Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Niall Ferguson (@nfergus), MA, DPhil, FRSE, 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 War, The House of Rothschild, Empire, Civilization, 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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. I’m going to skip my preamble to get to the guest today, Niall Ferguson. You can find him on Twitter @nfergus, F-E-R-G-U-S. MA, DPhil, FRSE—we may get into what that is—is the Millbank 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’s the author of 16 books, good Lord, that’s a lot of books, including The Pity of War, The House of Rothschild, Empire, Civilization, and Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist, which won the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Prize. He’s 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 Center for Policy Studies, and the newly founded University of Austin. His latest book, Doom, subtitled, The Politics of Catastrophe, was published last year by Penguin and was shortlisted for the Lionel Gerber Prize. Niall, so nice to see you. Thanks for making the time.
Niall Ferguson: Good to be with you, Tim. And guilty as charged, all that you just said is true and I cannot deny it.
Tim Ferriss: All of the things and we are going to unpack all sorts of bits and pieces of that. And I wanted to start with an observation, and you can correct this observation if it’s an illusion, a mirage, a misreading of the facts. Noah Feldman says hello, by the way, as a side note and —
Niall Ferguson: Hello back to Noah.
Tim Ferriss: And that is, he put into words something that has struck me about your career and that is that it’s not really one career. You have at least three careers, so a major historian, so the best of the best, played the ivory tower game brilliantly well, then public historian/public intellectual, we could parse out or relabel any number of those. And then afterwards, you have advisory firms and the company involvement and so on. The first question I want to ask related to this, and certainly you can revise that, but what was your first experience in reaching a broader public with your ideas, outside of academia?
Niall Ferguson: I always felt that if I was going to be a historian, it should not be for some tiny exclusive audience confined to ivory towers, whether in Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard. My hero when I was a schoolboy was a British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, who not only wrote terrific books, I think the first history book I remember engaging with was his illustrated history of the First World War. But he also would write newspaper columns and do lectures on television and get into public rows. And that always struck me as a highly attractive way of life.
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. I never aspired to be a dry as dust academic at all. In fact, it’s striking how successful I’ve executed a plan that I hatched when I was a teenager.
Tim Ferriss: This leads into, I suppose the question maybe even part answered it, which is, let me set the table by saying, I have a lot of involvement with friends in academia, with researchers who are de facto involved in academic settings, and there’s a lot of fear-based career planning in those circles, sort of seeking a prestige and social support or endorsement. You seem to have been a skeptic of whatever container people have attempted to put you within and have become an iconoclast in many respects. Is that lack of fear, what appears to be a lack of fear, something that was developed? Is it simply because you had already hatched a plan to leave the confines, for instance, in the one case of academia, therefore you weren’t worried about them booting you out. Where does that openness to criticizing what’s around you come from?
Niall Ferguson: Well, you have to remember that I’m old, I’m 58. When my career —
Tim Ferriss: You’ve been at it for a while though.
Niall Ferguson: Yeah, but the launch zone in the mid 1980s when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, was very different compared with the launch zone at a Harvard or a Yale or a Stanford today. And I’m not sure it’s possible to be me today. In fact, it almost certainly isn’t. We forget that the 1980s were a high point of academic freedom, because academic freedom’s not something that’s always been there, it had to kind of be fought for, in the later 20th Century. And I was one of the beneficiaries of a tremendous climate of intellectual freedom in Britain in the ’80s. The battles had really been fought in the ’60s and ’70s or earlier. And we took for granted that we could say the most outrageous things, calculatedly offensive things, and pay no price. 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.
And I loved that. I just loved the fact the Sex Pistols shook up music and she shook up politics. And I arrived at Oxford in the early ’80s at the same time as my old friend Andrew Sullivan. And we were just odious. We were just the most obnoxious, the most obnoxious young men. And we took pride in our outrageous discourse, as it would be called today. There was a famous occasion when somebody threw a, well it wasn’t famous, it was famous to us, 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. And that was one of the milder things that we did. At that time, there were very limited downside risks to being obnoxious and I think that was true in the US too.
I said to Peter Thiel the other day, “You couldn’t be you now. 18-year-old Peter Thiel now would be kind of destroyed on the launchpad, whereas you could be as obnoxious as we were at Oxford, at Stanford, and actually positively benefit from it.” There were some risks to going into the academic profession even then though, because there’s a period in your academic career, even in the 1980s, when you’re capable of being destroyed on the launchpad, because you do need people to write letters of reference and you do need committees to give you jobs and you need them also to agree to publish your first book, all that stuff. And so I’ll give you an example of my risk averse behavior. I did a lot of journalism in the ’80s when I was a graduate student. I couldn’t have afforded to do a PhD otherwise because I really had no money beyond a very meager scholarship.
And I was doing research in Germany, which was quite expensive in those days for a British student. And so I did a lot of journalism, but I did it under assumed names. There was a chap named Alec Campbell. There was F.F. Gillespie who wrote for Punch magazine. And for several years, I led a double life, where Niall Ferguson was the somewhat right-leaning, but terribly rigorous scholar, but these other personas would be writing, even for the Daily Mail, which was a really scandalous thing for an aspiring academic to do. And I would say, I can remember quite early on, an old rival of mine, going around telling everybody that in fact, Alec Campbell was me and those wire why pieces in the Daily Mail were by me, and I probably —
Tim Ferriss: Pause for a second —
Niall Ferguson: He thought that would kill me and it didn’t.
Tim Ferriss: What was the blood feud between you and this arch rival? What was he hoping to gain? Was he hoping to gain from this or just simply annihilate you by outing this scandal of identity flak jackets that you’ve been using?
Niall Ferguson: Well, Maurice Cowling, one of the great conservative historians of Cambridge, once characterized the three virtues in life as irony, geniality, and malice and I think my contemporary was motivated by all three. It wasn’t that he was meditating career extinction, it was just a combination of irony, geniality, and malice. He presumably was sitting at high table and there was a lull of the conversation and he said, “Oh, by the way, did you know that that awful Alec Campbell in the Daily Mail is really Niall Ferguson?” And I do remember being seized by panic when I realized that he’d outed me. But by that point, I think I’d got far enough up the ladder —
Tim Ferriss: You’ve reached escape velocity on some level.
Niall Ferguson: Just about, or maybe there’s another theory about this, which I’ll briefly share. In those days, you’ve got to remember that before the internet, communications were really quite terrible in the horizontal domain. You had vertical communication, you could listen to the BBC if they didn’t ban your single, you could do that. But Oxford and Cambridge didn’t communicate very much. And so you could be outed in Oxford but still get a job in Cambridge because the news have not in fact traveled across the country in the same way that my mentor, Norman Stone got a job in Oxford, despite having behaved quite outrageously in Cambridge. But his Cambridge backers were really trying to export him to Oxford, so they perjured themselves in their letters of reference. And no one in Oxford really bothered to pick up a phone and say, “Is any of this true?” I think what really happened was that I was outed in Oxford, but in the nick of time, got a job in Cambridge and was able to start a new life with a clean sheet.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to make a confession as a knuckle-dragging Long Islander. I don’t actually know what high table is or the high table. I can imagine in my mind some British high society function, maybe with some fantastic adult beverages. But what image should high table conjure in my mind?
Niall Ferguson: Well, you’re right about the beverages. You’ve watched some Harry Potter movies.
Tim Ferriss: I have, yes.
Niall Ferguson: That’s all you need to know. It’s basically the case that Hogwarts is a sort of entertaining amalgam of Eaton and an Oxford College, quite a lot of it’s actually shot at Christ Church. And you’ll remember that when they have their spectacular feasts, the teachers sit on a slightly elevated dais with a big long table. And not Gandalf, wrong —
Tim Ferriss: It does look like whiskers.
Niall Ferguson: I get Dumble —
Tim Ferriss: Dumbledore.
Niall Ferguson: Dumbledore, I get my children’s fiction confused because I have to watch so much of it. Dumbledore gives his speeches from that high table. And if you go to dinner at Christ Church, essentially you will see a version of Hogwarts, slightly less visually striking, but the same basic idea. And the thing that’s attractive about Ox and Cambridge, if you come from Glasgow, remember, you think Long Island is—
Tim Ferriss: A backwater?
Niall Ferguson: —low? Let me tell you about Glasgow.
I came from what was once one of the great industrial metropoles of the British Empire, but by the 1970s was Rust Belt. We were doing Hillbilly Elegy before J.D. Vance was even born, I think. And it was quite a messy place. And Oxford, by comparison, just looked like a really high-end BBC costume drama, in which the men wore tweed suits and they dined at high table. And at high table the most delicious wines were served. And all of this was irresistibly attractive to me when I was a teenager. I thought, “I’m going to get out of Glasgow and I’m going to have a study like that and I’m going to eat at high table and wear a tweed suit,” and I did those things and it was great.
Tim Ferriss: Did it live up to the dreams?
Niall Ferguson: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: What did you like about it?
