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 (#634)

“One of the things that’s exciting about the study of history is you are trying to remind yourself again and again that what happened, that what we know happened, might have gone the other way. That the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in both sides essentially backing down was not predetermined. There was a moment when a Soviet submarine commander gave the order to fire a nuclear torpedo at US naval surface ships, so we came within a hair’s breadth of World War III. These alternate worlds, these histories that didn’t happen, have to be alive in your mind when you are writing history. The fatal mistake is to write history as if it were bound to happen the way it happened.”

— Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson (@nfergus), MA, DPhil, FRSE, 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 16 books, including The Pity of WarThe House of RothschildEmpireCivilization, and Kissinger, 1923–1968: The Idealist, which won the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Prize.

He is an award-winning filmmaker, too, having won an International Emmy for his PBS series The Ascent of Money. His 2018 book, The Square and the Tower, was a New York Times bestseller and also adapted for television by PBS as Niall Ferguson’s Networld. In 2020 he joined Bloomberg Opinion as a columnist.

In addition, he is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, a New York-based advisory firm; a co-founder of Ualá, a Latin American financial technology company; and a trustee of the New York Historical Society, the London-based Centre for Policy Studies, and the newly founded University of Austin.

His latest book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, was published last year by Penguin and was shortlisted for the Lionel Gelber Prize. 

Please enjoy!

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#634: 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

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Want to hear another episode about the geopolitical framework of current events? Have a listen to my most recent conversation with Noah Feldman, in which we discuss free speech in the age of social media, AR vs. VR, the dollar’s status as a reserve currency, and much more.

#608: Signal Over Noise with Noah Feldman — The War in Ukraine (Recap and Predictions), The Machiavelli of Maryland, Best Books to Understand Geopolitics, The Battles for Free Speech on Social Media, Metaverse Challenges, and More

What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…

SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE

  • Connect with Niall Ferguson:

Website | Twitter

SHOW NOTES

  • [05:45] How Niall’s multi-faceted career has gone according to plan.
  • [08:00] The license to be outrageous in academia ain’t what it used to be.
  • [14:53] High table, dregs of Château Lafite, and hyperbolic references.
  • [20:26] A.J.P. Taylor and the philosophy of history.
  • [25:00] How does a historian find an “ear” for historical resonance?
  • [29:48] What Niall would ask A.J.P. if they were Château Lafite drinking buddies.
  • [34:30] An appetite for tweed.
  • [36:40] Historical contingency.
  • [43:40] A.J.P. Taylor reading for beginners and counterfactual history.
  • [46:41] Dan Carlin, Elon Musk, and Gavrilo Princip.
  • [48:39] What Niall gets out of digging deep into historical correspondence.
  • [54:04] Cold War II — what can we do?
  • [1:10:44] Keeping Cold War II from heating up into World War III.
  • [1:16:37] Economic interdependence does not preclude conflict.
  • [1:20:02] Ways Niall is using his grasp of history to change the world for the better.
  • [1:26:11] How Niall’s toolkit for enacting change has evolved over the years.
  • [1:28:55] Thoughts on fatherhood.
  • [1:36:15] Why someone raised as an atheist takes his kids to church.
  • [1:42:42] Has marriage to ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali changed Niall’s view of Western philosophy?
  • [1:46:22] Life under fatwa.
  • [1:51:00] Parting thoughts.

MORE NIALL FERGUSON QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW

“You have to talk about what didn’t happen to understand what did happen, obviously.”

— Niall Ferguson

” I used to call myself a punktory, because I had been a schoolboy when the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene in 1976. Three years later, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and she was almost as infuriating to many people as Johnny Rotten.”

— Niall Ferguson

“Somebody threw a party to celebrate the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles to Western Europe. And the invitation was the neck of a champagne bottle with a mushroom cloud coming out of it. That was one of the milder things that we did. At that time, there were very limited downside risks to being obnoxious.”

— Niall Ferguson

“The philosophy of history is barely studied or indeed taught. And yet you can’t really be an historian without a philosophy of history. You have to understand the nature of causation. These days, nobody bothers with that, which is why a lot of academic history is garbage.”

— Niall Ferguson

“History’s not a science. It can’t be a science because we can’t rerun events in laboratory and see if, consistently, war breaks out in 1939 with or without Hitler. … 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. Yeah, I think it’s much closer to music than it is to science.”

— Niall Ferguson

“The best historians have that ability to bring the experiences of the dead alive, bring them back to life, make you empathize with them, despite the distance in time and in space and in experience.”

— Niall Ferguson

“One of the things that’s exciting about the study of history is you are trying to remind yourself again and again that what happened, that what we know happened, might have gone the other way. That the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in both sides essentially backing down was not predetermined. There was a moment when a Soviet submarine commander gave the order to fire a nuclear torpedo at US naval surface ships, so we came within a hair’s breadth of World War III. These alternate worlds, these histories that didn’t happen, have to be alive in your mind when you are writing history. The fatal mistake is to write history as if it were bound to happen the way it happened.”

— Niall Ferguson

“As a jazz fan, I think history has to have that kind of Thelonious Monk feel to it where you’re telling the reader, ‘This didn’t happen, but it nearly did, and people at the time thought about it.’ This is the key rule, by the way. You can’t just fantasize and devise counterfactuals that are entirely out of your imagination. You have to go with things that people at the time thought might happen. That’s a really important guardrail on counterfactual history.”

— Niall Ferguson

“Economic interdependence does not preclude conflict.”

— Niall Ferguson

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One Reply to “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 (#634)”

  1. Excellent interview on so many fronts. The emphaisis on primary sources of information is so important in this day and age when so many people never get beyond the topsoil….