Youth, Politics, China & the Future of Freedom
In this two-part interview, Niall Ferguson and Grégoire Roos exchange on how the Millenials are about to disrupt politics in the West, discuss the current crisis of the Atlantic community, and address the challenges of the rise of China.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, where he served for twelve years as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. His most recent book, The Square and the Tower, was published in 2017.
Grégoire Roos is a market analyst in the financial industry and has been a Leader of Tomorrow of the St. Gallen Symposium ever since 2014.
Interview First Part: Youth and Politics
This is the first part of this interview. You can find the second part here.
GREGOIRE ROOS (GR): Earlier this year, you published an extended paper in The Atlantic, deep-diving into the complexity of the X & Y generation’s electorate in the US. You stress how profoundly this electorally-emerging generation will disrupt American politics in the decades to come, displacing its gravity centre to the left. What has been the role of youth in the transformation of political systems and society as a whole since 1914?
NIALL FERGUSON (NF): First, we need to remember that the significance of youth has radically changed over the last hundred years, because as societies have aged and life expectancy has increased, in Europe and Northern America (as well as some Asian countries and of course Japan), the proportion of youth (people, let’s say, under 25) has gone down. So compared with any period prior to WW1, the young are just less important.
Secondly, we have in our mind’s eye an idea of youth as a revolutionary force. I think this is mostly the 1968 ideal, and that the memory of the generation of 1968 still lives on, leading a challenge to the established order that was primarily anti-war, but was also radical in a number of different dimensions, including feminism and racial equality. This leads us to expect youth to be radical, and each new generation of students fantasises about the Sorbonne and Woodstock spirit of the late 1960s. And this is misleading because actually in 1968, only a tiny proportion of young people went to university, only the elite. And so the people who were anti-war protesters at the time were not representative of their generation. We therefore have a notion that young people are supposed to be like Dany Cohn-Bendit. But that’s not necessarily the case.
GR: In other words, young people are a smaller proportion of our society, and more likely to go to university than in the past. How does this change things politically speaking?
NF: Well I believe this helps explain why we see a kind of revival of interest in socialism and in a bunch of more cultural ideas on the left. It’s partly that the young feel powerless, and it’s partly that they will go to college and be exposed to a whole range of ideas that would have previously been taught only to an elite. I think we are seeing a really radical divergence in political attitudes between the generations, not only in North America but also in Europe. And this has become a more important cleavage than class or race or more traditional cleavages. In the short run, it doesn’t massively change the political game; the young are just not numerous enough to decide the next election. But over time, they will matter more, and figures suggest that by 2028 more than half of the US electorate will be generation Z or millennial. If they remain as left wing as they currently are, that is ultimately going to shift North America, and much of Europe, quite a bit to the left.
GR: Yet history seems to suggest that politics is no exact science… Nothing could change that, really?
NF: You’re right. But that would therefore imply that they have a significant shift rightwards within the next ten years…
GR: Yes, Irving Kristol’s witticism “a conservative is a liberal that has been mugged by reality”…
NF: Exactly, which I refer to in the Atlantic’s article you referred to earlier. But I’m a little sceptical about that, and I’m not sure that this actually is likely to happen. Because I think once generational cultures are formed, they’re quite hard to change overtime; if we look at the baby boomers, people haven’t massively shifted in their political attitudes over the course of their lives.
GR: It actually comes out as a paradox that we’re calling for more education to fight inequality and, to some extent, populism when, on the other hand, some complain that “we have too many experts”. And as a matter of fact, if we look at it more closely, the elite hasn’t always played the best cards; let’s just think about Halberstam’s criticism of Kennedy White House’s Harvard-educated golden boys who pushed for disastrous policies during the Vietnam War, and whom he ironically called “the best and the brightest”…
NF: Yes, you’re right. But we should note that the term “elite” has become part of the populist discourse on the right. What I see happening is that, in the wake of the financial crisis, the populists on the right had a terrific opportunity to change the political game by reintroducing concepts that had really become almost unacceptable: protectionism, restriction of immigration… Those policies made a come-back and they did so as part of an attack on a globalist elite, an elite that the populists identified with the socially, culturally and economically disrupting policies of globalisation. I think it was true to say that, from the 1980s, the elite, nationally and internationally, had more or less unanimously and unequivocally favoured globalisation. And as trade, capital and migration became freer, the pay-offs disproportionally went to the elite. Because there’s no question that the returns of globalisation were heavily skewed in favour of the top 1% of income-earners in the industrialised world. And that’s why the populists were right to say that the global elite was getting all the benefits of globalisation when the ordinary median household was not. That was true. I think we’re now into a new phase, which I’ll call the “backlash against the backlash.” The populists won their victory in 2016, but we’re now heading for a progressive phase when, as in the late 19th century, the populists have their days or their years in the sun and then, after a certain point, there’s a backlash against the backlash, and along come the progressives saying: “Ignore these protectionists! Ignore these nativists! What we need is a new progressivism, in which the role of the state will be greater: that’s how we’ll address the inequality you’re all complaining about!” And that’s really what, in my view, we see on the left in Europe and in the US, with the emerging consensus around the fact that “taxation” is no longer a dirty word…
GR: But the critique of the so-called elite is still very much around, even on the left…
NF: Well it’s a recurring leitmotif of democratic politics. And it is sort of absurd, because obviously there will always be an elite! By definition, the government will be run by a relatively small number of people…
GR: Well the real question is: how do they get there?
