Niall Ferguson gestures during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2016.
Niall Ferguson, one of a handful of historians with star status and a global reputation, has extensively studied the phenomenon of power through the shifting sands of history and published numerous books on the subject.
He has taught at universities including Harvard and is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute of Stanford University. In an interview with Kathimerini, the Scottish-American historian challenges many of the prevailing views regarding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Is the current pandemic comparable with any other in world history?
It is tempting to think of the 1918/19 influenza pandemic, but that was a much more lethal virus attacking a much more vulnerable human race. The total death toll then was 39 million, more than 2 percent of the world’s population. Actually, I think this is more like the 1957/58 flu, which still killed 1.1 million people, but was a lot less lethal. Excess deaths in the US were around 70,000-115,000. Scaled up to today’s population, that would be 130,000-215,000. The difference is that they did minimal social distancing then and no economic lockdowns. It was a different era, and people were more accustomed to periodic bursts of above-average mortality due to infectious disease. We have reacted to an equivalently dangerous pandemic with drastic economic measures. These will certainly save lives, but we should not delude ourselves about the economic consequences. The combination of a severe supply shock with unprecedented peacetime deficits and money creation by central banks will create some significant headaches after the disease has come under control. If President Eisenhower came back from the dead and saw what we are doing, he would conclude that one of the symptoms of Covid-19 was insanity.
This is the first serious crisis after World War II in which the US has not taken the initiative as a global leader. Is this a turning point? Should we forget about the global order as we knew it?
I don’t agree that the US is not leading. True, President [Donald] Trump continues his reality TV version of the presidency, lurching from insouciance to overkill. But the Federal Reserve and the US-based International Monetary Fund are leading the financial response to the crisis. And US-based scientists are more likely to find a vaccine and treatments for Covid-19 than those in Europe or China. Meanwhile, China launches an unconvincing propaganda campaign to persuade us that it was not to blame for the pandemic, when everyone can see that it was. And as for the European Union, it is once again struggling to find a common response to the crisis. So leadership remains with the US, despite Trump’s shortcomings. As for “the global order as we knew it,” I find this phrase suspect. The global order of 1947-87 was the Cold War. Then there was a period of unquestioned American primacy, which Clinton, Bush and Obama frittered away. Now we are in Cold War II.
What will emerge in terms of a new global power structure? Will Europe survive?
I have just written a long piece about this for The Spectator. The short answers are: a) Cold War II will continue, and China’s apparent advantages (more rapid response to Covid-19, quicker return to economic activity) will prove short-lived; b) Europe will survive with exactly the same defects I’ve written about for 20 years (monetary union without some fiscal integration is inherently unstable).
Western democracies were in serious peril before the current crisis. Will this worsen?
Only if Western democracies fail to learn from Eastern ones. Taiwan and South Korea have shown that with mass testing and effective contact-tracing, leveraging smartphone apps, a pandemic can be contained without economic self-immolation. We need to learn from their exemplary performance. I don’t think Western democracies are in serious peril, anyway. Greece has shown that you can come through economic hell and a populist experiment and end up with improved democratic leadership. Greece is one of those smaller countries that has handled the pandemic very well.
What kind of new leadership style could be the response to this challenge?
We need younger leadership. SARS-CoV-2 is no virus for old men. From now on, we should revert to regarding people over 70 as too old for positions of executive responsibility. We should also attach more importance to a track record of leadership: proof of competence is a must, particularly as this crisis has exposed gaping holes in the effectiveness of the modern Western state. (On paper the US was prepared for a pandemic. In practice, it was not.) It is high time Americans stopped confusing politics with showbiz. Finally, we desperately need leaders with a sense of history. That was what made Winston Churchill the greatest leader of the 20th century.