Niall Ferguson: In those days, when I made it first to high table, it was in Cambridge and I was at Christ’s College that had been immortalized in a novel, The Masters, by C.P. Snow in which Cambridge politics provides the drama and academic politics has its own peculiar appeal as Henry Kissinger famously said, “It’s so poisonous because the stakes are so low,” very good line.
Tim Ferriss: Now you are actually of good authority to say, did Kissinger also say, “I left academics because I couldn’t stand the politics,” something along those lines. Or is that just one of those attributed to Abraham Lincoln or Oscar Wilde quotes floating around on the internet?
Niall Ferguson: Oh no, Kissinger has said so many things that you deny he said something and the next day you find it in one of the documents, so he probably said that, but it certainly fits. But I got to Christ’s and there were in fact three masters, two former masters and one current serving master, regularly dining at high table. And the vicious way in which the former masters undermined the serving master was my introduction to academic politics. Luckily one of the former masters was Sir John Plumb, Jack Plumb, a very influential historian of that generation. He had come from humble origins in the town of Leicester, but had risen through the academic ranks, had been involved at Bletchley Park during the war, had got to know the Rothschild family and had been introduced to the delights of Château Lafite by the Rothschilds and he used to serve Château Lafite at special occasions —
Tim Ferriss: This is the nice wine I assume?
Niall Ferguson: It’s one of the great Bordeaux.
Tim Ferriss: Oh my goodness, of course.
Niall Ferguson: Not available in Long Island, but I’m in Glasgow, but available in Cambridge. And so I fell in with him and he would on his 85th birthday, serve some fantastic vintage. And the younger dons, the engineering fellows would sort of take a couple of sips and then leave most of it undrunk and go back to the laboratories. And this would send Jack into a rage, he would seethe. He was a very cantankerous old man. And I, as the junior-most fellow, I remember on one occasion I was such a shameless sycophant, but also with a taste for Château Lafite. I said after they’d all gone, I said, “Jack, it’s a terrible shame to waste this wine. I’m going to drink the dregs from the glasses that they’ve left.” And he loved me for that. And I also lived to tell the tale. None of them had any obviously lethal infectious diseases. And it’s the most wonderful wine. And once you’ve drunk Lafite, it’s hard to go back to what you were drinking before.
Tim Ferriss: You’re spoiled, spoiled for life. That scene should make it into a screenplay at the turn of some act, that is a fantastic scene. “May I drink the dregs?”
Niall Ferguson: It was a good —
Tim Ferriss: “Would it please you if I were to drink the dregs?”
Niall Ferguson: It was a good move because Jack Plumb was one of the great academic patrons. Simon Schama was one of Jack’s proteges and Linda Colley. And so by sucking up to Jack, I did my career no harm at all. Because when Jack wrote a reference, when he wrote a letter of reference, he would begin, “Not since Edward Gibbon has a historian written at this level of quality.” Wildly hyperbolic references. Yeah, academic politics involves that kind of odious behavior. And I’m afraid I was capable of it in my twenties. Still am.
Tim Ferriss: Skilled, one might say. Let’s go back to A.J.P. Taylor. Number of questions about A.J.P. Taylor. I had never heard this name, I’m ashamed to admit, until doing some research for this conversation. And number of questions again with the baseline of Long Island kept in mind, because these are probably going to be fairly one-on-one questions. One is, how should people think about defining philosophy of history? That’s number one. And number two is the Taylor line related to historical sensibility being similar to musical sensibility, and if you could just say more about that.
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. I became fascinated by the philosophy of history at that time when I was drinking Château Lafite with Jack Plumb and realized that there was a very central problem, namely that any causal statement, this is obvious to philosophers and it’s obvious to people who do the law, implies a counterfactual. In other words, if we say that the conversation between Tim Ferriss and Niall Ferguson in November 2022 led to the outbreak of war between China and the United States the following year, that implies that if we hadn’t had the conversation, the war wouldn’t have happened. And so the what-if question, “Well, what if they hadn’t had the conversation?” is a legitimate question.
In the same way, if you think that Hitler was the key architect of World War II and it wouldn’t have happened without him, then it’s legitimate to ask, “What would’ve happened if Hitler had in fact been assassinated prior to September 1939?” Those what-if questions were of great importance to me as a young scholar and teacher, that was how I used to teach students. I would say, “Well what if that hadn’t happened? What if Britain hadn’t intervened in 1914?” Taylor was a historian who was sympathetic to that approach. His view was a somewhat skeptical, ironical view that men only learn from history how to make new mistakes. And his books are shot through with the role of contingency. One of the things that made Taylor attractive to me in parentheses, was his brilliant pro style up there with George Orwell as one of the master stylists of the 20th Century.
And a tremendous master of paradox and of one-liners too. The line about the 1848 revolutions as being the turning point when Germany failed to turn. All that stuff I found exciting because being able to write like that is also the way to convince a reader, to be able to talk like that is to convince an audience, so that’s how the philosophy of history relates to the style of history.
The second question that you asked about music, his assertion that the historical sensibility is a bit like the receptiveness to music is right. 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. So what we’re doing when we studied the past as a great Oxford philosopher of history, R.G. Collingwood said, is, “We’re kind of reconstituting past human experience from the bits and pieces that have been left behind. And as we do that, it’s a very subtle process of mental reenactment of experience.”
And I’m not sure that Taylor was wrong to compare it to that musical side of the human psyche. Interestingly, as someone else said much the same thing, a man named Fritz Kraemer, who was Henry Kissinger’s great mentor during and after World War II and Kraemer said that Kissinger had this kind of sensibility. He was attuned to history. I think that’s very, very right. You’ve got to have that the ear for it. And 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.
Tim Ferriss: How does that show up for you having a trained ear in historical resonance, let’s just say, the ear for history? How does that show up when it is part of an author’s constitution or developed repertoire? What does it look like in their writing or their thinking?
Niall Ferguson: When I was writing the history of the Rothschild banks and family back in the 1990s, I spent a lot of my time reading through dusty old letters and diary entries and minutes of meetings. And the most striking documents were the letters that the Rothschild brothers wrote to one another. There were five of them. They’d come out of the Frankfurt ghetto. They had built, within an amazingly short time, the most powerful financial institution in Europe, already by the 1820s. And they wrote almost daily to one another because they no longer lived together. One was in London, one was in Paris, one was in Vienna, one was in Naples, and one was in Frankfurt. And so these letters were almost more like phone calls and they were extremely hard to decipher because they wrote in Hebrew characters, which were extremely difficult to read, even if you knew Hebrew. The only way I could access the letters was to have a scholar who could read them, a wonderful man named Mordechai Zucker, read them aloud onto audio cassettes.
And so I spent a lot of time listening to these letters. And when he read them aloud, they were mostly German with occasional Hebrew words. They were electrifying documents. They cast an entirely new light on the 19th Century and they were entirely absorbing, not least because they were so regular, so it was very high frequency correspondence. And I can remember one letter, and I’ll never forget the experience of hearing it, in which the eldest of the brothers whose name was Amschel, described what it was like for the first time to own land. He bought a garden on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Prior to that, Jews had not been allowed to own real estate. And he, as a result of the upheavals caused by the French Revolution, suddenly was able to do that. And he writes to the brothers saying, “I bought the garden. And last night I slept in it. I slept outside in the garden.”
And he described the feeling, and I remember, and it still makes my spine tingle, the feeling of excitement that this quite dry man — because he was almost had the mentality of the accountant amongst the brothers — but this quite dry man had done that. He’d slept outdoors for the first time in a garden that he owned. And I was moved to tears and I thought, “What is this like? Why is this such a moving document?” And I remembered the moment in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” when the prisoners are let out into the open air, he actually uses the expression “freier Luft”—”free air”—and that prisoner’s chorus, when they sing what it is to be in the open air, struck me as exactly the appropriate music for that moment. And I remember putting it on my then stereo player and listening to Beethoven and listening again to the letter and thinking, “This is an enormously important document which captures what emancipation means, what it is to be suddenly given a civil right that you’ve previously been denied.”
And often in my career, I’ve had these epiphanies, moments when a document suddenly reveals something profound and often that moment of connection has a musical dimension to it. 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. And that’s a hard thing to do. And not many people can do it well. Indeed, many historians these days don’t even try because they don’t feel that our mission is to reconstitute past experience. They feel that our mission is to go back and judge people in the past for their sins by our standards. And that means that there’s a project which I think is very hostile to historical understanding, to change the mission of the historian, instead of trying to reconstitute past experience, we are really just sitting there, passing judgments on past actions. I’m very against that. I think it produces very bad history. It also produces quite boring history.
Tim Ferriss: If we go back to A.J.P., what did A.J.P. stand for? Actually, I should know this, but —
Niall Ferguson: AlanTaylor, I forget —
Tim Ferriss: Alan.
Niall Ferguson: — probably John Percivale, but I might be wrong. But he was known as Alan to his intimates. But in those days, people quite often published with only their initials, created perhaps a certain distance between the author and the public. I never contemplated being N.C. Ferguson, though. It’s just too off-putting, isn’t it?
