Niall Ferguson, Historian — The Coming Cold War II, Visible and Invisible Geopolitics, Why Even Atheists Should Study Religion, Masters of Paradox, Fatherhood, Fear, and More | Tim Ferriss Show (#634)

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Key Takeaways

  • The best historians make you empathize with the dead despite the difference in time, space, and experience
  • Historical contingency – a relatively small event or decision can have significant consequences
    • Historical causations can have tremendous ramifications, no matter how small they are
  • According to Niall, one of the most exciting things about studying history is reminding ourselves that what happened might have gone the other way
    • “If you zoom too far out and just view history as these inevitable tectonic plates, then there’s a fatalism that can set in, and you throw up your hands and move on to just staring at TikTok all day or whatever you might do. And at the same time, if you bleed into the conspiracy theory side of things, same outcome.” – Tim Ferriss
  • Cold War I had some similarities with Cold War II, but we shouldn’t expect things to play out the same 
    • The war in Ukraine is like the Korean War — the first hot war of Cold War II
    • The hot war happens in an unexpected location, the same as in Cold War I
    • Instead of a nuclear arms race, we’re in an AI race and a quantum computing race
    • There’s much more economic interpenetration between the US and China than there ever was between the US and the Soviet Union
  • Guesses about what happens next in global politics
    • Niall thinks that if one does makes a correct prediction; it’s more due to luck than judgment—it’s a system of enormous complexity 
    • To say anything about global politics at this point is to engage in an exercise beyond our brains
    • Right now, the US and China are on a collision course over Taiwan 
    • Taiwan is to this cold war what Cuba was to the last cold war—the flash point
    • Then, it was close to the US. This time, it’s close to China 
  • Taiwan seems to be worth more than its territorial size would suggest. Taiwan’s more important than Cuba ever was because Taiwan is where TSMC manufactures 92% of the most sophisticated semiconductors in the world 
    • According to Niall, the potential for a crisis over Taiwan is higher than the potential ever was for a crisis over Cuba 
    • “So I think what happens next is that we end up with a showdown over Taiwan at some point in the next few years. Could be in 2024 when there’s an election scheduled in Taiwan.”Niall Ferguson
  • For the last decade, Niall has been trying to apply history to contemporary problems and advise people in decision-making positions
    • He created Greenmantle— an advisory business seeking to understand the world via history
  • The choral tradition in Anglicanism is one of Niall’s favorite things- consolation and social connections
    • “If you can use the Bible as a way of helping your children find their way to being good, then I think that’s to be encouraged, even if you were as skeptical as I am about the existence of God, the possibility of an afterlife, all the rest of it.”Niall Ferguson

Intro

  • Niall Ferguson (@nfergus) is one of the world’s leading historians. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He is the author of sixteen books, the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC — an advisory business seeking to understand the world via history
  • In this episode, Niall Ferguson joins Tim Ferriss to talk about the lack of appreciation for the philosophy of history, parallels between history and music, predictions for global geopolitics, and why parents need to encourage their children to read
  • Host – Tim Ferriss (@tferriss)

Achieving Your Childhood Dreams (Niall’s Multi-Faceted Career)

  • Niall always felt he was going to be a historian
  • His hero was A.J.P. Taylor, a British historian who wrote columns, did television lectures, and got into public rows
    • That always struck Niall as a beautiful way of life (academic rigor & popular appeal)
    • “You would be in the morning sitting in your oak-paneled study, surrounded by books, smoking your pipe and giving tutorials. But in the afternoon, you’d bash out 1,000 words for The Daily Express, and then you’d deliver a quick lecture on the 1848 Revolutions for the BBC, and then you’d be in time for a high table at seven. That was always the plan.” Niall Ferguson
  • Niall never desired to be a dull, boring academic
    • Besides having a lustrous academic career, Niall wrote sixteen books, won the International Emmy award for a documentary series he wrote and presented (Ascent of Money), and has been a columnist for Newsweek
    • Niall successfully executed a dream that he envisioned when he was just a boy

Sucking Up to John Plumb and Drinking Dregs of Château Lafite

  • When he first made it to the high table, it was in Cambridge, at Christ’s College
  • What’s a high table? Niall compares it to Hogwarts but slightly less visually striking (quite a lot of it is shot at Christ Church)
  • That’s where he met Sir John Plumb, one of the former masters who loved fine wine
    • On his 85th birthday, Plumb served some Château Lafite
    • All the younger fellows, the engineers, would take a couple of sips and leave most of it undrunk, sending John into a rage
    • Niall would drink the dregs from the glasses that they’d left, and John Plumb loved him for that
    • It was a great move for his career because John Plumb was one of the great academic patrons, and he wrote a flattering letter of recommendation for Niall

