Niall Ferguson: ‘Cold War II is happening now’

Renowned historian, academic, author and commentator Niall Ferguson says the increasing toxicity in the relationship between the US and China is a sure sign that we are now living in Cold War II.

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In fact, he told RNZ’s Jim Mora on the Sunday Morning programme he believes it was well underway before Covid-19 hit. And he says it’s very probable that things will continue to escalate.

“Right now a new crisis over the status of Hong Kong is brewing, effectively doing away with Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status. The US government is going to respond,” he says.

“Cold War II is happening now; it’s happening in the realm of technology, where the US govt has just imposed effectively sanctions on Huawei, preventing it from being able to import semi-conductors from Taiwan… and I could go on and on.

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson Photo: Tom Barnes

“China’s performance [surrounding Covid-19] – its attempted cover-up and its continued lack of transparency about what happened, have only fuelled the fires of anti-Chinese sentiment in the US and parts of Europe.”

Does he think it will escalate? It’s probable, he says.

“That’s the thing that I do worry about. There’s an assumption in many quarters that China would never risk a military confrontation with the US, or at least not for 10 years.

“But when anyone tells me something can’t happen for at least 10 years I look at them with puzzlement – haven’t you realised that in 2020 what usually takes at year takes a month?¬† So why shouldn’t we get to [the outbreak of war] in a matter of months, rather than years. I do worry that in all kinds of domains tensions between China and the US are escalating in ways that we may underestimate.”

Ferguson says the Chinese government is struggling with the pandemic’s ‘major blow’ to their economy, and unemployment in China is likely to be at the highest it’s been for a long time, which presents a tinderbox situation for international affairs.

“If history teaches us anything, it’s that when authoritarian regimes are in crisis, when they are under pressure, that is when they’re likely to do reckless things in the realm of geo-politics.”

He has hopes the cold war-level hostilities will not escalate to hot war armed conflict, but says the very nature of that status indicates there is the same ripe danger that the world faced from the 1940s.

“We lived in the shadow of a potential world war III until the late 1980s. [From today] I can well imagine a future in which Cold War II escalates and we end up in some kind of conventional conflict. But there are multiple plausible futures, and … I can also imagine a better future.

“There is a world in which the research produces a winning vaccine quickly and we get it out in large quantities really fast, or a scenario in which the virus itself fades from the scene – in which it either mutates or it’s had it first and most effective pass and isn’t going to come back for a second wave.

“There’s a bunch of things that could happen that could make the world look a great deal less gloomy by the end of 2020.”

The pandemic has brought into focus the varying effectiveness of states and public health bureaucracies in dealing with the crisis and their wider stewardship.

“I think the American state has become highly dysfunctional. There are more than 60 federal agencies, of which at least five had a stake in pandemic preparedness, and within each of these bureaucracies there’s a report, and an acronym, and an action plan, and a PowerPoint presentation, and yet when the rubber hit the road and the pandemic came there was just an epic fail at the most basic level,” he says.

“They couldn’t even get tests to people in the way that other countries were able to do with ease.”

By comparison Ferguson says the US response to the influenza pandemic of 1957 and 1958, during the Eisenhower years, was done effectively and at “lightening speed”.

“Federal government was smaller then and, most people in it had served in WWII and their approach to a problem was a great deal more expeditious. It’s absolutely staggering how quickly they go from hearing about the new virus in Hong Kong, which was where it was first reported, to having a vaccine. So we are a different world, and we have a different attitude to the late 1950s.

“I’m struck by how big government has failed here, and it’s really institutions that evolved in the 1970s and thereafter that have broken down in the face of this challenge. That actually it was those people who wanted to expand the role of government and build a whole complex of agencies responsible for public health and the environment who’ve ended up building this behemoth or leviathan that doesn’t really work.

“We still don’t know quite what it was that went wrong at the relevant government agencies. But over time state institutions will tend to get worse. And if you just let them go on in their own sweet way what they’ll tend to do is become over-manned and steadily less efficient, and the ultimate bureaucratic incentives tend to be not to solve a problem, but just to cover your back.”

Where do we go from here?

“It will be, I think, market mechanisms that deliver a vaccine, if in fact a vaccine can be delivered. And what will get economies back to functioning will be the price mechanism – a lot of things are going to be a lot cheaper than they used to be because otherwise we’re just not going to risk [buying] them. If we don’t let that process work then we’re in trouble.

“Part of what concerns me at the moment is that market signals have basically been cut off in financial markets because governments and in particular central banks have acted to prevent assets being priced as they would be by a truly functioning market.

“The truth is there are lots of companies that are truly in big trouble, but we don’t quite know which ones because ultimately there’s been a kind of lifebelt thrown to everybody.”

The US government’s “disastrous” response to the coronavirus would usually mean its time was up at the next election, but Ferguson says in this case there is the risk the election results could be contested if they don’t swing strongly one way or the other.

And in China, he says President Xi Jinping faces political instability in the fallout from the pandemic.

“The thing to brace yourself for, is certainly some political surprises.”

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