Tim Ferriss: Non-Commissioned Officer Ferguson. I do like it, though. Dr. Taylor said, as you mentioned, mentally learned from history how to make new mistakes. Now he seems, I don’t know this person at all, but as you describe, being a master of paradox, also being a wordsmith and gifted in that particular way, that there may be some truth in this statement, but he also dedicated his life to history. If you got a few drinks, a few glasses of Château Lafite into Dr. Taylor and said, “All right, look, I know that’s a great line, but why is history important to you? Why have you dedicated your life to this?” How do you think he might answer that?
Niall Ferguson: I’m pretty sure he was Mr. Taylor, in those days, people didn’t bother getting doctorates.
Tim Ferriss: Just —
Niall Ferguson: They were regarded as —
Tim Ferriss: I’m using “doctor” more in the Dr. Seuss capacity.
Niall Ferguson: The English regarded doctorates as a German invention that one didn’t need to sully one’s life with.
Tim Ferriss: Mr. Taylor.
Niall Ferguson: Perhaps wisely. Taylor’s conviction was that most people thought wrongly about the past, had misconceptions about it, and these misconceptions led them into error. One of the most controversial books he ever wrote was a book on the origins of the Second World War, in which he argued very paradoxically as a contrarian that really Hitler had not been a particularly unusual German leader and that Hitler’s foreign policy had in some ways been the continuation of previous foreign policies, and that the war was really the fault of the blundering incompetents in London and Paris who had made the policy of appeasement and had pursued it very ineptly. The book is still worth reading even although these days, most people would disagree with Taylor because they would argue, as I would argue, that Hitler was a kind of monster whose ideology and whose personality were very unusual and a departure from German tradition. At any event, the book is brilliant and it’s designed to force you to reassess your assumptions about why World War II happened.
I’m motivated by the same belief that most people think wrong things about the past and base their actions on these erroneous assumptions. And the job of the historian is to challenge the conventional wisdom about past events in the belief that the conventional wisdom’s actually quite a dangerous thing. So it’s to me uninteresting to write a book that essentially repeats the arguments that have been made before. I have no motivation to write a book unless it’s challenging what people have thought about the past, whether it’s the origins of the First World War, which I wrote a book about, whether it’s the nature of 20th century conflict, whether it’s the history of money. Whatever it is, I’m motivated to say something that challenges received opinion in the belief that by doing that, I might possibly improve decision-making in the present and future.
I believe, and I’ve always believed, that we are trying to learn lessons from the past. And when Taylor said that men only learn from the past how to make new mistakes, he wasn’t dismissing the possibility of learning from history, but he was being ironical. It’s probably right that no matter how hard we try, we’ll end up making new mistakes. But that’s not a counsel of despair. And I passionately believe that the study of history must be motivated by a desire to do better or at least to fail better next time. So that I think is what you’d have got from Taylor if you’d plied him with Château Lafite, although Taylor would’ve resisted your very American impulse to get a sincere answer. And I am enough of an American now to give sincere answers, but the typical British dawn of Taylor’s generation would’ve just — he would not have been able to resist the temptation to tease you.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe I need more of that. Maybe I should spend more time at the high table.
Niall Ferguson: I can arrange that.
Tim Ferriss: You have given me an appetite for some tweed, I will be honest.
Niall Ferguson: It’s good in winter. The thing about tweed is it’s there for places where there’s no central heating. And these Oxford colleges, their buildings often date back to before the Reformation. It wasn’t as if England was famous for its central heating, even in the 20th century. And so to understand the tweed suit as a phenomenon, you have to remember these studies are pretty cold, even if you’ve got a fire in the grate. Now that we are heading towards another energy crisis, I believe the tweed suit will recover, maybe not in the United States, but in England. Pretty soon there’s going to be a run on tweed suits.
Tim Ferriss: You heard it here first, folks. Alpha, Niall Ferguson is long tweed.
Niall Ferguson: Long tweed.
Tim Ferriss: So a few just miscellanea. Mordechai, incredible name. Always one of my favorites. You mentioned Percivale. That may not have been the P of the A.J.P., but also a fantastic name. Could you say a bit more about the role of contingency, I guess the throughline, one of the throughlines, of Taylor’s writing? And you can answer these out of order, of course. For someone who wanted to get a good taste of his writing because your description of paradox and the use of paradox and powerful metaphor and prose is really appealing to me. Where would you suggest someone start or where would you suggest perhaps I start?
Niall Ferguson: Well, I’ll give you a couple of examples of historical contingency. First, the decision for war in 1914 was taken in Britain on a weekend, which was an unusual time for the British cabinet to meet. And when they went into the meeting, I think it’s fair to say that nobody really knew how it would turn out. In particular, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, was expected to be against intervention because he had been a man of the left, and it was not obvious that intervening in the war was a particularly left liberal thing to do. There were plenty of people in the cabinet who had deep reservations about intervening in the war, and it was seen as something that the conservators were much more enthusiastic for. And so people expected Lloyd George to speak up against intervention. He’d already given indications prior to August second that he had doubts about the wisdom of action.
But he didn’t. Even although he was handed a note by one of his cabinet colleagues encouraging him to speak up, he had decided that it would ultimately be better for David Lloyd George if Britain went to war. And he was right because he ended up becoming Prime Minister during the war because Herbert Asquith had descended into a kind of alcoholic fog. That’s a good example of how one individual’s action or lack of action can have very profound consequences. And I wrote a lot about that in The Pity Of War and in the book Virtual History because I think it’s important for people to understand that while there are great historical forces at work, there were powerful forces driving Europe towards conflict prior to 1914, there is a very important role for contingency, and that continues to be true today. And once you think about the historical process — and in a similar way, let me give you a contemporary example.
Tim Ferriss: May I pause just for one sec? So in terms of contingency, just the use of that word, I think of contingency in the context of say contingency plan. In this case, do you mean it’s a split test with an alternate version of historical reality where someone did or did not do something, did or did not play a part in a given conversation? Is that what you mean by contingency?
Niall Ferguson: Contingency here means a relatively small event or decision. And it doesn’t need to be a decision. It can be something accidental, has very major consequences. And historical causations like that, something relatively small, can have tremendous ramifications. I’ll give you another illustration. This year, most people, including the US government, thought that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian government would quite quickly fold, and it was assumed that Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, would bail. He didn’t. He gave his famous response, “I don’t want an air ticket. I want ammunition.” And Zelenskyy’s courage when they were closing in on Kyiv with a high probability that they would assassinate, the Russians turned the course of history in a way that I think is now quite widely understood.
People know Zelenskyy is an important historical figure. He gets a lot of attention because he is a charismatic figure who understands how to use modern media to communicate with an audience. That’s the benefit of having a very seasoned entertainer as your president. But I think what’s really important there is that his courage, particularly the famous video selfie video where he says, “I’m here. The defense minister is here. We’re here.” They’re standing in the streets of Kyiv. The Russians are closing in at that point on the capital. That was a tremendous act of courage. But it emboldened ordinary Ukrainians not to fold, and it also intimidated the collaborators who were ready to help the Russians, not to act. So the contingency there is if Zelenskyy had gone according to our expectation and taken the plane, then Putin would’ve had Kyiv within a matter of days or weeks, and the war would be over.
So I think 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 was bound to happen the way it happened. And this, of course, is the mistake that a great majority of historians make. Forgetting that, we don’t know at the time, at the moment, we didn’t know the morning of the 24th of February that Zelenskyy would stand his ground. Nobody knew that. I wonder if even Zelenskyy at that moment knew what it was that he was going to do.
So I say all this because 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 removes that passivity that sometimes people succumb to. If you think great historical forces are going to have inevitable outcomes, if you have a deterministic view of the historical process, it’s very easy to lapse into fatalism. There’s the other trap, which is the conspiracy theories. “Well, the truth of the matter is that actually, Soros and the Rothschilds are orchestrating all this.” Again, you throw up your hands and you abandon the attempt to understand how the historical process works. Okay. What should one read to get a flavor of Alan Taylor’s extraordinary talent? He developed —
Tim Ferriss: You have a very good short-term memory, by the way. You have a very good short-term memory.
Niall Ferguson: I do my best.
Tim Ferriss: Please continue.
Niall Ferguson: Taylor’s masterpiece is quite a dense read, and I wouldn’t recommend it, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe. That’s the book I most admire, but it’s probably the last thing to start with. It’s —
Tim Ferriss: The widowmaker.
Niall Ferguson: Yeah. I mean, I love the book, but I’m a little idiosyncratic. I like long and dense books. But the essays that he wrote, which were often book reviews, are available in paperback collections. In the old days, they used to publish the essays of historians. I wish they still did because I would’ve many more books to my credit if I could just repackage my essays as books. But his books of essays are really worth reading. In the same way that if you want to get to Orwell, don’t just read Animal Farm and 1984. Read Orwell’s amazing essays. There are four fantastic volumes of Orwell’s essays. And he and Taylor between them were just such masters of short form English prose. You will just feel like you are eating Turkish delight as you read your way through their essays.
