Niall Ferguson: ‘The United States Will Win This New Cold War with China’


The star historian offers his necessarily iconoclastic and sardonic takes on what’s at stake with COVID-19, wokeism, the return of empires and more.

He is one of the planet’s most celebrated historians, and without doubt the most provocative. As a researcher at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Niall Ferguson enjoys taking contrarian positions almost as much as selecting broad and multidisciplinary topics for his books. In his passionate new book published in English as “Doom, The Politics of Catastrophe,” the Scotsman returns to the history of catastrophes and the role politics play in such disasters. Pandemics are on the menu to be sure, but so are earthquakes, tsunamis, wars and famines.

In granting this major interview to L’Express, Ferguson sets COVID-19 in historical perspective and offers his unique view of the woke movement, as he connects it to a religious desire for expiation. Lastly, the historian explains why he believes we’re in a new cold war between the United States and China, with the United States being much weaker than is often thought. His vision is biting!

Your book is not only about pandemics, but all sorts of catastrophes and the political responses to them. Why this choice?

From the beginning of COVID-19, I have felt that doing a global history of disasters would be an interesting challenge. We tend to separate disasters into categories with books on wars, epidemics, natural catastrophes, etc. But I believe this distinction between natural and man-made disasters is rather overdone since human societies are in constant interaction with nature. Take famines as an example: they’re not entirely natural, often having human causes, and this applies to all disasters. Even an earthquake’s damage depends on the proximity to the fault of densely populated urban areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how differently a single virus affects different countries. A country presumably perfectly prepared to cope with such a health crisis like the U.S. actually mishandled it, while a small one like Taiwan only suffered seven or eight deaths in 2020. Whether this virus started naturally or escaped from a lab, its results are political and social.

There have been many comparisons between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu, yet you maintain that the Asian flu of 1957-1958 is more accurate. Have nearly 5 million deaths worldwide, doubtless an underestimate, made you change your mind?

To me, COVID-19 still resembles the Asian flu more despite the rise in fatalities since my book’s publication. Let’s not forget, though, that the Spanish flu killed 2% of the world population. The Asian flu offers interesting similarities since the recent virus also originated in China and spread globally very quickly. Since only older people were immunized against it, the Asian flu was also particularly dangerous in its killing of young people.

The paradox is that a country like America handled the Asian flu better back then than it does COVID-19 now. At that time, a vaccine was rapidly developed despite the existence of anti-vaccination elements, as there are currently. Another point is that, back then, a lockdown was completely unthinkable, since there was no online work people could do at home. There was thus no alternative but to await a vaccine and accept the death toll in the meantime. What strikes me is that this Asian flu had minor economic impact, whereas today COVID-19 is creating an enormous global economic downturn akin to a world war.

It seems to me that there are two viable options with COVID-19. The first is to test and trace in an effort to contain the virus from the start, the way Taiwan and South Korea have done. No Western country has succeeded at this. The other proven option is the lax lockdowns that are less strict than those instituted by many countries during the first wave of the pandemic, which were found impossible to maintain for the long term. Had we listened to the other Neil Ferguson [a British epidemiologist whose first name is pronounced the same as Niall], we would have wound up like North Korea [laughs]. So we’ve all learned from the first lockdown to take health precautions that are more refined and less disruptive economically.

‘We Shouldn’t Exaggerate the Importance of Trump or Johnson’

Many people often blame populist leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or even Boris Johnson for their management of the pandemic, and their countries’ balance sheets have often been frightful during it. However, you caution against framing COVID-19 as the “nemesis of the populists.”

It’s my contrarian streak that makes me do that [laughs]. Some people in these countries are simplistic in claiming the pandemic is all Trump’s or Johnson’s fault. Such leaders have nonetheless made multiple errors. In my book, I tried to enumerate the wrong decisions Trump made, but it was mission impossible because there were so many. His mistakes worsened over time, with appalling electoral results.

But we must always ask ourselves to what extent these decisions were taken in response to death tolls. Let’s not forget the health system’s responsibilities: At the start of the pandemic, the U.S. lacked testing and tracking capabilities, which are up to the CDC to implement. Meanwhile, quarantines were not working at all. These problems were not due to presidential decisions. If everything was Trump’s fault, the pandemic would have ended when he left the White House last January, but that didn’t happen. Furthermore, other democracies that didn’t elect populists also failed to manage COVID-19; Belgium, for instance, is hardly in the hands of one. Politics is too complex to blame one person, no matter how powerful they are.

If you want to explain the consequences of a catastrophe, you must go up the chain of command. Sometimes, responsibility is directly imputable to the leader, such as Joseph Stalin’s guilt in the Ukrainian famine and Mao Zedong’s in the Great Leap Forward. But with COVID-19, I think the failure is also due to the public health bureaucracies. In the U.S. and the U.K., any leader would have failed to curb this pandemic. Just ask yourself what Barack Obama would have done about a killer virus in 2009, for example. President Joe Biden has himself admitted that if the H1N1 swine flu had been more dangerous, it would have also caused such a disaster. The Democrats were just lucky that it wasn’t lethal.

