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Historian Niall Ferguson: ‘We are in Cold War II’

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DAVOS, SWITZERLAND – Niall Ferguson, a leading historian and senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, spoke with The Japan Times following his attendance at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last month. Ferguson spoke about global risks and geopolitics in 2020 as well as his latest book, “The Square and the Tower,” which was published in Japanese in December.

What was your impression of the latest WEF meeting in Davos?

This year, the program of the conference was very much focused on environmental issues. This coincided with the outbreak of an epidemic in China, which potentially is a much more imminent threat than climate change. So, there was a certain irony in the fact that we were talking about climate change, just as this pandemic was taking shape. The thing that is most dangerous to us as a species is in the short run; a nuclear war and a lethal pandemic. These things can happen tomorrow.

Do you think that the coronavirus outbreak could pose a global risk in 2020?

Yes, it could be. We don’t really know yet just how dangerous it is and we don’t know just how far it is going to spread because Chinese statistics are not very trustworthy. I think it’s a serious reminder that historically, our vulnerability as a species has been the pandemics. The biggest catastrophe in human history after all is the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed about a third of the population of Europe. It is a much bigger number than the Second World War. In 1918-1919, the so-called Spanish influenza killed more people than World War I in less time.

The volume of Chinese people who travel abroad has gone up exponentially. We’ve never been so interconnected at such high frequency. This was the central argument of my most recent book, “The Square and the Tower,” that we are in a network world, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Because anything can go viral. Fake news can go viral and so can lethal viruses. We are more vulnerable actually than we’ve ever been.

What kinds of lessons do you want to offer to Japanese people through this book?

The key general point is you can’t understand history if you don’t understand social networks and how they operate. Part of the point of the book is to educate about network science as a general framework........

© The Japan Times