Tim Ferriss: Just in the vein of adding to your tally of books published, if the book doesn’t exist with the title, The Histories that Didn’t Happen, just saying, has a nice ring to it, a bit of alliteration, easy to grasp, not too abstract. In any case, I just —
Niall Ferguson: Lewis Namier was a great Cambridge historian who said that the key to history was having a sense of what didn’t happen. And I always think of Thelonious Monk’s line about jazz. “It’s the notes you don’t play.” And 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. The fancy term for what-if history or histories that didn’t happen is counterfactual history. And I’m a passionate believer in it.
And I’m proud to say that despite my making the argument for counterfactual history back in the 1990s, that’s a long time ago now, it’s still counterculture. It’s still what the cool kids do in history, and the establishment still looks down on it. I used to be annoyed about that. I used to think, “Why don’t they understand? Why do these people not see you have to talk about what didn’t happen?” And now I’m glad that it’s still cool and minority and underground. That’s fine with me. You established historians carry on doing what you are doing. You carry on saying, “We are only here to study what did happen.” You carry on doing that. But just know that the cool kids have seen through this and they know that it’s really BS. You have to talk about what didn’t happen to understand what did happen, obviously.
Tim Ferriss: Or all the things that so nearly didn’t happen. And I’m no historian. I make no claims otherwise. Don’t play one on the internet. However, I did listen. Don’t know how you feel about this podcast, but I have enjoyed many episodes of Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, who would not call himself a historian either, but he did an episode on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and everything that came of that. And when you dig into the specifics, I mean, it is just mind-boggling to think how that came about and how many near-misses. It just boggles the mind to think how as you put, 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. But I need to do more reading. Part of what you describe —
Niall Ferguson: By the way, Dan Carlin is great. Dan Carlin is great. I love what he does. I haven’t heard that particular episode, but anything that gets a wider audience for history is good. And I recently heard his great interview with Elon Musk about the technology of World War II. It’s brilliant, and it’s brilliant partly because Elon knows a lot about the hardware of World War II. And so you think of World War II, it’s an engineering problem in the end. It’s like, who can build better planes, better tanks, all that stuff? But Carlin’s doing terrific work. And yeah, you’re right. 1914 is a perfect illustration because Princip, the assassin, totally fails the first time. And how many assassins get a second chance because the driver of the target takes the wrong turning? That’s —
Tim Ferriss: And then he stops right next to the bar where you’re getting hammered because you failed your first attempt or whatever the story is. It’s crazy. Are there any other examples of correspondence that you have been taken by, not necessarily in the same way, but in a similar way to the exchanges between the Rothschilds? And the reason I ask is I consume a lot of biographies, I do read a fair amount of history, but I don’t really know how to assess historians. And I wish I had a way of establishing the biases up front because we’re all humans, subjective. There must be biases, I’d imagine. So much like a conflict of interest or special interest section in a scientific paper like, “Okay. At least we know what chips these people have on the board.” So I have defaulted to looking for correspondence that was never intended for publication as a way to get a view into the thinking of the time, what was happening at the time. Are there any other examples that pop up when I use the prompt correspondence?
Niall Ferguson: Absolutely. Part of what’s attractive about historical study is reading the letters and diaries of the dead or very, very old 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. I’ve written books like that, and there is a role for them because you are really synthesizing the scholarship of many, many authors and trying to produce a single distilled version of what happened.
But there’s a difference between writing a book based on published material and writing a book based on unpublished material, and it’s a huge difference. I attach much more importance to books that I’ve written based on unpublished material and books that others have written. Why? Because that which is published is essentially filtered. A huge 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 in at least enough of an orderly form that you can look at it. And this is a radically different world that you enter. It’s not a perfect representation of reality, but it’s a lot closer to reality than the published material.
And so let me illustrate the point. As I write the biography of Henry Kissinger, the first volume of which came out a few years ago, I’m writing the second volume now, there is, of course, a very well-established narrative about the Vietnam War, about the Cold War, about the opening to China, about the Middle East. It’s all very well established. There are lots of books out there about it. But when you enter the realm of the unpublished correspondence, including transcripts of telephone calls, even the tapes of telephone calls, which were certainly not supposed to see the light of day because the Nixon administration’s the best documented administration of all time thanks to Nixon’s ultimately fatal error of taping everything, the world is a very different one from that world that you thought you understood, thanks to Christopher Hitchens.
I mean, Christopher Hitchens’ book on Kissinger has sold many copies. It contains, I think from memory, 12 footnotes. It refers to that many sources. It is a work of journalism of outrageous superficiality. It’s a polemical hatchet job, and it shouldn’t be treated as history. Hitch was a friend of mine. I miss him. But it’s important to recognize that that’s not a work of history, really. Another way of thinking about this is what’s the ratio of words read to words written? Now I wish, Tim, that that ratio was published on the front of books. So this is a one-to-one book. He read basically one word for every word that he wrote. And this is a 100-to-1 book. And this is a 1,000-to-1 book. And 1,000-to-1, it seems like it’s about right. I mean, most books are really not worth reading because their ratio is close to unity. There may even be books where the ratio’s below unity, that they’ve written actually more words than they’ve read in preparing to write the book. The best history —
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like the internet in a nutshell. Yeah.
Niall Ferguson: I mean, that’s the blogosphere. It’s like, “Why bother doing research? I have a great opinion.” So I’m a very much 1,000-to-1 kind of person. I like to dig deeply and broadly and to enter that realm of the unpublished. And I’m insatiable as I enter it. I can never be entirely satisfied. I’m reconstructing Kissinger’s life almost on an hour-by-hour basis to try to see a new way of thinking about the 1970s, which was a pivotal decade in a great many ways. To rethink that decade is my current mission. And of course, I won’t succeed in changing that many people’s minds because most people made up their minds about Henry Kissinger long ago in about, I don’t know, 1974. But I do think we have to rethink the Cold War as a matter of urgency because we’re in one. 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.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about Cold War II. I was actually going to segue to your thinking and observations of the not mutually exclusive combination of maybe conditions that have been set over the last five to 10 or more years that are now leading to certain types of inertia in terms of trends, converging trends that may or may not be avoidable. Then there’s a lot of wiggle room with independent actors and so on, as we’ve discussed. But I’ve already described Cold War II, I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, as China, senior partner, Russia, junior partner, in contrast to Cold War I. If you were placing bets on likely events or developments over the next handful of years, what would you put out as perhaps some reasonably probable scenarios that we’ll see develop?
Niall Ferguson: Great question. The cliche quote often ascribed to Mark Twain is that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. But he never said that. Twain never used those words. That’s a made-up quote. What Twain actually said back in the 1870s was that that history was a bit like a kaleidoscope. And as you turned it, certain patterns could repeat themselves. So let’s think about this as a kaleidoscope. You’ll remember those things we had as kids where you stick it to your eyes —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes.
Niall Ferguson: —and it’s like, “That’s psychedelic. What happens if I turn? Oh. That’s also psychedelic, but different.”
Cold War I had certain common features with Cold War II, and there were certain very important differences. So we shouldn’t expect things to play out exactly the same. On the other hand, it’s clear that we have an ideological rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. There is clearly a technological race going on. There is also a geopolitical dimension to this conventional territorial dimension. And this is a point Graham Allison made in his book, Destined for War. There are some probability that they end up in a hot war because what’s a cold war? George Orwell coined the phrase to mean a peace that is no peace. It is something that has latent, the possibility of an actual hot war. And I think the United States and China have been in this kind of cold war situation for at least four years, maybe longer. I think the Chinese would probably say longer, but we didn’t notice. We didn’t notice the beginning of Cold War I either.
When Orwell talks about Cold War in 1945 and Churchill in 1946 talked about an iron curtain, most Americans were, “No. Stalin’s been our ally in World War II. You are just warmongering.” And it took until 1950 when there was a hot war in Korea for most Americans to say, “Maybe they’re right.” I mean, Kennan wasn’t immediately hailed as a prophet when he talks about containment. The thing about cold wars is that by and large, people in the West don’t really notice their beginning, and take a while to understand the scale of the challenge. So we’re at that early cold war stage. I think that’s a good analogy. That works well. And also, this war in Ukraine is like the Korean War. It’s the first hot war of Cold War II, and it makes you get that you are in a cold war. As in Cold War I, the hot war happens in a slightly unexpected location. The hot war that kicked off Cold War I was Korea, and the US hadn’t really been paying very close attention to Korea when that kicked off.
So if you take this kind of approach and recognize that there are similarities, except that instead of a nuclear arms race, we’re in an AI race and a quantum computing race, if you recognize the difference, which is there’s much more economic interpenetration between the US and China than the ever was between the US and the Soviet Union, you are then in a position to start hazarding guesses about what happens next, which is what you asked me to do. And these are very difficult things to get right. And I often think that if one makes a right prediction, it’s more luck that it turns out to be right than judgment because this is a complex system of enormous complexity. So when we try to say anything about global politics, we’re really engaged in an exercise beyond our human brains.
