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LYNN NEARY, host:

Consider these headlines from today's news. A former British foreign secretary says the situation in Iraq is now dire. Jack Straw was a firm supporter of the 2003 invasion.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On the other side of Asia, a top Chinese diplomat is meeting with South Korean officials. Two rising economic powers of Asia are considering what to do about their neighbor, North Korea.

NEARY: The historian Niall Ferguson has been studying a century of history behind those headlines. He says he's found a pattern. Ferguson's book, The War of the World, studies many wars of the 20th century, including World War II.

INSKEEP: That war is seen as the ultimate victory by the U.S. and its allies, but Ferguson wants us to look again. He says the war was also part of a long decline. All through the last century, Western nations were losing influence over the nations of Asia.

Mr. NIALL FERGUSON (Historian): Well, I tried to rethink the 20th century when I was writing this book. I was deeply skeptical about the idea of a triumph of the West in the 20th century, and even more skeptical of the idea of an American century. Because in many ways the zenith of Western power, at least with respect to Asia, is 1900, because in 1900 the West almost totally controls Asia, with very, very few exceptions.

And I tried to suggest that much of the 20th century needs to be understood as an unraveling of that position, starting in 1904 when Japan astonishes everybody by winning a major military victory over the Russian empire. From then on, these Western empires are in retreat. And it's an extremely painful and violent retreat. It goes on, of course, not only in the Second World War with the Japanese victories midway through that war, but it continues after the war, when it's impossible to put these wrecked empires back together again.

INSKEEP: So you pick a date in history, September 11, 1901, a date that I assume you chose not quite at random. And you look at the hundred years after that. You've said that Europe became less and less powerful, and lost influence over the world. Who has been rising all that time?

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, it's of course an extremely erratic rise, punctuated by some catastrophic setbacks, but the principle path-breaker is Japan. I mean, it's Japan that leads the resurgence of Asia. But it's followed, of course ultimately, by China.

INSKEEP: Well, this plays into an anxiety or a fascination that people have, depending on who you are, about the present day. People are wondering about the rise of Asia, and when is China going to take over the United States as the world leader. You're saying that that kind of development has been on its way for a hundred years.

Mr. FERGUSON: Yes. And I think one should be reassured by the gradual nature, if you like, or the protracted nature of this transformation. The other point to bear in mind - this is a central argument of the book - is that these transitions are not always peaceful, however. My great concern is that many of the ingredients for extreme violence now exist in parts of the world that for much of the 20th century weren't really trouble spots.

INSKEEP: What are those ingredients?

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, I argue that there are really three things that explain why certain places at certain times blow up and kill a million-plus people in conflict. One is economic volatility. That's important because it's really the timing of crisis which is determined by economic fluctuations. The other is ethnic disintegration. It tends to be multi-ethnic societies that experience the worst violence in the 20th century. And the third is empires in decline. It's when strategic fault lines shift and empires lose their grip that violence spikes.

On that basis, I look rather pessimistically at the future for the Middle East, because you have all three there: tremendous economic volatility; ethnic disintegration as Sunni and Shiite Muslims increasingly conflict in their regions, to mention only one of the ethnic divisions in that region; and, as the United States loses its hegemonic position in the Middle East, you have all the ingredients, all three ingredients, for really very major conflict.

INSKEEP: Okay. Is the United States losing its grip on the Middle East? Because just the other day President Bush was giving another speech pointing out, in his view, that democracy was on the march from one end of the Middle East to the other.

Mr. FERGUSON: Yes. Unfortunately his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, said much the same about Central and Eastern Europe after First World War. And unfortunately, the lesson hasn't been learned that rapid democratization of multi-ethnic societies can have unforeseen and not necessarily pleasant consequences.

Democratization of Central and Eastern Europe after World War I was one of Woodrow Wilson's great objectives and achievements. Unfortunately, the new democracies didn't last terribly long before they plunged into either civil war or dictatorship.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand this, because you're saying that democracy leads to ethnic conflict, which leads to war. Why does one lead to the next and lead to the next?

Mr. FERGUSON: Under certain circumstances, if you suddenly give a society a big political bang, give it free elections, if that society is relatively economically backward, doesn't have much of a tradition of civil society or the rule of law, what can very often happen is that minorities suddenly find themselves contemplating the tyranny of the majority.

Now, in a society like Iraq, which has demographically a Shiite majority but historically has been run by Sunni Muslims, the stakes are obviously very high indeed. And it's an absolutely textbook case of what can happen when suddenly people go to the polls - or I should say peoples, plural.

INSKEEP: Well, what are people supposed to do, stand against democracy?

Mr. FERGUSON: No, I think the lesson is that democratization has to proceed relatively gradually and in step with other processes like the creation of civil society, economic development, the foundation of the rule of law.

If one simply rushes from the battlefield to the ballot box, which I think has happened all too often in the past hundred years, it's not terribly surprising when the results are not peace and harmony but civil strife.

INSKEEP: So tell me now. You have traced exactly a hundred years of world history, violent history, before September 11th, 2001. We've been told many times that everything changed on that date. Is that history, and are those lessons still relevant today?

Mr. FERGUSON: I think they are relevant. I mean, I question how far 9/11, 2001, was a great historical turning point, since so many of the trends that suddenly revealed themselves then were quite well advanced.

My sense is that the fundamental insights of The War of the World still stand. And I think they apply with particular force to the Middle East. My nightmare scenario, if you like, Steve, is that we see much higher levels of violence then we've hitherto seen in the Middle East. And that may sound surprising, except that when you compare it with 20th century violence, recent conflict in the Middle East is quite small scale still, in terms of the numbers of people who are killed.

The nightmare is that we could see an order of magnitude more violence emanating out of Iraq and spreading right across the region.

INSKEEP: Niall Ferguson, author of War of the World. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. FERGUSON: My pleasure.

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