Niall Ferguson: The Next War of the World

Roundup: Historians' Take

Summary: The twentieth century was the bloodiest era in history. Despite the comfortable assumption that the twenty-first will be more peaceful, the same ingredients that made the last hundred years so destructive are present today. In particular, a conflict in the Middle East may well spark another global conflagration. The United States could prevent such an outcome -- but it may not be willing to.

[Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book is "The War of the World." Copyright 2006 by Niall Ferguson.]

... Will the twenty-first century be as bloody as the twentieth? The answer depends partly on whether or not we can understand the causes of the last century's violence. Only if we can will we have a chance of avoiding a repetition of its horrors. If we cannot, there is a real possibility that we will relive the nightmare.


There are many unsatisfactory explanations for why the twentieth century was so destructive. One is the assertion that the availability of more powerful weapons caused bloodier conflicts. But there is no correlation between the sophistication of military technology and the lethality of conflict. Some of the worst violence of the century -- the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s and central Africa in the 1990s, for instance -- was perpetrated with the crudest of weapons: rifles, axes, machetes, and knives.

Nor can economic crises explain the bloodshed. What may be the most familiar causal chain in modern historiography links the Great Depression to the rise of fascism and the outbreak of World War II. But that simple story leaves too much out. Nazi Germany started the war in Europe only after its economy had recovered. Not all the countries affected by the Great Depression were taken over by fascist regimes, nor did all such regimes start wars of aggression. In fact, no general relationship between economics and conflict is discernible for the century as a whole. Some wars came after periods of growth, others were the causes rather than the consequences of economic catastrophe, and some severe economic crises were not followed by wars.

Many trace responsibility for the butchery to extreme ideologies. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the years between 1914 and 1991 "an era of religious wars" but argues that "the most militant and bloodthirsty religions were secular ideologies." At the other end of the political spectrum, the conservative historian Paul Johnson blames the violence on "the rise of moral relativism, the decline of personal responsibility [and] the repudiation of Judeo-Christian values." But the rise of new ideologies or the decline of old values cannot be regarded as causes of violence in their own right. Extreme belief systems, such as anti-Semitism, have existed for most of modern history, but only at certain times and in certain places have they been widely embraced and translated into violence.

And as tempting as it is to blame tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao for the century's bloodletting, to do so is to repeat the error on which Leo Tolstoy heaped so much scorn in War and Peace. Megalomaniacs may order men to invade Russia, but why do the men obey? Some historians have attempted to answer the novelist's question by indicting the modern nation-state. The nation-state does indeed possess unprecedented capabilities for mobilizing masses of people, but those means could just as easily be harnessed, and have been, to peaceful ends.

Others seek the cause of conflict in the internal political arrangements of states. It has become fashionable among political scientists to posit a causal link between democracy and peace, extrapolating from the observation that democracies tend not to go to war with one another. The corollary, of course, is that dictatorships generally are more bellicose. By that logic, the rise of democracy during the twentieth century should have made the world more peaceful. Democratization may well have reduced the incidence of war between states. But waves of democratization in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s seem to have multiplied the number of civil wars. Some of those (such as the conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi, China, Korea, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Russia, Rwanda, and Vietnam) were among the deadliest conflicts of the century. Horrendous numbers of fatalities were also caused by genocidal or "politicidal" campaigns waged against civilian populations, such as those carried out by the Young Turks against the Armenians and the Greeks during World War I, the Soviet government from the 1920s until the 1950s, and the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 -- to say nothing of those perpetrated by the communist tyrannies of Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Indeed, such civil strife has been the most common form of conflict during the past 50 years. Of the 24 armed conflicts recorded as "ongoing" by the University of Maryland's Ted Robert Gurr and George Mason University's Monty Marshall in early 2005, nearly all were civil wars.

Conventional explanations for the violence of the twentieth century are inadequate for another important reason. None is able to explain convincingly why lethal conflict happened when and where it did. Ultimately, the interesting question is not, Why was the twentieth century more violent than the eighteenth or the nineteenth? but, Why did extreme violence happen in Poland and Serbia more than in Portugal and Sweden, and why was it more likely to happen between 1939 and 1945 than between 1959 and 1965?...

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