But let me have a go. Right now, the US and China are on a collision course over Taiwan. And Taiwan is to this cold war what Cuba was to the last cold war. It’s the flash point. It’s an island in close proximity to one of the players. Then, it was close to the US. This time, it’s close to China. It’s an island which seems to be worth more than its territorial size would suggest. Actually, Taiwan’s more important than Cuba ever was because Taiwan is where 92 percent of the most sophisticated semiconductors in the world are manufactured by TSMC. And so in some ways, 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.
And it would also make sense to do it then from a Chinese point of view because who knows who’ll be president in 2025? But probably not somebody as completely incompetent as Joe Biden. So my sense is that the crisis is not far away even although the Chinese don’t look terribly ready for full-blown invasion. And that’s the thing that I’ll be watching most closely in the coming years. The other thing to remember is, and this again is in the nature of a guess, that a characteristic feature of Cold War I was the crises would happen in multiple locations at roughly the same time. So the Middle East always mattered, and it was the place where things would periodically blow up. I think the Middle East is about to blow up again because the Iranian regime clearly has an incentive to get into a war because when it’s at war, it can slaughter domestic opposition with much greater ease.
So I’m afraid that we are probably going to see a Middle Eastern crisis even before Taiwan blows up. And what worries me the most, Tim, is that the lesson of Cold War I is that we only narrowly avoided World War III, as I said already. 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. That will be a good outcome if it ends the same way as Cold War I with peaceful victory for the West. But there is no guarantee at this point that Cold War II stays cold and there is no guarantee at this point that the United States and its allies win. And that’s the real lesson of Cold War I. It was not inevitable that it stayed cold and it was not inevitable that we won.
Tim Ferriss: To follow up on a few things that you mentioned, and as background, I was an East Asian studies major at Princeton, spent part of ’96, about six months studying at two universities in Beijing, so I was able to see the bicycles Beijing prior to the Audi and BMW Beijing that we see today. But the reason I mentioned that is that I then subsequently traveled quite a lot in South America and a fair amount in Africa. And I was able to see quite obviously the extensive infrastructure that was being built by Chinese companies also seemingly often with Chinese governmental support.
And from a geopolitical natural resource and resource distribution perspective, this is not my area of expertise, but it seems like China has been playing three-dimensional chess for a while now with respect to all of that. As you mentioned, Taiwan is strategically from a technological manufacturing perspective, non-trivial compared to, say, Cuba. And my question is what can the US do? Or is it a day late and a dollar short? I don’t want to make it too fatalistic, but for the US to be prepared or prepare itself and not just be pseudo prepared, which we have been for many things in the last several years, what can be done? What would you suggest?
Niall Ferguson: Well, you are right to point out that this is a global challenge that China’s focused not only on Taiwan or for that matter, the South China Sea on its own neighborhood. It has been pursuing an ambitious and quite heterogeneous global strategy since Xi Jinping came to par. And the Belt and Road initiative is only part of that. There are all kinds of other things, Digital Silk Road, the export of surveillance technology to governments in the developing world, investment in lots of technology companies in emerging markets. You can see the infrastructure when you go to Africa. Even 10 years ago when I made a documentary about this for British television, a place like Zambia had really quite extraordinary and visible Chinese presence, not only in football stadiums and highways, but also in mining and agriculture. There’s no question that we confront a new kind of Chinese challenge because there really hasn’t been an era until now when China was so clearly pursuing a global strategy.
And by the way, that strategy was copied from the West. There was a conscious decision by Chinese leaders to learn from Western history and to try and adopt some of the things that we had done that Chinese empires hadn’t done, really hadn’t even contemplated doing since all the way back in the 15th century. This hybrid China, which simultaneously has continuities from Chinese imperial history, from the Mao era, is also a China doing things that China hasn’t done in the past. I think the United States has adopted recently a strategy of technological containment that’s most obvious in the recent restrictions imposed by the Commerce Department that are designed to prevent China advancing technologically by denying it access to the most sophisticated semiconductors and the equipment you need to make them. Our strategy is to try to freeze China’s technological advance and we’ll see how that goes.
Tim Ferriss: Seems hard to do. Seems hard to do.
Niall Ferguson: Right. On the one side, it’s extremely hard to build TSMC in mainland China, and I think there is some reason to believe they can’t. But the idea that you can just use economic sanctions to keep your principal adversary permanently behind you technologically to me historically seems like a stretch and would seem also to me to raise the incentives for Xi Jinping to take Taiwan. Because if he can’t access the TSMC products, then he can either try and get control of TSMC. But if he fails and we blow it up or they blow it up, then he’s no worse off. But we are a lot worse off. I think there are downside risks to our strategy of technological containment that aren’t being given enough attention. Broadly speaking, I think a regime like China’s is at its most dangerous when it starts to feel that its strategic options are narrowing and that there may in fact be only a small window of opportunity to bid for primacy or at least parity with the dominant superpower.
We could do an awful lot more creative things than we are doing in developing countries. That is to say we could compete much better in Africa. But the problem is when we go to Africa, we come bearing aid, it usually has lots of strings attached to it. When the Chinese show up, there are not many strings and it’s not aid, it’s investment, to put it very simply. We’re not really offering a particularly attractive alternative. A concrete example of this is when we decided that it would be a bad idea for Huawei to supply the world’s 5G networks. We went around telling everybody Huawei very bad, but we didn’t have a better alternative. As one of my African friends complains that “You’d come and tell us not to buy Huawei. We listen, and then we say, ‘So what should we buy?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t know.'”
Or try Ericcson. It’s way more expensive and they won’t give you any credit, but try — that’s stupid. We can’t expect to win Cold War II if we have no better product. At least when the Soviets were going around Africa saying, “We’ll give you the planned economy,” we had a better idea. We definitely had a better pitch than the planned economy. I think that’s what concerns me is that our strategy in Cold War II at this point looks very risky and quite likely to fail. And that’s because when you read the most recent national security strategy document, we write things like, “We don’t want to have a cold war. This is not a cold war.” And then we go right ahead and list all the things that we’re doing that makes it very clear that we are in a cold war.
Tim Ferriss: That’s the news that I see every day now, which is “so and so says we may be entering a recession in six to 12 months.” I’m like, am I seeing a different version of reality here?
Niall Ferguson: Yeah, I know.
Tim Ferriss: Thou doth protest too much.
Niall Ferguson: The cognitive dissonance is painful to manage whether you’re talking about the economy or about our foreign policy. Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking a lot about and I do it tentatively because things could change direction in an unexpected way. American politics is always a bit of a wild card, but it’s pretty clear that the pendulum is swinging to the right. That means that there’s a pretty high probability of a Republican president by January 2025. And who knows? If Donald Trump is reelected, he could call off Cold War II in an afternoon. He could fly to Beijing and do the best deal. “Such a great deal with my good friend Xi Jinping.” That could happen. And most people struggle a little bit with that part of thinking about history because we like —
Tim Ferriss: Could you say a bit more about that? Why would it be so easy?
Niall Ferguson: That’s what he would’ve done if he’d been reelected. Trump doesn’t want to be in Cold War II. He thinks it’s stupid. He just wanted to do trade war. And what’s funny about the Trump administration was that Trump turns everybody’s attention to China, wins the argument, convinces everybody China’s a major threat, but all he really wanted to do was a trade war with tariffs. And the point of the tariffs was to beat China up and then he was going to go to Beijing and do a great deal. That was the plan. That was going to be a photo op. And of course he didn’t win. And so that didn’t happen. And ironically, the Biden administration has been more hawkish on China than the Trump administration was. And that’s also a product of American politics because at some point in 2020, Biden’s handlers said to him, “You can’t win unless you are as hawkish on China as Trump and maybe more hawkish.”
And so Biden, who’d in fact been anything but hawkish during his time as vice president, on the campaign trail started to beat up on China. And then they got stuck with this hawkish policy, which is now dominating their whole strategy. I think it’s important to recognize that Trump’s foreign policy, however you think about Trump, however much you hate Trump, and many people listening to this will have major reasons for hating Trump, but the foreign policy objectivity was quite successful and it was quite successful without risking conflict. Trump was not somebody who wanted actual war, he just wanted trade war. And the trade war was always intended to be a temporary measure. You were imposing the tariffs and then you were going to go to China and say, “Well, we’ll take the tariffs off if you do this.” I can imagine a scenario where, quite easily can imagine a scenario where Trump gets reelected and does that. At that point, Cold War II would at least temporarily be in some kind of suspension.
Tim Ferriss: I’d love for you to poke holes in a bunch of things I’m going to say because I wouldn’t call them terribly well informed. We’ll start there. Ample fodder for conversation. The first thought is that if mainland China — well, first of all, I’ve just been very impressed with the geopolitical, both visible and invisible or less visible strategies that have been deployed by the People’s Republic. It’s always seemed very much long-term investment versus aid like you mentioned. And it seems to me like if mainland China wanted to take Taiwan, there are many things that would suggest they could do it nonviolently. There are other ways for them to isolate Taiwan just as an island. There are probably multiple ways they could cut off various types of access. It’s not as easy for allies to, say, supply aid to Taiwan compared to say Ukraine, where there’s also imminent neighbor threat that is perceived in Europe.
