Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The coming world crisis

FILE - In this April 17, 2017 file photo, U.S. forces and Afghan security police are seen in Asad Khil near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. Behind the detail-scarce rhetoric of the new Afghanistan strategy, elements of President Donald Trump's broader approach to foreign conflicts emerge: secret military plans, no "nation-building" and a reliance on regional players to squeeze wayward nations and extremist groups. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul/File
US forces and Afghan security police in Asad Khil near the site of a US bombing east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

“Is the world slouching toward a grave systemic crisis?” asked historian Philip Zelikow at the annual gathering of the Aspen Strategy Group earlier this month. Now that’s what I call a question!

Zelikow, who teaches at the University of Virginia, is more than just a history professor. He has also served Republican as well as Democratic presidents in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon. His pessimism is that of a practitioner as well as a scholar.

Zelikow resists the temptation to engage in the kind of Trump-bashing that is more or less obligatory in Aspen, where liberal Manhattan goes each summer to breathe cool Colorado air. His critique is directed at all three of the post-9/11 administrations.


Zelikow laments that instead of asking pragmatic questions — like “Where can we do the most to tilt the balance toward an open and civilized world?” or “What states or regions or issues are pivotal?” — the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have all been lured by the threat of Islamic terrorism into “the broken ‘wilderness’ areas of the world . . . just the places that . . . are least likely to change the course of world history in any positive way.” As Zelikow rightly notes — and as I tried to explain back in 2003 — this is the late Victorian imperial playbook.

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It’s a hard habit to kick. Donald Trump campaigned to disentangle the United States from a war he claimed he had opposed. Steve Bannon suggested Andrew Jackson as a role model: a man who fought his battles at home. Yet, a year after Trump first used the phrase “America First,” he finds himself reading from the same old playbook, increasing the US presence in Afghanistan, firing admirals for collisions in the distant Strait of Malacca.

At best, says Zelikow, this is playing defense. It certainly doesn’t put points on the scoreboard. So what should the United States be doing? Zelikow advises policymakers to “start in whatever area you deem crucial, like Brazil, or Mexico, or Egypt, or Turkey, or Pakistan, or Indonesia” and to build a new world order on “local problem-solving.” His role model is the post-Second War program of economic aid to Western Europe named after General George Marshall.

Investing heavily in Western Europe was, argues Zelikow, “the idealism of ‘what works.’” The resulting “catalytic episode” — Europe’s post-war economic miracle — vindicated Marshall and the American combination of capitalism and democracy.

Good times. However, Zelikow’s point is that such “catalytic episodes” come only after “a deep system-wide crisis . . . when people all over the world no longer think the old order work[s].” The bad news is that we are on the brink of just such a systemic crisis now. The worse news is that American leadership is a pale shadow of what it was 70 years ago.


“Every one of America’s major adversaries now has the strategic initiative,” asserts Zelikow. “They — Russia, Iran, China — are currently better positioned to set the time, place, and manner of engagement, including political engagement.” Once again drawing the parallel with Britain’s imperial decline, Zelikow fears an approaching “Suez moment.”

I agree with much of this, but I would emphasize that the same lecture could just as easily have been given if Hillary Clinton had been elected president — she of the impending memoir that may as well be titled “Sore Loser.”

Regardless of who is president of the United States, the crisis is coming. The networked world born in Silicon Valley was supposed to create a “global community” of netizens, just as the Reformation was supposed to create a priesthood of all believers — in both cases the result was polarization, and spiraling conflict. People have never been more closely connected than they are today; and yet people have never been so estranged from one another — fractured bitterly along sectarian lines, racial lines, generational lines and all the other lines fetishized in the ugly name of “inter-sectionality.” If the Internet is the world’s town square, it increasingly resembles Tahrir Square shortly before the military crackdown. Anyone who wants to take umbrage at anything shrieks “hate speech!” — the modern term for heresy.

Zelikow wishes Washington could kick the imperialist habit and work constructively with countries like Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan or Indonesia. Yet their governments are even less capable of dealing with these new problems than ours. All over the world, antiquated political institutions are in crisis. It will soon become clear that authoritarian regimes are in just as much trouble as the democracies, even if they can hide it better.

So yes: the world probably is slouching toward a grave systemic crisis. That crisis is already manifesting itself in mass online hysteria, rampant cyberwarfare, and accelerating nuclear proliferation. Nostalgia for Harry Truman and disdain for Donald Trump are understandable at such a time. But let’s not forget what happened three years after Marshall announced his scheme for European reconstruction. The same administration that gave us the Marshall Plan also gave us the Korean War.


If his slow-building showdown with Pyongyang ultimately proves to be Trump’s Suez moment, then Zelikow wins. Until then, the history of the future shrouds itself in its customary mystery, mocking our attempts to predict it.

Niall Ferguson is senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.