by it. It doesn't happen in Europe. Immigrants remain deeply alienated, plus they're not integrated well into the economy. And that's a dangerous situation.

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