That’s the first thought to me is that it doesn’t seem like it would actually be that hard if they were to approach it and say, “Hey, look guys, nobody wants a violent outcome here. You’re going to be on your own. Maybe the US steps in, probably not. Your military, yes you have mandatory service, but let’s be real. You don’t get a whole lot of practice.” I have to imagine that to your point though, moving quickly could be to their benefit. And secondly, and again, then you can rip all of this to shreds. Second is more an observation that perhaps even if we are totally inept, we are still saved in the sense that China and the US are so economically entangled that China could end up being the rider on the horse and the horse is the US but they can’t shoot their horse in the head.
They still need the horse, whether that is a byproduct of a lot of reserve currency in the form of treasuries or US dollars or whatever, or trying to sustain exports so their domestic economy doesn’t face all sorts of issues. The question then I guess is do you see either of those holding any water or do you think to take Taiwan it would escalate, putting aside the Trump intervention, to a physical hot war type of conflict?
Niall Ferguson: The challenge for Beijing is that the softy, softy approach, which was essentially to use economics and information warfare to bring Taiwan closer to the PRC has failed. And it was obviously failing back in 2020 when all Chinese efforts to influence the Taiwanese election came to nothing. And if one looks at the sentiment of the Taiwanese population, it has gone not in the direction of full independence, but it leans towards, we like the status quo and we’d ultimately independence one day. The direction of travel from the vantage point of Beijing is very uncongenial. That’s the first point. The second point is that there are things that you can do short of an amphibious landing, blockade being the obvious one. And they showed us that they could do that, but a blockade’s an act of war. Even if you haven’t landed the troops on the beach, you’re still using coercion to assert control over Taiwan. And this is where US policies is crucial. The US has had for half a century, more or less, a policy of strategic ambiguity where it’s not quite clear what we would do in such a scenario.
We acknowledged, this was one of Kissinger’s achievements, the One China principle. We don’t treat Taiwan as an independent country formally. On the other hand, we reserve the right under 1979 legislation to prevent any violent change in Taiwan’s current status. The problem is we really moved away from that ambiguity in the last couple of years. It began I think with discussion in foreign policy circles of strategic ambiguity. Do we really need it? Richard Haass wrote a piece about that for Foreign Affairs, but now Biden himself on three, is it four occasions, has talked as if there’s no ambiguity. We will definitely defend Taiwan. And although those statements have been walked back, we’ve succeeded in signaling to the Chinese that we are no longer committed to strategic ambiguity. And we also keep talking about practical ways in which we will make Taiwan a porcupine, as able to defend itself as we made Ukraine.
We also, in addition to that, treat Taiwan de facto as an independent country when someone like Nancy Pelosi goes there and every single aspect of her behavior is that which you would expect the speaker of the House of Representatives to engage in in an independent country. I think from Beijing’s point of view, we have shifted our position on Taiwan in a way that is profoundly troubling to them because Xi Jinping’s number one priority, the reason he extended his time in office, let me be clear about that, the number one reason he did that was to take Taiwan under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. If we are saying actually, “No ambiguity, Taiwan is an independent country and we’ll defend it,” that is a major problem for Xi Jinping. I think that’s why even a blockade would force the United States to take action. I don’t think there’s a scenario in which this administration would sit back and say, “Oh, well. Never mind. That’s just the One China policy.” Now my short term memory is failing me because the second question you asked was —
Tim Ferriss: There were two more or less, let’s see, there were two elements. The second element was the mutual life situation.
Niall Ferguson: Oh absolutely. Clearly this is something very different about Cold War II. The economic ties between the United States and the Soviet Union were minimal and trivial, whereas Chimerica still exists. Now this was one of my favorite Niall-ogisms. Back in 2007, I came up with Chimerica to explain the neo fusion of the Chinese and American economies, but I also used that word to make a pun on the word “chimera.” The argument in 2007 was “This isn’t sustainable, folks.” And sure enough it hasn’t been. I think there are still many people in the US who can’t get past the extent of US investment in China, Chinese investment in the US, the trade deficit is still enormous. We buy a lot of Chinese stuff and they say, “And therefore we can’t possibly have a conflict.” Sometimes this takes the form of “There won’t be a war over Taiwan because both sides would be so economically hurt by that”
And I call this the theory of mutually assured financial destruction. The problem with all of this is, to switch analogies, you could have said all of these sorts of thing about the United Kingdom and Germany on the eve of 1914. And indeed somebody did. Norman Angell wrote a whole book called The Great Illusion saying there’s no possibility that they have a war. It would just be so financially ruinous. Well, actually it’s true that the UK and Germany were very, very interdependent economically in the early 1900s, but they stopped being economically interdependent in a matter of days when war broke out. Decoupling happened so fast that it’s amazing to look back on it, that the Royal Navy literally cut the submarine telegraph cables from Germany to the rest of the world within days of the outbreak of war. And legislation was introduced that effectively expropriated German nationals’ holdings of British assets.
The US did the same when it joined the war in 1917. I keep warning people that economic interdependence does not preclude conflict. And you will be amazed how fast the decoupling happens when the conflict begins. And if you don’t believe me, let me introduce you to Russia because what happened to Russia after February the 24th was unbelievably rapid decoupling from the western economy, not the world economy. They’re still able to trade with China and India, but they really got switched off very aggressively by sanctions imposed immediately after the outbreak of war. I think it’s clear that our playbook is very sanctions-reliant and the Chinese know this and so they know that in the event of conflict they will face aggressive American sanctions. And I dare say, going back to your point about their ability to plan, that they’re hard at work.
In fact, I know they’re hard at work right now to try and sanctions-proof themselves and also to make sure that any measures like that blow back on the US and cause significant harm to US economic interests too. I don’t rely at all on the economic interdependence. I don’t think that’s any way an obstacle to conflict. It just makes the conflict really expensive. But hey, World War I was really expensive. Didn’t not happen.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anything then, going from observer and a student of history to spotter of patterns, is there anything that you are doing right now or would like to do as an agent of change to try to steer things in any direction or another? Doesn’t have to be specific to China. It could be.
Niall Ferguson: Yeah, I would be strange if I just sat in my study at the Hoover Institution having conversations like this and then going and playing tennis. Part of what has been central to my life in the last decade has been trying to apply history to contemporary problems and then do something about it. That means mostly advice. I’m not probably that well suited to political office. I don’t have any aspirations to be Henry Kissinger, i.e., go from being a professor to being national security advisor. That’s not really a plausible trajectory for me. But I think that in advising people in decision making positions, I can achieve something. There are a couple of aspects to this. One is that about 10 years ago I created something called Greenmantle, which I think you mentioned in your nice introduction. Greenmantle is an advisory business that works with a relatively small number of mostly financial clients just to understand the world using the application of history.
And it’s been a way for me to do work that is off the radar, not in the public domain, that therefore isn’t subject to the incentives that exist in the public domain. When you do journalism, you can’t be boring. You have an obligation not only to inform but to, at some level, entertain. And therefore, the minute you enter the public domain, you are going to make things more interesting than they may actually be. Whereas if I’m working at Greenmantle, I just have to be right. And often the right answer is quite boring and boring but important is what I like. I’m happily engaged in helping people who manage fairly large asset pools think about how the world is going. And I can afford to be very boring and nerdy when I do that. I can be quite boring on the subject of semiconductors or I can be quite boring on the subject of the US treasury market or monetary policy or whether the Chinese have the naval capacity to do an amphibious landing.
I spend a lot of my time relishing the nuts and bolts, the granular analysis that makes pattern recognition serious. Punditry on cable TV is the opposite of that. And although I’ll sometimes go on cable TV, not least to sell my books, I hope I never engage in the kind of punditry that is just designed to get me retweets and social media followers. You can always predict the end of the world and get attention. My book Doom makes fun of the pattern where the incentives to predict the end of the world are very strong, and World War III and the next financial crisis. You can predict that every year and have an audience no matter how many times you’re wrong because people will always pay to be told the end of the world is nigh. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in doing the kind of pattern recognition that gets it right.
Which I think, for example, Greenmantle did. In January 2020, we told clients “There is a global pandemic coming. It is going to be hugely disruptive.” And we got that right in January, right at the beginning. Beginning of 2021, “There’s going to be an inflation mess. They’ve really screwed this up.” Beginning of this year, “Russia is going to invade Ukraine with 80 percent probability.” That’s part of what I do and I find it very intellectually rigorous because unlike in academia, when you are wrong, there are consequences and being wrong will get you fired on Wall Street. That’s very good for focusing the mind. Second thing I do is talk to the people who make policy or in the future may make policy. And I’m always willing to go to Washington, or for that matter, to London and share my thoughts with the people who have the very arduous task of taking decisions under pressure and under uncertainty with very little time.
