The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West by Niall Ferguson – Book Review

Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (The Penguin Press: New York), 654 pp., 2006, $14.96 USD

By Jeff Collins

How does one explain the vast amounts of blood spilled in the first half of the twentieth century? Just as importantly, how does one explain the decline of Western power and influence since that period? These questions lay at the heart of Niall Ferguson’s 2006 critically acclaimed book The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. For Ferguson, to find the answers requires an understanding of the period of warfare that dominated the last century. Now, grant it, there are quite a few books that have been published over the last number of years tackling the subject of Western decline (see Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules – For Now) which, in of itself, is hardly a new topic either. In fact, one could go as far back as 1918 and read German Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. That being said, Ferguson’s book stands out for both its depth and the manner in which he interweaves several complex arguments summarising the decline of Western civilization’s predominance in world affairs. But then again, one should not expect anything less from one of the world’s most eminent historians.

In essence, Ferguson argues that by the year 1900 Western states had reached the epoch of their power and influence in world affairs. This dominance was largely based on one fact: these states had empires. Given their economies of scale, empires meant having vast amounts of men from many nationalities under arms compared to non-imperial states (p. lxiii). Likewise, the presence of empires allowed Western states to marshal massive amounts of economic material to fuel their modern armies and navies, levy taxes, and raise loans to pay for wars (p. lxiii). When backed-up with “unprecedented degrees of centralized power, economic control and social hegemony…” Western imperial states could deploy unheard of levels of violence against one another (p. xlvi).

As such, their dominance became undone by a perfect storm of ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and competition from ambitious new states which, in turn, produced a succession of bloody wars beginning with Japan’s victory over Russia in 1904. This period of warfare, which Ferguson terms the ‘Fifty Years War’, or the ‘War of the World’, concluded in 1953 with the end of the Korean War – approximately the same geographical region where the conflict began in 1904 (p. lxxi).

In explaining how ethnic conflict fuelled the descent of the West Ferguson argues that it must be examined in the context of the evolution of the nation-state (p. lvii). Principally, the concept of a homogenous people controlling their own state (e.g. “a Germany for the Germans”) – an idea which emerged during the Napoleonic Wars – created “major discontinuities in the social relations between certain ethnic groups, specifically the breakdown of sometimes quite far-advanced processes of assimilation” (p. xli).  More worrisome, he notes, was that these discontinuities were further exasperated by the “spread of theories of racial difference”, which were, in turn, an unfortunate by-product  of Darwin’s theories of evolution (‘survival of the fittest’) in the latter part of the nineteenth century (p. xli). In effect, the concept of a nation-state, and its overlapping racist theories, fractured apart a great deal of Europe’s diverse populations whom, by the turn of the century, were actually highly assimilated.

In terms of economic volatility Ferguson focuses on the severity of the ‘boom-bust’ cycles that occurred in Western economies during the first half of the twentieth century. These economic swings, especially during times of depression, saw minorities in nation-states become targets of the majority (‘they are a drain on our resources’ being a common refrain), which further exacerbated ethnic tensions within and between states (p. xli). Finally, with rising ethnic tensions and economic depravity came the “decomposition of multinational European empires that had dominated the world at the beginning of the century” (p. xli). These empires – British, French, Russia (pre-USSR), Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – saw, beginning in 1904, challengers appear on or within their borders in the form of ‘new’ expansionist nation-states represented by Germany, Japan, Turkey, and the Soviet Union. Each of these challengers, despite being dominated by one ethnic group, would grow to contain even more minorities within their new borders. This reality would eventually contribute to the justification of military expansion (‘breathing room for our own people and uniting the Diaspora’) and repression which, in many cases, morphed into policies of subjugation and extermination (e.g. Armenians, Ukrainians, Jews, Roma, Koreans) as the minorities began to be seen as an economic, political, and cultural ‘threat’ to the majority.

Crucially, the pursuance of such expansionist policies also led to “points of contact between empires…[at] the borderlands and buffer zones” between them. Principally, new empires where clashing with old in such areas as Manchuria, Poland, and the Balkans. This mix of ethnic tension, economic swings, and the rise of new nation-state empires resulted in a succession of violent clashes over a 50 year period. By the 1950s the Western empires had collapsed (Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Tsarist Russia) or were quickly coming undone by nationalist movements (French, British, Portuguese). In their place, he writes, stood one Western imperial-like state, the United States, against the Soviet Union – whose own ethnic tensions, economic decline and military competition would see its demise in 1991 – and China. And, of these, only China is currently making efforts towards challenging America’s political dominance in 21st century international relations. As such, the risk of war on the levels of the first half of the twentieth century remains in places like East Asia, however, as Ferguson states, the demise of both Western empires and their challengers, a homogenization of many of the old ethnic areas, and a more (relative) stable economic climate mean that, at least in the short-term, this possibility remains low.

Still, political scientists will probably take issue with (some of) Ferguson’s analysis. While not downplaying the role of economic turmoil (e.g. the Great Depression), ethnic tension, and imperial rivalry in setting the tone for the level of brutality and conflict that emerged during those first 50 years of the last century realists would argue that the existence of a zero-sum environment with a number of states growing weaker due to the costs of maintaining their empires allowed for the emergence of newer, more aggressive rivals to challenge them. Additionally, liberals would point to the failure of the League of Nations (at least from 1919 onwards) in containing the aggression of Japan, Italy, and Germany in the 1930s, and thereby setting the scene for another round of global conflict. Others would point to the combination of ideology (fascism, communism) with advanced military weaponry and production as an explanation to the unprecedented levels of chaos in those early years.

Still, these factors do not discount what Ferguson is saying nor is he himself denying the role they played in the ‘War of the World’. Instead, he provides an alternative interpretation of those wars and Western decline that many international relations scholars would probably overlook in their own analysis and for that reason alone this book is worth the read.

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