Sunday, January 13, 2008

Niall Ferguson's Fog of War

The War of the World, Niall Ferguson’s attempt to identify the macrotrends of the twentieth century and divine where humanity is headed next, has all the characteristics of the typical Ferguson tome: sweeping scope, counterintuitive hypotheses to explain world-shaking events, great narrative drive, and detail drawn from a huge and eclectic mix of sources that render how events were experienced and interpreted by individuals. Compared to Ferguson’s prior oeuvre, however, the book is oddly formless – its theses weakly supported and at times almost forgotten in the welter of narrative detail.

Through hundreds of pages detailing mass slaughter by the Nazis, Soviets, Japanese and allied powers, the central thesis – the steady decline of the West throughout the century – seems almost a non sequitur. Of course the Western powers had less absolute governmental control and economic dominance in 2000 than in 1900 - but that would have been true even if the 20th century had unfolded in Utopian harmony and unchecked economic growth. Indeed, those Westerners who scared up the specter of the “yellow peril” in the early 1900s would probably have been surprised by the extent of American and European economic dominance, not to mention American military dominance, a century later.

Ferguson’s second main thesis – that ethnic conflict, particularly in heterogeneous regions of multi-ethnic empires, was the main trigger of twentieth century bloodletting – is not really supported. The Baltics may have lit the fuse to World War I, but the ensuing death struggle of the great powers was not primarily about ethnicity. The Soviet Union exercised brutal imperial control over a “graveyard of nations” and peoples, but “the race meme” was not the prime driver of Soviet brutality. The Germans, who made a depraved religion of race, were a relatively homogeneous people; the Japanese, committed mass murder in China and much of the rest of Asia, were probably the most homogeneous large nation on earth. “The race meme” was certainly a major contributor to twentieth century violence, and the breakup of decaying empires fueled ethnic conflict. But the worst ethnic conflict was not driven by powers emerging from decayed empires.

A third thesis – that the ethnic powder keg was generally touched off in periods of economic volatility – is interesting, but Ferguson doesn’t invest much effort in proving it. What seems sloppiest is Ferguson’s overall framing of 20th century violence. His delimiting of a “50 Years War” from 1903-1953 amounts to little more than a list of conflicts within that period. His claim that there was scarcely any diminution in violence in the century’s second half seems preposterous – he simply rattles off a long series of dreadful conflicts without any effort to compare casualty totals. Indeed, his evidence support the claim that the twentieth century was the most violent ever is relegated to an appendix. This lack of statistical analysis is surprising for a scholar whose roots are in economic history and who generally amasses a mountain of data in support of often startling, revisionist claims.

The War of the World exhausts and troubles the reader by the sheer weight and depth of its chronicle of ‘what man has done to man.’ By reminding us of the sudden descent into violence following the long period of relative peace and globalization leading up to World War I, it leaves one haunted by the sense that the next cataclysm may be just around the corner. Ferguson takes a passing swipe at Fukuyama’s The End of History, which posits that humanity as a while is trending toward democratic capitalism. But Ferguson does not really demonstrate that the West has ‘declined’ in any meaningful or undesirable sense, or that nations and international institutions have learned nothing about avoiding and containing outbreaks of violence, or that democracy is not spreading and worldwide violence diminishing.

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