I am privileged. I get paid to think and read. Nobody in government has time to do either of those things. You’re just in meeting after meeting and call after call. As Kissinger said, you draw down your intellectual capital in government because you don’t have time to accumulate any. I’m always happy to put myself at the service of the people who have the difficult tasks. I’m bipartisan about that. I would be as ready to talk to Jake Sullivan as I was to talk to H.R. McMaster. It’s just that Jake never calls me up, but I’m here. And that’s what I’m more than happy to do with all humility because one thing’s for sure, the people in the situation room know things that we don’t know. They just know a lot of things we don’t know. And if you are in the position of being an academic who pontificates, you should always be quite humble because there’s just no way that you know the half of it.
Yeah, that’s my approach. I think it’s something I got better at. I can certainly look back to the early days when I was trying to be involved in policy discussions shortly after moving to the US and I was pretty amateurish then. I think the analytical framework of the book Colossus was correct, namely the neo conservative project to build empires in Iraq and Afghanistan will fail. And my criticisms of the neo-conservative project were pretty much right. But I don’t think I went about that in a very intelligent way. I was too new.
Tim Ferriss: What has changed? How has the toolkit developed or the framework, how has that changed over time? What has made you more professional and less amateur in how you approach these discussions?
Niall Ferguson: Doing it with a team rather than being the solo tweed-clad superhero. Ultimately, these things are too complicated and difficult for any one person to be able to fit it all together and know enough. When Greenmantle came into existence, my policy was to hire my smartest students to come and work with me to think about this and see if applying history could even work. And then crucially having taken them on to encourage them to disagree with me and tell me that I’m wrong.
And now most of what I will say on these subjects, as in our discussion, is informed by a lot of work that other younger, smarter people do. I’ll give you an example. Back when the idea of Cold War II first hit me, it hit me because Greenmantle was doing some work on Huawei and there was a map of the world which showed countries that were using Huawei technology, countries that had essentially refused to use it, and the countries that hadn’t made up their minds. And I remember thinking when I saw the map, “Ah, it’s a cold war map. That’s a recognizable cold war map, one side, two sides non-aligned.” And so I got excited and started to think about this and I said, “Hey, we really need to work on that issue and that issue, and what are we doing about challenges to the dollar? What are we doing about semiconductors?” And out of that, those discussions came some really good work by other people.
Chris Miller’s new book, Chip War, which I highly recommend, is just the best book on why semiconductors really matter. And Eyck Freymann has done some excellent work on climate aspects of Cold War II because climate’s a cold war issue given that China’s responsible for a huge proportion of the increase in CO2 emissions over the last 20 years. So I’m glad to say that I no longer fly solo. I work in a team. I’ve learned a lot from good leaders of teams how to build a network that is greater than the sum of its parts. And I think that’s why the quality of analysis is better than it was pre-Greenmantle when I was inclined to try and do everything myself. And that way you make mistakes. I made some terrible mistakes pre-Greenmantle. I got interest rates really wrong in 2010 and Paul Krugman was able to jump up and down on me with hobnail boots on because he was right and I was wrong and I learned a valuable lesson then, if you’re going to go out there and do battle with Nobel laureates, you better have done your homework.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to take a left turn here. So we’ve been talking about a lot of macro issues, but a lot of current geopolitical issues. I want to ask you about fatherhood. So I have a note here that fatherhood has been the best thing you’ve ever done. And as someone who does not yet have children but someday hopes to, could you please expand on that? I’d love to hear why that is the case.
Niall Ferguson: Well I only have five children.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve got some work to do to catch up with Elon, but you’re doing all right.
Niall Ferguson: There are others who’ve beaten me and I won’t catch up. I’m too old to have any more children because in the end you can have children at 58 but you will not be good at soccer when they are ready for soccer and you have a moral obligation to be able to go and kick that ball around. I have children who range in age from 28 down to five and I can say unequivocally that they are the best thing that ever happened to me and the thing I care, the people I care most about, and I never tire of watching them grow, helping them in any way I can. Fatherhood for me has been more fulfilling than I would ever have imagined. I think most people, most men, let me say, most men before they become fathers, secretly dread the loss of freedom, the regime of diapers and the prospect of being vomited on.
And all of these things will happen when you become a father. You will be vomited on, diapers will become a very large, and unpleasant part of your life and you won’t be able to go out anything like you were able to before. On the other hand, there is something far more fulfilling about helping an infant learn than anything else that’s available to us. So I don’t know that I’ve been at all a great father, I think I’ve been okay. And the way I would think about the role is it’s very much pedagogical. I very assiduously read to my children and get them to read and make books a big part of life. I think that’s really critical because these days as children grow up, there are way more distractions than there were in my day and you have to make a concentrated effort as a parent to make sure that they get into the habit of reading books because almost all the accumulated wisdom of our species is in fact contained in books.
And some of these books are quite old and unlikely to be assigned in contemporary education, so that’s a big part of it. Then there’s all the kind of that funny business of teaching children to be good. What is it to be good? What is it to be kind? How does one actually convey that? How can one make a child creative without over scheduling them with Monday’s piano, Tuesday’s coding, Wednesday’s Mandarin, that kind of typical parenting. And I’m still learning. I’m still trying to get better at it while at the same time, making sure that all the children got the same kind of deal because I’m quite egalitarian about these things and there can be no favoritism. They all must think they’re the favorite.
So these are the things that if you gave me the chance, I would talk about with greater enthusiasm and at greater length than then about anything else. But nobody really wants to listen to somebody else talk about their children, it’s the world’s most boring subject, just like when people get out their phones to show you pictures of their children and then they can’t find them because they have too many pictures. A little part of you dies, right?
Tim Ferriss: Well to me at the moment, this is interesting. So since I have the mic in front of me, I’ll keep prying when you said “I’m okay,” and I might be getting the exact phrasing wrong, “not great.” Why do you say that?
Niall Ferguson: Absence. Because absence. Part of my life’s journey took me away and continues to take me away from my children quite a bit. There’s that great moment in one of the Austin Powers movies, daddy wasn’t there. Remember that? We all love the Austin Powers in our family and it’s part of being a Ferguson that you watch the Austin Power movies, you watch the Austin Powers movies much earlier than is appropriate. But I’ve been away a lot. I mean, I was so negligent as to take a job in the United States in 2002 or thereabouts when I had three children in school in England and my then wife wouldn’t move. And I remember saying, “Well, if I stay, if I don’t go, I’ll regret it, so I’ll commute.” And that was a little bit crazy and I wouldn’t advise anybody to do that. It meant that I was away quite a lot.
It probably made the breakdown of the marriage inevitable. So I think my older children would all agree that they didn’t see enough of me and I’ve had to compensate for those absences by trying to be present in other ways, so it’s difficult. I think the truth is that if you are trying to lead three careers, as you said at the beginning, if you’re trying to do good academic work and at the same time engage in some kind of public life and then also do all this advising, sure you’re going to work 17 hour days and you’ll be in New York and Washington and London and I used to travel to the point of insanity prior to the pandemic and then the pandemic stopped that, forced me to stop and for a year I lived in Montana and I didn’t travel more than about five miles from the house.
And so I saw the two younger children every day and it was wonderful. It was wonderful. My now 10-year-old and I would go for a walk every day. We called it the philosophical walk and it was after he’d done with his schoolwork and I had sort of done enough work on my then current book and we would just have a walk and I wasn’t doing that before and I’m doing it less now, so no, I’m not going to get great. But the test is always, are your children going to turn to you in the moment of crisis? Are they going to tell you the good news when there is good news? Are you able to remain in contact even when there’s a great distance geographically between you? And on that basis, I think I get a B plus.
And I would say to anybody who’s highly motivated, super-driven, type-A personality, do what you have to do, but remember the relationship that 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. That’s the gravestone. People forget that, but that’s the gravestone.
Tim Ferriss: So mortality is as good a stepping stone as any to the next question, which is also related to parenting, and this may be a set of comments that are locked in the amber that you would revise. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. So here goes, it seems that based on some of the reading I’ve done several things, one is that you have been inoculated against religious faith yourself on some level, but two, that you believe your children should understand the Christian frameworks since, and I think the quote you used, it is still the operating system of North America and most of Europe. Would you mind saying more about that? Is that a misquote? Did I find that on the Daily Beast? I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
Niall Ferguson: Most reliable source. Yeah. No, I was brought up an atheist. My parents left the Church of Scotland, Presbyterian established church in Scotland, mainly I think because of the sectarianism that was rife in Glasgow, the enmity between Protestant and Catholics, which dominated the culture of the city in their day. And also because as scientists, they embraced a kind of robust enlightenment skepticism about religion and this was therefore not a decision that I took. We just didn’t go to church. And when we talked about those questions, my mother would say, “Life is a cosmic accident, deal with it.” So that was how I was raised.
Tim Ferriss: High five, go out and play.
