Niall Ferguson, a leading historian and senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, spoke with The Japan Times following his attendance at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last month. Ferguson spoke about global risks and geopolitics in 2020 as well as his latest book, “The Square and the Tower,” which was published in Japanese in December.

What was your impression of the latest WEF meeting in Davos?

This year, the program of the conference was very much focused on environmental issues. This coincided with the outbreak of an epidemic in China, which potentially is a much more imminent threat than climate change. So, there was a certain irony in the fact that we were talking about climate change, just as this pandemic was taking shape. The thing that is most dangerous to us as a species is in the short run; a nuclear war and a lethal pandemic. These things can happen tomorrow.

Do you think that the coronavirus outbreak could pose a global risk in 2020?

Yes, it could be. We don’t really know yet just how dangerous it is and we don’t know just how far it is going to spread because Chinese statistics are not very trustworthy. I think it’s a serious reminder that historically, our vulnerability as a species has been the pandemics. The biggest catastrophe in human history after all is the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed about a third of the population of Europe. It is a much bigger number than the Second World War. In 1918-1919, the so-called Spanish influenza killed more people than World War I in less time.

The volume of Chinese people who travel abroad has gone up exponentially. We’ve never been so interconnected at such high frequency. This was the central argument of my most recent book, “The Square and the Tower,” that we are in a network world, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Because anything can go viral. Fake news can go viral and so can lethal viruses. We are more vulnerable actually than we’ve ever been.

What kinds of lessons do you want to offer to Japanese people through this book?

The key general point is you can’t understand history if you don’t understand social networks and how they operate. Part of the point of the book is to educate about network science as a general framework for understanding the world. Most history books are written far too much from the point of view of governments, prime ministers and presidents, kings and queens. But when you look at history from the vantage point of social networks, it’s really a very different story.

Can that also be applied to Japan?

Japanese history needs to be understood in terms of two kinds of networks in the mid-20th century — political factions and military factions. Radical nationalists within the Japanese Army were a very important reason why Japan moved further and further away from the United States in the 1930s. Then after the war, Japan’s business network is absolutely crucial to understanding its economic revival and its political stability. So I think the framework operates pretty well for Japan.

In your book, you wrote that people who have social networks will have more wealth and influence. Do you think this trend will continue?

I think it’s always been true. No individual is powerful apart from a network of support, of friendship, of loyalty. When we try to understand the history of the rich and powerful, you have to actually understand their social network to see how they became rich and powerful. Some people understand that better than others and understand how to grow the network. Finally, the advent of giant online social networks through the internet means we are in bigger networks than ever before. We are more connected than ever, and how to manage large networks of people itself is a challenge.

You often say that China and the U.S. are in Cold War II.

I think we are in Cold War II. The U.S. and China are obvious geopolitical rivals. (China) is engaged in the arms program that is directed against U.S. naval capabilities. It is engaged in cyberwarfare not only against the U.S. but also its allies. China has become ideologically much more overtly hostile to the West than it was in the previous generation of leaders.

China’s global ambitions, embodied in One Belt, One Road initiatives, are no longer something that can be ignored. The Cold War originally was about geopolitics and ideology and economic rivalry, and so is this one. The Cold War was also technological competition. The U.S. led and the Soviet Union tried to catch up with technology, space race and a bunch of other things. In the same way, China’s trying to catch up with the U.S. in artificial intelligence and quantum computing in a whole variety of different domains.

How long do you think this is going to continue?

The last Cold War started in the late ’40s and ended in the late ’80s. There is no way of knowing whether this Cold War will last 40 years, four years, or 400 years. What we can learn from the first Cold War is that there is always a risk that a cold war becomes hot. Remember the U.S. and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over Berlin in 1961 and Cuba in 1962. There were moments of high tension in the early 1980s. There was no guarantee that the U.S. and the Soviet Union would not go to war for 40 years and that the Soviet Union would then quietly die. I don’t think that scenario is likely to repeat itself.

If you start a cold war, you shouldn’t assume it will last 40 years and the U.S. will win. It could last a lot longer. China’s economy is bigger than the Soviet economy ever was, and it may well be that China’s one-party system with its high level of technological sophistication, investment and education, is actually able to win this.

In the meantime, what do you think the U.S. should do in dealing with China?

The lesson of the last Cold War is that the U.S. can’t contain China on its own. It needs allies, and it needs to work intelligently with its Asian and European allies, which of course includes Japan. But I don’t think it is really happening. The U.S. under President (Donald) Trump is rather poor in working with its allies. Containment requires some enforcement. There have to be real red lines. If China is systematically building naval military bases in the South China Sea, we shouldn’t just let that happen. There needs to be some more effective way of containing China than tariffs, which are a very blunt instrument.

I think this Cold War will be fought as much in cyberspace as anywhere else. The U.S., Japan, Europe and others should be working together to try to counter Chinese and Russian aggression in cyberspace and try to create international agreements and standards that limit the damage that can be done by our adversaries.

We also need to compete more effectively against China’s technology companies, which are rapidly establishing their payment systems all over the emerging world. That’s a big challenge to the dominance of the U.S. dollar.

You have written extensively about former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and he was a very big player during the Cold War. Do you think Kissinger has some influence on Trump’s policy?

I know he has been consulted in the past, and I know that he was also consulted by the Chinese government. I think he’s an important channel of communication between Washington and Beijing. He was in Beijing in early December. He was just in Europe (in January). He’s very active despite being 96. It is a remarkable thing and intellectually he’s as sharp as ever. As somebody who was invested in a good U.S.-China relationship from 1971 onward, he is in a difficult position if we are in Cold War II. I asked him in Beijing last year “Are we in a cold war?” He replied that we are in the foothills of a cold war. So I don’t think he has any illusions.

How do you think the U.S. presidential election will play out?

I think this election will be close. Whoever the Democratic nominee is will have a chance because Trump is not a popular president and he has many opponents in the electorate. If the economy is slowing, then people will be more open at least to the idea of a change of president. (But) it might end up being like the British election if they nominate Bernie Sanders.

(British Prime Minister Boris) Johnson won by a much larger margin than anybody expected because the Labour Party ran with a left-wing candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, and left-wing policies, and a very substantial number of working-class voters said “We are not interested.”

If the Democrats do nominate Bernie Sanders, lots of young people will vote for him, but that won’t actually be enough. A lot of working-class people in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania like Trump. They like his nationalism. They like his crudeness. They hate the politically correct left. So I can imagine that Trump could win the way Johnson won. But the key thing (early in an election year) is don’t make bold, confident predictions. American politics is all about close races and surprising results.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.