Populist leaders made decisions that worsened things, but let’s not exaggerate the importance of Trump or Johnson. By the same token, Chernobyl wasn’t Mikhail Gorbachev’s fault. The reality is that all the Western democracies failed to prepare for SARS and MERS in the 2000s. No one had a good pandemic plan, and everyone just hoped one wouldn’t happen until it did.

Many commentators, especially ecologists, predicted that COVID-19 will affect cities so that there will be an exodus to the countryside, but you don’t see that happening at all.

New York City is already rebounding and rents there are rising again! London is in a unique situation because of Brexit. It takes much more to kill a metropolis. Got children? When they reach adolescence they’ll detest the country and only dream of the big city. This is perfectly reasonable since if you’re young, you need to maximize your social and romantic life for the sake of your feelings and your career. Fifty-somethings like me can allow themselves to withdraw into the greenery, as we have already made our friends and accomplished our main career goals, but the reality is that cities are incredible places, especially for the young.

Your book recounts how throughout history disasters were blamed on conspiracies, with Jews often being the target of the conspiracy theorists.

As a historian, I find it amazing how long conspiracy theories last. In the 1990s, I wrote the saga of the Rothschilds, about whom there was a plethora of modern conspiracy theories starting in the early 19th century, but antisemitism is far older than that. During the Black Death, some Jewish communities were massacred, as at Frankfurt in 1349. In Strasbourg that same year Jews were burned at the stake. It’s therefore not the least surprising that certain people always find a way to blame the Jews for each new disaster. Sometimes these conspiracies are very far-fetched. With COVID-19, Bill Gates isn’t a Jew and George Soros hasn’t developed vaccines. Anyway, conspiracy theories are not based in reason; there’s no end to magical thinking.

In conclusion, what’s important is that conspiracy theories now are more powerful than they were in the 1950s. No one back then urged others not to be vaccinated against the Asian flu because it would control their minds, or not to vaccinate their children against polio. The internet has certainly created great ways to spread these crazy ideas. As I explained in my previous book “The Place of the Tower,” social networks are nothing new. But today we have a real problem with over 100,000 Americans dead, probably more, because they believed a conspiracy theory about the COVID-19 vaccine. They should have willingly had themselves vaccinated but chose not to. According to a YouGov poll and last July’s issue of The Economist, the majority of non-vaccinated Americans believe that the vaccine contains microchips. It’s a fact that most people who die of COVID-19 are unvaccinated. This is a terrible problem and there appears no way to handle it.

‘The Religious Dimension Is Key to the Woke Movement’

You also emphasize that catastrophes are often accompanied by millenarian movements and religious expiation such as Flagellants. You claim that today the woke movement subscribes to the same aspiration to atonement. Why?

We must realize that something very strange happened last summer following the death of George Floyd. There we were, in the middle of a pandemic, and suddenly there were protests against police brutality and the racial issue in every American state. I have watched many videos of these protests, and it’s apparent that there is a strong religious aspect to them. In North Carolina, white policemen washed the feet of Black pastors; a young man with a megaphone demanded the repentance of “all the white race;” in Washington, D.C., protesters knelt while chanting a repudiation of their white privilege; white protesters have even inflicted whip marks on their own backs. All this made me realize that I was witnessing a mass movement of confession of sins and atonement for them. Again in Washington, a white protester told a racially mixed group of policemen that they are part of a “systemic racism” problem, to which a Black officer rejoined that all America has sinned, so read the Bible. It could only happen in America [laughs]!*

I think many Western commentators haven’t grasped this religious dimension to the “Great Awokening” being like the Great Awakening of evangelicals earlier in American history. It is noteworthy that across history, pandemics have caused great fear of death and seen the rise of religious movements. In the 14th century during the bubonic plague there were the Flagellants. I’m not the only one to notice the parallel; American journalist Andrew Sullivan has also remarked on the importance of the religious angle of the woke movement.

This religiosity is even accompanied by a wave of iconoclasm with the vandalism or destruction of statues.

Like Protestants in the 16th century or Bolsheviks and Maoists in the 20th century, these protesters are attracted to statues. Often they attack statues of Confederate generals and slave owners, but they also go after ones of Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant.

We aren’t as modern as we think we are. We have made great strides in science and technology these past two or three centuries, but we’re still chained to religious and magical thought forms. And there’s nothing like a pandemic to stimulate that. Humanity was quickly able to sequence COVID-19’s genome, and yet overall we still act irrationally. One of the classics while I was a student at Oxford was “Religion and the Decline of Magic” by the historian Keith Thomas. His perspective was compelling: over time, during the 16th and 17th centuries we moved away from sorcery and magic to adopt science. But it’s clear today that magical thought has returned [laughs]. Those who consider themselves rationalists often invoke “the science” as though it were some kind of deity, but all the while during this pandemic, the scientists have had to change their minds about it.