Niall Ferguson: And in practice my parents were still Presbyterians. We had all the kind of classic Calvinist behaviors, work ethic, all that stuff, deferred consumption feeling of superiority, which I think is inherent in being a member of the elect. Just there was no God, no afterlife. And at the point of death, your body began to decompose.
Tim Ferriss: All the duty without any of the payoff.
Niall Ferguson: So ultimately it worked for me and I don’t think there’s any kind of way I could find a religious faith, I would feel a phony. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a good operating system for a society and all attempts to build a society on atheism have produced terrible horrors. I mean, think Soviet Union, anti-clericalism, anti-Christianity doesn’t have a great record. So I came to the position partly under the influence of Oxford, religious observance as opposed to belief is very beautiful in Oxford in Cambridge perhaps more beautiful than anywhere else. The choral tradition in Anglicanism is one of my favorite things. And I think it offers not only some kind of consolation, but it also offers social connections that you won’t form in the workplace. So I came around to believing that although I didn’t have religious faith, I should take my children to church and I should make sure that they were educated in Christianity and indeed in other belief systems, but that Christianity would be the leading faith in our lives because it’s the leading faith in our civilization still.
And it’s silly to be ignorant of it. It is the operating system. Tom Holland has this terrific book, Dominion, which points out that although we think we are secular, in reality, we are still a highly Christian society. And I think that’s dead right. So everything gets colored by the assumptions of Christianity, even the discussions on issues like climate change, which are supposed to be scientific in truth, fears of the apocalypse, the millenarian mindset are deeply rooted in Christianity. So I think it’s a slightly odd position, but not without its precedent to be in a church without real faith, but with a kind of respect for religious observance and a hope that the ethical legacy of Jesus Christ does not go extinct, because I don’t think you become a good person spontaneously as a result of Darwinian natural selection. No, that’s just not plausible.
And so 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.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned earlier Hitch, one of your friends, and as you described this, what I would love to know is did you explicitly explain to your kids when you took them to church, what you were doing? In other words, there’s historical significance to this. I don’t believe we’re automatically shaped into good moral human beings by evolutionary pressure, therefore this is why I’m taking you to church. Or did you simply expose them and run the risk of them becoming die-hards and sort of engendering a lifetime of headbutting with your children? How explicit or non explicit did you make things?
Niall Ferguson: I’m very explicit about things like that. I think children shouldn’t be treated as children, which will sound slightly paradoxical, but it’s a good idea to treat your children as intelligent mini adults. And I’m sure Thomas, who’s 10, understood it once. I’m not sure Campbell knew what I was talking about, but he’s only five. So no, I think I’m clear about this and we talk about it. Look, we have a very interesting religious heritage as a family. My wife Ayaan is ex-Muslim, an apostate, who left the religion that she was brought up in having had a period of devote adherence as a young girl. So we come at religion in a kind of unusual way. And so these things do get discussed. And Thomas is a very articulate boy. So it would be impossible to take him to a church without there being some initial discussion and explicit analysis of motive.
Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned Ayaan, so we might as well mention her again, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, people should look this name up. How has your time with Ayaan changed how you view Western philosophy? Maybe even view the world or reality per se? I have to imagine, I mean, just given her life’s experience, her trajectory that is so difficult for either — I’ll speak for myself, for me to envision in any experiential way, how has your time with her affected how you view things? I know that’s a very broad question, but I’m going to leave it broad.
Niall Ferguson: Anybody who hasn’t read one of my wife’s books should do something about that. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel is a pretty good place to start. That’s her life story, her early life story, which gives you a sense of what it was to grow up as a girl in Islam, in Somalia, to live in Saudi Arabia, to live in Kenya, to experience radicalization, to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then to go to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage, to gradually be exposed to Western freedoms, to begin to question faith, eventually to lose that faith, to become embroiled in the controversies that followed 9/11, to become a national figure in the Netherlands, a member of parliament, then to be the target of a Fatwa, of death threats. All of this is in there, and it’s an extraordinary story. I’ve learned that the story there, which is startling and memorable in many ways is the tip of an iceberg, a very deep trauma, I think that’s the only way to describe it.
And we’re still kind of learning about that and learning how to deal with it. So for somebody like me who led a happy life in a loving family where I was given every encouragement, it’s humbling to think of a life so different, so much harder and to realize that that’s the life of millions and millions of girls all over the world.
So that’s point one. Point two is, and I dedicated the book Civilization to Ayaan for this reason, we take for granted the freedoms that we are given at birth, and it’s very hard not to take them for granted if you grew up with the freedom of speech and political freedom, the freedom to organize, the freedom of association, all of those freedoms. But when you get to know and love somebody who didn’t have those things and had to be persuaded by experience of their value, then you see things in a different light. And I learned more about the value of the enlightenment from my Ayaan than I could have learned from any other source. and that’s partly why Civilization‘s dedicated to her, because you’ve got to see the benefits of a free society with the eyes of somebody who’s lived under unfreedom, with all the discrimination, the handicaps of being a girl in a strictly Muslim society, fully to appreciate them.
Tim Ferriss: I’d second the recommendation on the read. The story is really mean beyond remarkable. That’s an understatement. And you mentioned the fatwa. How do you both relate to safety and fear? How do you think about how much weight to give to fear of what could happen? And I ask, especially in light of the not so distant attack on Salman Rushdie as an example, right? It’s not like fatwas are just forgotten. It would seem, I know there’s a lot of coverage around that and many different takes. But how do you think about living life and how much weight to give to fear, what could happen versus other factors?
Niall Ferguson: Well, I wouldn’t speak for Ayaan. It would be untrue for me to claim that she doesn’t feel fear. No, the attack on Salman Rushdie was a heavy blow for us because it was a reminder that these death threats don’t have expiry dates. There’s no statute of limitations. But fear, I’ll answer on my own behalf, is not a factor. I don’t fear these people. And I credit that to a Scottish upbringing.
My grandfathers faced far greater peril in the world wars. My father’s father served on the Western front in one of the highland regiments as a teenager. And my mother’s father was in Burma with the Royal Air Force fighting the Japanese. They had reasons to feel fear. I don’t, and I have a complete contempt for terrorists that is not fake. I moved to the United States after 9/11 because I was supposed to give us a lecture at NYU on, I think it was 9/12. And of course I never gave that lecture, couldn’t fly, but it kind of made my mind up to move to the US and to take a job at NYU, which is what I did. I resigned from Oxford shortly after 9/11. I don’t think I thought it through quite at the time, but it was undoubtedly the Scottish impulse to march towards the sound of gunfire.
And ever since I’ve known Ayaan, I’ve felt a powerful obligation to protect her and make sure that she is kept safe, but never fear. Because historically, we face many dangers. One can see that the world is much less dangerous than it was in many respects, and in other respects, more dangerous than it’s ever beaten. They didn’t have to worry about nuclear war. The risks of catastrophe are in some ways elevated by the advance of science and in other ways, science is reducing our vulnerability, extending our lifespans, giving us a shot, even if we’re diagnosed with cancer. And I keep telling her and others the dangers that we face include terrorists, but the probability is probably higher that we have an automobile accident or one of us gets diagnosed with cancer, so be not afraid. And the culture, which I love about my part of the world, the culture of Scotland, is we don’t feel fear.
You can do anything to us, but you can actually frighten us. And if you’re brought up with that, if that sort of really drummed into you, that’s a great source of strength. Of course, one fears odd things. I’ve always been more afraid of losing my reputation or my honor than losing my life. But the things that the terrorists want to induce, the kind of fear they want to induce, that is entirely foreign to me and I defy them and I despise them. And I will use everything I can do to thwart them, because ultimately their threat is a, it’s a threat that you can thwart. Salman Rushdie made a terrible mistake in announcing that he was dispensing with security and saying, at the time, he published his last book, “I need to live my life.” I said at the time, that was a mistake and it was. That is not our approach, but no fear, no way.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for answering that. Niall, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything else that you would like to share, discuss? Any closing comments, anything at all you’d like to request of people listening, anything you’d like to point their attention to before we wind this round one to a close?
Niall Ferguson: Given that the risk of cancer is not trivial when you’re a 58 year old Scotsman, I don’t have anything else to say because if I say anything else, I’ll be late for my dermatological appointment. So on the basis of rational assessment of risk, I really better shut up.
Tim Ferriss: I must go to my dermatologist, which makes perfect sense. Niall, and just for people listening who don’t get the visual spelling here, N-I-A-L-L on Twitter @Nfergus N-F-E-R-G-U-S. Thank you so much for taking the time today. I learned a lot. I have copious notes, I have many things to follow up on, and it’s nice to see you again. So thank you for making the time.
Niall Ferguson: Thank you, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: And for everybody listening, we will link to everything that we discussed, all of the books, all of the resources, anything and everything at tim.blog/podcast. Just search Ferguson or Niall, N-I-A-L-L, and it will take you right there. Until next time, be just a little bit kinder than is necessary. Take care. Do not be afraid. And thanks for listening.
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