You Can’t Be a Historian Without a Philosophy of History

  • The philosophy of history is rarely studied, which is why plenty of academic history is a waste of time
    • According to Niall, you can’t be a historian without a philosophy of history and an understanding of the nature of causation
  • How did Niall become interested in the philosophy of history?
    • He was drinking Château Lafite with Jack Plumb and realized that any causal statement implies a counterfactual
    • To put it in another way, if you think that World War II wouldn’t have happened without Hitler, then it’s legitimate to ask what would’ve happened if he had been assassinated
    • What-if questions (historical contingency) were of great importance to Niall when he was a young student
  • Historical sensibility is similar to musical sensibility
    • “History’s not a science. It can’t be a science because we can’t rerun events in a laboratory and see if, consistently, war breaks out in 1939 with or without Hitler.”Niall Ferguson
    • Historians are reconstituting past human experience from the bits and pieces that have been left behind—it’s a subtle process of mental reenactment of experience (R.G. Collingwood)
    • History is much closer to music than it is to science. You’ve got to have the ear for it. 
    • “It’s quite obvious when one reads a book when a historian’s tone deaf and shouldn’t really have gone into the business, just as it would be obvious if they tried to conduct an orchestra or play a concerto.”Niall Ferguson

How to Find an “Ear” for Historical Resonance?

  • Very often in his career, Niall had moments when a document revealed something profound, and that moment of connection usually had a musical dimension to it
  • Writing the history of the Rothschild family back in the 1990s
    • Reading through dusty old letters that the Rothschild brothers wrote to one another
    • They cast an entirely new light on the 19th Century, and they were altogether absorbing
    • The eldest of the Rothschild brothers, Amschel, described what it was like for the first time to own land – he bought a garden and slept in it
    • Before the upheavals caused by the French revolution, Jews had not been allowed to own real estate
    • He’d slept outdoors for the first time in a garden he owned 
    • Niall was moved to tears when he found out about it
    • He remembered the moment in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” when the prisoners sing how it feels to be in the open air. It indeed was appropriate music for that moment
    • Listening to Beethoven and thinking about the letter, he realized that the letter was an enormously important document (meaning of emancipation)
  • The best historians can make you empathize with the dead despite the difference in time, space, and experience
    • Many historians these days don’t even try that approach because they don’t feel that their mission is to reconstitute past experience—they are just passing judgments on the past
    • Niall believes that kind of academic approach produces very bad, and boring history

Histories That Didn’t Happen (Historical Contingency)

  • Niall is a passionate believer in counterfactual history
  • Historical contingency – a relatively small event or decision can have significant consequences
    • Historical causations can have tremendous ramifications, no matter how small they are
  • This year, most people thought that if Russia invaded Ukraine, they would surrender
    • People assumed that Zelenskyy would bail. But he didn’t. He didn’t want an air ticket; he wanted ammunition
    • If Zelenskyy had gone according to our expectations, the war would be over within a matter of days
    • His tremendous act of courage encouraged ordinary Ukrainians not to fold, and it prevented any Russian collaborators from acting
  • According to Niall, one of the most exciting things about studying history is reminding ourselves that what happened might have gone the other way
    • The Cuban Missile Crisis could have easily resulted in World War III
    • Historians need to be aware of these alternate worlds and avoid the mistake of writing like all these events were already predetermined
    • A deterministic view of the historical process quickly leads to fatalism
    • Nobody knew that Zelenskyy would stand his ground
  • “I think it’s really important to convey to your listeners and viewers how exciting history is and how studying it makes you understand the course of events in your own life better and removes that passivity that sometimes people succumb to.”Niall Ferguson
  • The key to history is having a sense of what didn’t happen (Lewis Namier)
  • “It’s the notes you don’t play.”Thelonious Monk
  • However, we can’t just fantasize counterfactuals entirely out of imagination – they have to be things that people at the time thought might actually happen

Dan Carlin, Elon Musk, and Gavrilo Princip (Example of Historical Contingency)

  • Both Niall and Tim enjoy Dan Carlin’s podcast—Hardcore History
    • Dan Carlin is not a historian per se, but he did an episode on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and it ties to the idea of historical contingency
    • 1914 is a perfect example because Gavrilo Princip (the assassin) failed the first time and got a second chance because the driver took the wrong turning
  • “If you zoom too far out and just view history as these inevitable tectonic plates, then there’s a fatalism that can set in, and you throw up your hands and move on to just staring at TikTok all day or whatever you might do. And at the same time, if you bleed into the conspiracy theory side of things, same outcome.”Tim Ferriss
  • Carlin also did an episode about the technology of World War II with Elon Musk, and Niall thought it was brilliant. Elon knows plenty about the tech of World War II
    • Engineering was a significant factor in the outcome of World War II

Books Based on Unpublished Material

  • Part of what’s attractive about the historical study is reading the letters and diaries of the dead or very, and the non-published material
    • “If you inhabit the world of the published, which many historians do, that is to say, they essentially write their books on the basis of things that have been published, whether it’s books or articles, you are really doing research at one remove from reality.”Niall Ferguson
  • There’s a vast difference between writing a book based on published material and writing a book based on unpublished material
  • Niall sees more value in books based on unpublished material because that which is published is filtered
    • A massive filter has determined what sees the light of day in print
    • When you enter an archive, the only filter is that nobody destroyed it and somebody thought to preserve it
    • It’s not a perfect representation of reality, but it’s a lot closer than the published material

