Niall Ferguson on the 21st Century
Niall Ferguson writing in Foreign Affairs, describes what factors he will thinks will influence the coming years in his essay, "The Next War of the World". It begins with this provocative summary:
The twentieth century was the bloodiest era in history. Despite the comfortable assumption that the twenty-first will be more peaceful, the same ingredients that made the last hundred years so destructive are present today. In particular, a conflict in the Middle East may well spark another global conflagration. The United States could prevent such an outcome -- but it may not be willing to.
The three factors which Ferguson believes produced the 20th century wars which killed 170 million people -- 1 person in 22 -- were "ethnic disintegration, economic volatility, and empires in decline": the three E's. Often these factors worked in concert. As 20th century 'empires' collapsed they uncorked ethnic tensions which had heretofore lain dormant. These rapid changes were often accompanied by economic upheavals. The result, if not war, were its immediate precursors. The three E's started the most destructive conflicts in the history of the world.
The twentieth century was characterized by a remarkably high rate of imperial dissolution. In 1913, around 65 percent of the world's land and 82 percent of its population were under some kind of imperial rule. Those empires soon disintegrated. The Qing dynasty in China was overthrown before World War I, and in 1917 the Romanov dynasty fell from power. They were quickly followed by the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Ottomans. Little more than two decades later, the British, Dutch, and French empires in Asia were dealt heavy blows by imperial Japan, leaving damage that not even the Allied victory in World War II could repair. The Portuguese empire limped on, but by the early 1970s it too had collapsed. The new empires that grew among the ruins of the old were shorter lived than their predecessors. Whereas some early modern empires lasted for centuries (Ottoman rule, for instance, endured for 469 years), the Soviet Union fell apart after only 69 years, the Japanese overseas empire crumbled after just 50 years, and Hitler's empire beyond Germany's borders hung on for barely six years.
(Though Ferguson neglects to mention it, probably because it has been geopolitically inconsequential, the European empires acquired during the Scramble for Africa fell apart too.) Not coincidentally, the fires from which the First and Second World Wars sprung -- and the Cold War too -- were to be found in the putrefying remnants of empires.
From around 1904 to 1953, the most dangerous place in the world was the triangle that lies between the Balkans, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea. Only slightly less dangerous over the same period was the region at the other end of Eurasia comprising Manchuria and the neighboring Korean Peninsula. Indeed, it was there that the era of large-scale modern warfare began, when Japan attacked Russia in 1904. It was also there that the era came to a close 50 years later, with the end of the Korean War. Thereafter, the location and the type of violence changed. Despite its reputation as having been a "long peace," the Cold War sparked a series of bitter proxy wars around the world, particularly in Central America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Indochina. Those conflicts in effect constituted a Third World War -- or, more aptly, the Third World's War.
Ferguson extends his thesis by arguing that the Three E cocktail, "ethnic disintegration, economic volatility, and empires in decline" is present in the Middle East. He uses Iraq to illustrate the concepts of what happens when a tyranny is uprooted: Saddam in this case, but goes on to extend his analysis to cover the entire Middle East. The Middle East, long under the hand of European domination or superpower clientage, is no longer dominated by either system of order. The Oil industry provides the economic volatility. And interestingly, another fracture line is appearing, not only along ethnic but also religious lines.
Events in Iraq suggest that there, too, what is unfolding is not a clash between the West and Islam but, increasingly, a clash within Islamic civilization itself. By some accounts, ethnic disintegration there is already well under way. ... The Iranian government is already taking more than a casual interest in the politics of post-Saddam Iraq. And yet Iran, with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities, is no more homogeneous than Iraq. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria cannot be expected to look on insouciantly if the Sunni minority in central Iraq begins to lose out to what may seem to be an Iranian-backed tyranny of the majority. The recent history of Lebanon offers a reminder that in the Middle East there is no such thing as a contained civil war. Neighbors are always likely to take an unhealthy interest in any country with fissiparous tendencies. The obvious conclusion is that a new "war of the world" may already be brewing in a region that, incredible though it may seem, has yet to sate its appetite for violence.