‘I Know Colleagues Who Are More Astonished by the Horrors of the Past Than by Horrors of Today’

In your book you return to one of your abiding preoccupations: empires. Although the world of today seems to consist of nation-states, there are actually empires all around if you look closely. For instance, Xi Jinping often refers to China’s imperial past, Vladimir Putin thinks of himself as a czar, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to revive the Ottoman Caliphate.

In universities there is an anti-imperialist mindset for which colonialism is the absolute evil, and historians emphasize the cruelty of these empires past. Yet academia is blind to how empires are always there and slavery exists today. I know colleagues who are more astonished by the horrors of the past than they are by the horrors of today [laughs]. The past cannot be changed, though, and yet I communicated last week with a famous professor at Yale who confided that she gets the feeling that her students firmly believe the past can be changed, that its wrongs can be “cancelled.”

These days history is subjected to the value judgments of the present, although the entire range of contemporary values, from same-sex marriage to interracial marriage, is quite recent. It’s therefore completely counterproductive to impose 21st century values on various past periods. As a historian, I believe it’s much more rewarding to try to understand the mentalities of past eras in an effort to illuminate our own.

To return to your question, yes, it’s true that empires haven’t disappeared. There are two great competing ones now, China and America; Russia is a much less powerful one. And then there’s this strange thing called Europe, almost an “anti-empire” with its large geographic size and small political power. It has nothing of an empire about it, starting with its lack of a strong army. I know that this is not the view in universities, making me unpopular with my colleagues [laughs].

You call the Chinese-American tensions today the “new cold war.” Has COVID-19 heated it up?

I have spoken of this “cold war” since 2019, but it remains controversial. What began in 2018 as a trade war has become a technological competition around 5G as well as an ideological one. Although he conceived “peaceful coexistence,” Henry Kissinger himself, in my interview with him, claimed we’re “in the foothills of a cold war.”

Many experts today claim we should avoid this cold war at all costs, but this is a kind of denial and it’s highly apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this “second Cold War.” Many are starting to recognize that China is a real threat; besides Italy or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, other European nations are hardening their positions on it. The pandemic has greatly weakened the pro-China lobbies in Western democracies, since COVID-19 started in China and the Chinese government covered it up for several weeks while it spread worldwide. This was a geopolitical turning point. Chernobyl caused no deaths outside the Soviet Union, but here we have millions dying globally. China has clumsily attempted to put out the fires with propaganda that the virus came from imported consumer products or was planted by the American military. Xi is ever more feverish as his economy caves in. He tries to compensate by fanning nationalist sentiment and adopting the most aggressive foreign policy possible. This cold war will only accelerate.

‘Chinese Growth Is Going To Fall Faster Than Anyone Thinks’

You often point out American weakness, but you also claim that China is even weaker. What’s behind this diagnosis?

I think we’re making the same mistake with China that we did with the Soviet Union, of not realizing how rotten inside its system is. It’s completely centralized without rule of law, real private property or accountability. And when you look at China’s demographics and aging population, it’s very evident that its growth is going to fall more sharply than is widely held. According to a study in The Lancet, the country will lose half its population between now and the end of this century. Manpower is already in decline, and there’s no solution to this problem since, as you note, no one wants to emigrate to this “people’s republic.” We might also ask ourselves how this system can continue with only 2% economic growth.

Across from China, the U.S. was always in a chaotic predicament. It’s hardly a model for other Western democracies, but it possesses such strength and resilience that not even Trump could shatter its Constitution. Also contrary to China, it attracts a constant flow of immigrants to replenish its talent pool. As long as America maintains this attitude, it will make it out of the woods. My bet is that the Americans will win this second cold war, but it’s not certain since they shoot themselves in the foot in many ways. Don’t forget that they only won the first cold war in the 1980s. During the 1970s, America was in a chaotic situation with high crime and significant inflation. But if it got out of that period and beat the USSR, it can do the same to China.

What do you think will be the next great catastrophe?

That’s definitely unpredictable, since catastrophes don’t have a statistically normal distribution. There could be a great earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a new COVID-19 strain that resists vaccines. But history rarely repeats itself. The next big catastrophe could come from a cyberattack; we’ve never undergone a global one that blocks the world’s internet access. That would rapidly cause chaos. It might be the next “black swan,” to use Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s phrase. At the same time, it’s apparent that something else will happen [laughs].

*Editor’s Note: The quotations in this paragraph, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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About Hal Swindall 78 Articles
A California native, Hal Swindall earned an MA in English from Claremont Graduate University and a PhD in comparative literature from UC Riverside, majoring in English and minoring in French and Italian. Since then, he has wandered East Asia as an itinerant English professor, mainly teaching writing and literature. Presently, he works as an English teacher trainer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hal's interests besides translating, editing and literature include classical music and badminton, as well as East Asian temples.

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