How Cold War II Could Turn Into World War III

  • “We’re in a new cold war, in Cold War II. And if we don’t think long and hard about what went right and what went wrong in Cold War I, there is a high probability that we are going to repeat some pretty serious mistakes.”Niall Ferguson
  • The ideological rivalry between US and China
    • There is a technological race going on- geopolitical dimension and the conventional territorial dimension
    • US and China have been in this cold war situation for at least four years 
  • Cold War I had some similarities with Cold War II, but we shouldn’t expect things to play out the same 
    • The war in Ukraine is like the Korean War — the first hot war of Cold War II
    • The hot war happens in an unexpected location, the same as in Cold War I
    • Instead of a nuclear arms race, we’re in an AI race and a quantum computing race
    • There’s much more economic interpenetration between the US and China than there ever was between the US and the Soviet Union
  • Guesses about what happens next in global politics
    • Niall thinks that if one does makes a correct prediction; it’s more due to luck than judgment—it’s a system of enormous complexity 
    • To say anything about global politics at this point is to engage in an exercise beyond our brains
    • Right now, the US and China are on a collision course over Taiwan 
    • Taiwan is to this cold war what Cuba was to the last cold war—the flash point
    • Then, it was close to the US. This time, it’s close to China 
  • Taiwan seems to be worth more than its territorial size would suggest. Taiwan’s more important than Cuba ever was because Taiwan is where TSMC manufactures 92% of the most sophisticated semiconductors in the world 
    • According to Niall, the potential for a crisis over Taiwan is higher than the potential ever was for a crisis over Cuba 
    • “So I think what happens next is that we end up with a showdown over Taiwan at some point in the next few years. Could be in 2024 when there’s an election scheduled in Taiwan.” – Niall Ferguson
  • Another characteristic feature of Cold War I was that crises would happen in multiple locations at around the same time
    • The Middle East always mattered, and it was the place where things would periodically blow up 
    • He thinks the Middle East is about to blow up again because the Iranian regime clearly has the incentive to get into a war and manage domestic opposition with much greater ease
    • We are probably going to see a Middle Eastern crisis even before Taiwan blows up 
  • The lesson of Cold War I is that we barely avoided World War III
    • “So if we’re in this kind of a scenario where there are crises in Eastern Europe, potentially in the Middle East, potentially in the Far East, I think just keeping this a cold war will be quite a challenge.”Nial Fergusson

In Defence of Applied History, Founding Greenmantle

  • For the last decade, Niall has been trying to apply history to contemporary problems and advise people in decision-making positions
    • He created Greenmantle— an advisory business seeking to understand the world via history
    • Niall also talks to the people who make policy—he is always willing to go to Washington or London and share his thoughts with people who make complex decisions with very little time 
  • How Niall’s toolkit for enacting change has evolved over the years
    • Doing it with a team rather than by himself—it’s too complicated for a single person to fit it all together and know enough 
    • The quality of analysis is better than it was pre-Greenmantle when he was doing everything alone
    • When he created Greenmantle, his goal was to hire the brightest students to work with him and see if applying history could work
    • A crucial aspect was encouraging his team to disagree when they thought he was wrong
    • Most of what he says on these subjects is informed by the work of younger, more intelligent people
      • E.g., the idea of Cold War II hit him because Greenmantle was doing some work on Huawei, and he saw a map of the world that showed which countries are using Huawei technology
      • In Niall’s mind, that was a cold war map

Thoughts on Fatherhood and Christianity

  • Niall was very adamant about reading to his children to get them to make books a big part of life
    • Nowadays, as children grow up, there are more distractions than there were in their day
    • Parents need to make a concentrated effort to make sure their kids get into the habit of reading books
    • Almost all the accumulated wisdom of the human species is in books
  • “The relationship you have with your children is more important than anything else. And on your tombstone, it doesn’t say “wrote 150 emails a day, or closed X deals,” or it doesn’t say “published 16 books.” That’s not what the gravestones say. They talk about whether you were a good son, whether you were a good husband and whether you were a good father.”Niall Ferguson
  • Why someone raised as an atheist takes his kids to church
    • The choral tradition in Anglicanism is one of Niall’s favorite things- consolation and social connections
    • Even though Niall was raised without religion, he takes his children to church to make sure they are educated in Christianity, as well as other belief systems
  • Dominion by Tom Holland
    • Although we think we are secular, we are still a Christian society 
    • Everything gets embellished by Christian beliefs – issues like climate change, fears of the apocalypse-the millenarian mindset is deeply rooted in Christianity
  • “If you can use the Bible as a way of helping your children find their way to being good, then I think that’s to be encouraged, even if you were as skeptical as I am about the existence of God, the possibility of an afterlife, all the rest of it.”Niall Ferguson
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