And the only power that can moderate these destructive tendencies is the only power that has no political appetite for empire: the United States. He contrasts America's musclebound absentmindedness with the conscious acquisitiveness of civilizations which though lacking the wherewithal, are still mentally empires.
To be an empire in denial means resenting the costs of intervening in the affairs of foreign peoples and underestimating the benefits of doing so. It is remarkable that in June 2004, just over a year after U.S. troops toppled Saddam, a majority of Americans already said they regarded the invasion of Iraq as a mistake. ... What makes the U.S. public's misgivings especially remarkable is that the number of U.S. military personnel who have died in this war has been very small by historical standards. The total as of mid-July 2006 was 2,544, of whom 525 had died as a result of non-combat-related causes. ... The Islamic Republic of Iran, by contrast, is heir to an imperial tradition dating back to the time of the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Persia from 1501, and beyond. Although Iran's leaders prefer the rhetoric of religious revolution and national liberation, the historian cannot fail to detect in their long-held ambition to acquire nuclear weapons -- and thereby dominate the Middle East -- a legacy of Persia's imperial past. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not only a devotee of the Hidden, or Twelfth, Imam (who devout Shiites believe will return to the world as the Mahdi, or messiah, for a final confrontation with the forces of evil); he is also a war veteran at the head of a youthful nation. It is not wholly fanciful to see in him a potential Caesar or Bonaparte.
The naked, almost unseemly way in which the French have vied for the command of the UNIFIL mission to Lebanon suggests that beneath its shriveled body, the desire to return in influence to their old stomping grounds still beats strongly in the Gallic heart. Foreign Policy describes how France imagined America might come begging to it for assistance to man UNIFIL -- until Italy threatened to snatch the bit from its teeth. The Times of London reports:
Signor Prodi offered to take the lead in the force and won backing from other Western capitals. Yesterday he said that President Bush had taken a “positive” view of Italy’s offer to lead the force. But Italy’s stance has ruffled feathers in France, the former colonial power that sees itself as the natural leader of the international community in Lebanon. Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French Foreign Minister, said this week that France retained command of the UN force under existing arrangements until February. Last night M Chirac asked the UN to maintain the lead role for France, insisting that “we are historically close” to Lebanon.
France and Iran, to name just two powers, may have the appetite for empire but not the teeth. And America by contrast and despite Niall Ferguson's longing for a strong hand in the world, may have the teeth but not the appetite. If the European Union project could called putting a French jockey atop a German horse, the attempt to create an "international" world order might be described as a scheme to harness American muscle to a transnational agenda. Unfortunately and to the everlasting resentment of internationalists, the US refused to put its economy and military at the service of its environmental, cultural and political projects. And although certain legal scholars now consider the US Constitution subordinate to International Law, that movement probably won't go anywhere either. Eventually blame for the ruin of Kyoto, the UN and probably the EU -- those shining international palaces in the sky -- will probably be put down to American reluctance to play along. As Eros said in Plan 9 from Outer Space to the earthlings after they refused to appreicate the brilliance of his scheme to turn the dead from Southern California cemetaries into zombies: "You see? You see? You're stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!"
Yet those effete-looking internationalists probably grasp Niall Ferguson's point at a gut level: without an American gorilla under "internationalist" direction, The Next War of the Worlds may be in the offing. Yet to America, as the Ring was to Tom Bombadil, empire is too much of a burden. America's mystical faith that all countries desire freedom may partly be at bottom a wish that the world would leave it alone; leave it alone to watch a baseball game with a cup of weak beer in one hand and soggy hot dog in the other, neither knowing nor caring where Iraq or Kazakhstan was. And so it was until the airliners crashed into Manhattan in 2001. Who knows what it is now?