Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and the author of 16 books. His most recent book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe is on the short list for the 2022 Lionel Gelber Prize, presented by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and Foreign Policy magazine.
Toward the end of my book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe – which I finished writing in the fall of 2020 – I posed some unsettling questions:
Will the second Cold War between China and the United States intensify? Could it even turn into a hot war over Taiwan?
Or could peace be at hand? Probably not. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, Russia and Turkey carved out zones of influence in Libya; Chinese and Indian soldiers skirmished on their shared border; Lebanon metaphorically blew up (while the port of Beirut literally did so). Did the Black Death stop the Hundred Years’ War? Did the Spanish flu prevent the Russian Civil War?
Although it was partly inspired by the pandemic, Doom was an attempt to write a history not only of pandemics, but of disaster in all its myriad forms. My argument can be summarized in six propositions:
• We tend to think of a pandemic as a natural disaster, whereas a war is man-made. But the two kinds of disaster are not so distinct.
• All disasters – including climatic and geological ones – cause excess mortality as a result of human decisions.
• Not all disasters can be blamed on the man or woman at the top. Often the point of failure is in middle management.
• Contagions of the body caused by pathogens often interact disruptively with contagions of the mind.
• One disaster often leads to others, in a kind of cascade or avalanche of misadventure.
• We cannot hope to predict disasters, because history is not cyclical, so we need to be generally resilient – or, even better, anti-fragile.
The two forms of disaster responsible for the worst episodes of excess mortality – that is, mortality above what would have been expected under normal circumstances – are plagues and wars. Sometimes these two grim horsemen ride side by side; sometimes, one follows the other. In 1918-19, for example, the Spanish influenza swept the world, killing even more people than the world war that had not yet ended. The new strain of H1N1 was first detected at a U.S. Army base – Camp Funston in Kansas – on March 4, 1918. The large-scale movements of young men across the Atlantic and Europe certainly accelerated the pandemic’s spread.
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In our time, by contrast, the plague has come first. Before we could even say that COVID-19 had passed from the pandemic to the endemic stage – indeed, as I write, China is battling to contain an Omicron-variant wave that could be devastating – Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. In five short weeks, there have been levels of death and destruction not seen in Europe since 1945.
True, no one in Beijing gave a similar order to release the virus SARS-CoV-2 into the world. There are still those who believe it arose naturally, a mutation first passed to a human in a market. Yet accumulating evidence suggests it is at least as likely that the pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan. Even if that were not the case, there is no question that weeks of covering up the reality of rapid human-to-human transmission in China ensured that the virus rapidly spread to the rest of the world. In both cases, the disaster is incomprehensible without the political dimension.
A significant number of history’s greatest disasters can be attributed to the decisions of dictators – from the man-made famines caused by Joseph Stalin’s and Mao Zedong’s policies of forced collectivization of agriculture to the Holocaust, which is very hard to imagine without the malevolent figure of Adolf Hitler as the German Fuhrer. The war in Ukraine is equally hard to imagine without Mr. Putin as Russian President.
And yet the disastrous failure of the initial Russian plan for a Blitzkrieg, to be followed by the installation of a puppet regime in Kyiv, cannot simply be attributed to Mr. Putin’s irrationality. As in so many disasters, a crucial part has been played by actors further down the chain of command: the Russian generals, who seem to have launched the invasion without adequate logistical preparation, and their Ukrainian counterparts, who have amazed the world with the lethal effectiveness of their defensive operations.
In the space of just five weeks, this war has claimed a shocking number of lives. NATO estimates that Russia suffered between 30,000 and 40,000 battlefield casualties in Ukraine through the first month of the war, including between 7,000 and 15,000 killed. (The Russians of course insist that the number is much lower.) Ukrainian military casualties are not known. Civilian deaths, according to the United Nations, exceed 1,200, with more than 1,900 injured, but the UN “believes that the actual figures are considerably higher.” Only an inveterate optimist would expect this war to stop in the very near future, so we must reckon with tens if not hundreds of thousands of dead. And war, unlike COVID-19, kills the young as pitilessly as the old.
As with the pandemic, “contagions of the mind” are playing their part as each side wages an information war. Ukraine is certainly trouncing Russia in nearly all Western media, but Mr. Putin’s propaganda at home helps explain why hopes of his imminent ouster from power are likely to be disappointed.
A key point of Doom was that one disaster often leads to others. I would not argue that the pandemic made the invasion of Ukraine more likely, but I believe that the war will have profound economic, social and political consequences, not least because of the inflationary shock it has delivered to both fuel and food prices. In parts of North and sub-Saharan Africa, the result could be severe hardship and hunger.
The tragic lesson of history is that it is well-nigh impossible to predict the next disaster. Those who try to do so are generally dismissed as Cassandras, not least because too many predict disasters that fail to materialize. In truth, the incidence of pandemics and wars is not predictable: They seem to be distributed randomly or with power-law distributions that make it impossible to attach ex-ante probabilities.
The most we can do is make sure that we react as rapidly as possible when the next disaster begins to manifest itself. To that end, I would closely monitor the price of bread in countries such as Egypt, which rely very heavily on Russia and Ukraine for imports of wheat – because if there is one region in the world that is anything but anti-fragile, it is the Middle East.
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