Can we really learn from history? It is a long-held belief that somewhere in the intertwined threads of our past lives there are clear lessons which others had to learn so that we wouldn’t have to. Most famously expressed by George Santayana, a Spanish American philosopher and poet as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ the belief has sustained History faculties the world over as the standard reply to the jaded student who asks how any of this stuff about dead kings matters.
The obvious and depressing retort, however, is simple. As George Bernard Shaw, everyone’s go-to figure for a pithy aphorism said, ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.’ The past is a graveyard full of hubris, arrogance, and failed dreams. It is a tale dominated by the powerful, the male, the white. And it is a tale which repeats itself over and over again. Each tyrant, each failed state, each defeated idealist will have believed they were on the side of history. But, as historian and academic Margaret MacMillan explains, ‘we… deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.‘
So, we must be cautious if we look backwards in an attempt to explain our present. But, given all of that, ‘The War of the World,’ Niall Ferguson’s 2006 exploration of the 20th Century’s predilection for violence is turning out to be a work of remarkable prescience. In it, he examines the social and economic upheaval which contributed to ‘the bloodiest century in modern history,’ and then offers some pointers for how this might matter to us now. And this is where things get interesting, if not downright terrifying. Because, if he’s right, then the world is in a very parlous state indeed.
He posits that there are three factors which he believes ‘explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century… ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.’ The three are intertwined; no one element stands alone and apart as a causal factor. Rather, he suggests, they combine to cultivate the conditions in which mankind becomes aggressive and violent; in the case of nation states, this means war.
Ethnic conflict. Economic volatility. Empires in decline. Sound at all familiar?
Ignoring ethnic conflict for a moment, let’s take economic volatility first. Ferguson argues that this can mean boom or bust. Any kind of sudden change to economic conditions can create unrest. With the news today that millions of households in the UK will face a £693 hike in fuel bills as global energy prices soar, combined with surging inflation, it’s difficult not to describe the UK economy as anything but volatile. Across Europe the shock tremors of Brexit are still rippling, creating uncertainty in markets and driving inflation. And there are global problems. The pandemic caused the global economy to stall; this may be addressed in 2022, and we may see sudden growth. Either way, it is not stable. Sudden rises, sudden slumps, economic hardship and the threat of war in Europe… Ferguson would, I’m sure, be concerned. Add to that a growing global population, increasingly elderly in the West, limited natural resources and the economic realities of a greener approach to power as well as the threat of war in Europe and in the South Seas and it is easy to understand market instability.
Ferguson also sees the 20th century as a time of decline for the Western powers, describing ‘the death of the West.’ This is in contrast to many historians who saw the end of the Cold War as the ‘triumph of the West.’ Perhaps they were looking in the wrong direction. Compare European dominance of the globe in 1900 to where it was in 2000 and it is hard to argue that the Western hegemony had triumphed at all. Perhaps if Western culture had been adopted wholesale by Asian countries, he argues, then we might still have described the century as a victory for Western culture, but that has not been the case. China’s economy may have embraced a degree of capitalism but it maintains it culture and state control; it has cherry-picked what it believes to be the most useful elements of Western capitalism and thrown away the rest. The USA is becoming increasingly insular and divided. Trump’s clarion call of ‘America First’ was a clear indication that they were happier as the ‘leader of the free market’ rather than the ‘free world’. Similarly, Brexit has left Europe divided and inward-looking, economically and militarily weakened and wrapped up in red tape whilst its borders creak with immigrants, seeking safe haven from war-torn Middle Eastern and African home countries abandoned by the last century’s superpowers after the Cold War.
And the first scapegoats of economic hardship and a decline in power? Those who are ethnically different to us, who become ‘the problem’. Antisemitism, that blight of not just the last century but centuries before that too, has once again become a feature of Western discourse, not just in the US. Furthermore, I believe that the decision to leave Europe was as much about closing England’s borders (I absolve Scotland, Wales and NI on the grounds that they didn’t want to leave) to Eastern European or Islamic migrants than it was about trade deals. The years of austerity (economic volatility) had pushed its people to the point where they needed someone to blame. A poorly administered immigration policy (nothing to do with the EU) didn’t help.
And there is little question that the English’ concerns about immigration are grounded in a fear of those from different cultures rather than anything else; few complained quite so vociferously about Australian immigrants, or those from predominantly white ‘Western’ democracies. Rather, it was ugly stereotypes of Eastern European or Middle Eastern immigrants which were the dominant feature of much of the debate. If anything, the Brexit referendum revealed a truth about a country which was feeling the loss of its imperial past and which was clinging to a nostalgic vision of itself which hasn’t existed since the Second World War: an overwhelmingly white, conservative nation with genuine power and influence in global issues. As such, Brexit provides ample evidence of the way that the fall of empire, economic volatility and ethnic conflict can intertwine to create conflict and division. Brexit also provided a clear indication of the country’s changing demographic, something else Ferguson discusses in the book. The country is getting older. He examines the impact an increasingly aged population has economically. Statistics suggest that the over-65s will be almost 19% of the country’s population in 2022, the highest this proportion has ever been. Combine this with a declining birth rate and it is not hard to see problems arising with welfare and pensions to which, as Ferguson points out, pre-Brexit and hence without irony, the only answer is immigration.
Perhaps it is also possible to look beyond hard borders which are really no more than arbitrary lines on a map, and to consider a broader interpretation which includes barriers on information. If we expand the definition of a border to include the firewalls and barriers which protect a state’s information, then it is possible to see that conflict has already begun. Cyber warfare between states is now commonplace. The US has cited cyber attacks from Russia and China stretching back to 2010, including ongoing controversy over the Russian interference in the election of Donald Trump, whilst in the UK, similar claims surround the Brexit referendum. Certainly, Trump in the White House and Britain out of Europe suits Putin’s worldview just fine. In the new world then, these borders are equally crucial and just as inflammatory where different cultures collide; where East meets West in cyberspace.
So, do we learn anything from this particular history lesson? If Ferguson is right, then the factors are moving into place for a sizeable conflict of some description. Perhaps we are witnessing the end days of Western democracy and the rise of a new Eastern power-base. China and Russia are not slow to recognise signs of decay and division in the West. Russian aggression in Ukraine is brinkmanship to match the days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis in 1962. President Putin suggests that he is acting in defence of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the Middle East but his defiance is indicative of the weakness he sees in the old centres of power, Western Europe and the US. He has also moved Russia into a more concrete alliance with China, the two countries agreeing to co-operate diplomatically and militarily more closely than at any time since the 1950s. President Xi Jinping cites Putin as ‘his best friend’. Elsewhere, China watch carefully to see how the Western powers respond to the situation in Ukraine as they begin to stake their claim to Taiwan, whilst also reaching out to the Middle East, making polite and respectful overtures to Egypt, as another like-minded state. China and Russia are united by a common goal: the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) claim that the two countries ‘seek to undermine the democratic and liberal West.’ It is not hard to see how these two huge countries, rich in resources, with shared ideologies and, in China’s case, a strong economy, forming a dominant world power as old Europe and the US dissolve into in-fighting and economic uncertainty.
Niall Ferguson ends his book with a warning. ‘We remain’ he says, ‘our own worst enemies. We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one – the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so, negate our common humanity.’
I fear that the legacy of the 21st century will be to prove George Bernard Shaw right.