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Niall Ferguson on Europe and the collapse of the West

In his new book, Civilization: The West and The Rest, historian Niall Ferguson argues that the West rose to global dominance thanks to six "killer apps": competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. However, the rest of the world is now adopting these "killer apps," he warns, so the days of Western predominance are numbered.

Michael Falco for The Globe and Mail/michael falco The Globe and Mail

On the cover of historian Niall Ferguson's new book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is a photograph of a gold-filigreed, antique French mantel clock lying on its side. Mr. Ferguson's implication is clear: Like France's 18th-century monarchy, societies don't fall decorously. They topple – not without warning, perhaps, but nevertheless with astonishing speed and often messy consequences. And that, as he told The Globe and Mail's Michael Posner, constitutes his book's Code Red alert: Unless Western civilization contends with the myriad risks it now faces, it, too, may collapse – and sooner than one might think.

How does the current euro-zone crisis apply to your schema?

This is something I predicted in an earlier book, The Cash Nexus – the degeneration of a monetary union with no fiscal component. But Europe is not necessarily at its best when it's integrated. Remember, the fragmented state structure was a big advantage 500 years ago, vis-à-vis unitary, imperial China. But it also speaks to my general point that things collapse, rather than decline gradually. Everybody thought the euro zone was fine until it wasn't fine.

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Do you see Greece leaving the euro zone?

I think it's still a low-probability scenario, for Greece or anyone else, even in the event of default. The costs would be very high to all concerned. We ought to have known what monetary union would mean. We saw what happened with the integration of East Germany after 1989 – a few years of boom and then high unemployment. That's what Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have been dealing with – the hangover that comes from stimulus. The euro was supposed to increase integration in Europe. It's actually done the opposite.

In your book, you take the West to task for a word I can barely pronounce, pusillanimity. What do you mean by it?

It's from the Latin, for weakness or vacillation of spirit. It's a nice word for cowardice or, in the vernacular, lack of balls. Pusillanimity of leadership is one of the big problems of our time. The institutional problems on both sides of the Atlantic can only be addressed with strong leadership, because they involve riding over the vested interests and privileges of powerful groups. We need to update the software, delete the viruses and reboot the machine, and that calls for massive political courage of the sort we don't see much of right now.

Confidence Men, Ron Suskind's recent book on the Obama administration, suggests that the President was sandbagged by his own advisers and prevented from implementing more dramatic financial reform.

Suskind is an outstanding journalist and it's clear he's been briefed by [former director of the National Economic Council]Larry Summers's enemies. But the room for manoeuvre was pretty darn limited. It's easy to engage in wishful thinking. Should the stimulus package have been bigger? A better question might be: Could things have been worse? It was only in the summer of '09 that we began to pull out of a tailspin that, until that moment, tracked very closely the declines of the Great Depression. So we do need to give credit where due. It turns out to be harder to create a sustained recovery when consumers are deleveraging, the housing market is in the tank and confidence is at a low ebb.

Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra, reviewing Civilization in the London Review of Books …

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That wasn't a review. It's extremely selective, quite deliberately misrepresents my work, and strongly implies that I'm a racist, which I resent. I'm extremely angry about that piece. It was malicious and defamatory and I don't intend to take it sitting idly. I will respond with great force to that attempt at character assassination.

But how do you feel about being called a neo-imperialist?

I think if you read my work, you will see there has always been an ambivalence. In Colossus, for example, I argued that while there might be reasons for the U.S. to play a more consciously imperial role to deal with failed states and rogue regimes, there were three deficits: financial, manpower and attention. And I concluded that the American empire was dysfunctional and likely to screw up the undertaking, which it has – not enough resources, not enough boots on the ground, and the public losing interest. When I wrote [in 2003]that I was a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist club, that was irony. I was never a neo-conservative and I was skeptical the project would succeed.

How do you view the rise of Islamic power in North Africa and the Middle East?

I've been a skeptical voice on the so-called Arab Spring since the outset. If you take the institutional matrix of civilization in my book – secure private property rights, scientific literacy – they aren't well-established in places like Egypt. So the prospect of transition to a stable Western-style democracy strikes me as a low probability. More likely, political Islam will benefit and, while that may seem an improvement to people in Tunisia and Egypt, from the vantage point of regional stability, Islamist governments are likely to be far more confrontational toward Israel.

What's your reading of the Occupy Wall Street movement?

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It's a variant of the populism you get after a major economic crisis – more of the 1870s variety than the 1930s, because it's not such a severe crisis. And it has two forms: the right-wing Tea Party and the left-wing OWS. The latter has one valid point: American society has become significantly more unequal than it was in the 1970s. But Wall Street isn't the sole cause. The reason income stagnated is not the wickedness of Wall Street. It's that globalization reduces massively the returns to unskilled labour. That's the big story OWS is not getting. And blaming it all on financial institutions misses the almost equal responsibility of political elites. The epicentre, the mortgage market, was rigged by interventions that horribly backfired. So the anger is legitimate, but it's been channelled simplistically into narrow demonization.

Are we necessarily doomed to collapse?

No, you can act or prevent it by identifying vulnerabilities and making the system more robust. Education reform, for example, is urgently needed in the West, particularly at the secondary level.

What risk is there that we might slip into the Chinese form, the illiberal form, of capitalism?

This is a siren song that I don't buy. It will become clear that the Chinese system has a fatal defect: It's not responsive to the needs of its people and is not competitive, because it's a one-party-system. Such systems tend to be corrupt and to misallocate resources. China does not have an easy way of moving toward the rule of law and secure property rights, which their new middle class will want. I feel more optimistic about India's future. But what we have to do is concentrate on what made the West the best – making our institutions work as they were supposed to. Then we are still in this race.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Michael Posner is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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