NF: That’s right. Actually Mr. Macron is talking about getting rid of the famous “énarques” [graduates of the National School of Administration, which forms France’s top civil servants], which really seems like a mad thing to do, given the importance of those elite écoles for educating France’s administrative elite. If you look at the UK, Oxford and Cambridge have continued to produce a disproportionate number of the political elite.
GR: But although the ENA and Oxbridge are two significantly different systems, these schools and universities branded as clubs for the happy few and elite factories (and rightfully so) are actually a very European characteristic. If you look at the US, for instance…
NF: It’s true that in the US, there is very little sign of institutional continuity or hereditary elite privilege. Actually if you look at the top 1% of income earners in the US, they’re almost all self-made, and very few of them inherited their wealth or position: Jeff Bezos did not start out rich, nor did Mark Zuckerberg. And the political elite is not all Harvard or Yale. Actually there are barely any Harvard people in the current Trump Administration!
GR: … apart from Jared Kushner!
NF: Except Mr. Kushner, indeed—although he is not a member of the Cabinet or heading an executive federal department. Anyway, one of the striking features of American life is that there are higher levels of inequality than in Europe, but there is also higher social mobility. By that measure, the elites are constantly changing; the richest are never the same after ten years and the political elite today doesn’t look like Jack Kennedy’s political elite. There’s much less continuity. And therefore to talk about the elite in the American context is a little misleading, because there’s so much less hereditary privilege.
GR: The reason why I’ve wanted to get there is because your “Square and Tower” concept, that you’ve developed in the eponymous book last year, is actually quite enlightening to properly understand today’s political crisis. On the one hand, we have the increasing atomisation of society (the individual as the only common denominator in society), with growing decentralised and citizen-driven networks (the Squares). On the other hand, we have a dramatic fall of towers, the traditional institutions or hierarchies (trust in Government has never been so low, the Church is like a boat taking in water on every side, and unions have lost their members and become meaningless in the political discussion). And until recently, the last floor still standing in these old towers were the elite… So with the anti-elite movement are we witnessing the full collapse of the tower, and the emergence of what we could call a “Square civilisation” (at least in the West)?
NF: I see your point, but I think not. Coming back to my argument in the book, the dream of a decentralised, distributed network taking over power from the hierarchical towers has already been shattered. With amazing speed, the World Wide Web went from being a decentralised network to being a very hierarchical one, in which network platform companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook dominate it all. There are therefore new towers, in Silicon Valley in particular, in the form of the network platform companies. Secondly, the challenge to the established towers (i.e. the administrative State, the bureaucratic State…) has only really been partly successful, even in the US, where a very disruptive figure was elected President by an electorate that was ready for him to act as a wrecking ball. The administrative State looks remarkably intact at this point. What strikes me when I go to Washington is how little the Deep State has really been weakened by Donald Trump’s election. So I think we pretty much remain in the realm of towers and hierarchical structures of power. There have been some really irreparable disruptions; some giant corporations have been brought low by technology; political parties are much weaker than they used to be. But I’m struck by the power of the Federal Government and its agencies—that seems to be remarkably resilient. And I’m also struck by the speed with which Silicon Valley has built new towers of hierarchical authority.
GR: What will be interesting in the coming years will be how these two structures interact…
NF: Absolutely. Can the Federal Government regulate Silicon Valley? Or does Silicon Valley successfully dominate the Federal Government through its lobbyists?…
GR: And how do you see Europe in all this?
NF: In Europe I think the story is somewhat different. Because the project of European integration, very much an elite project, had as its primary goal not only the creation of a federal Europe, but more importantly the stabilisation of the Nation-States. I think [British historian] Alan Milward was very right when he said the real European project was to rescue the Nation-States from the calamitous mess they were in in 1945. And that’s been quite successful. So there’s not really any big question mark over the stability of France as a Nation-State or even Italy, despite its many problems. And within European politics, I think there is significant continuity despite seemingly big changes. So apparently the whole party political system in Europe has been blown up; Christian-Democrats and Social-Democrats are both in decline and new parties are coming into existence overnight (En Marche in France, Vox in Spain…), and it all seems to be in flux. But on closer inspection, I think there’s remarkable elite continuity, both in politics (at least in the sense of Government and bureaucracy) and in business. So you have the illusion of disruption, but I’m not sure you have that much real disruption. In the case of France, you still have verging on hereditary continuity of the political and business elites, which are closely intertwined. And Monsieur Macron is the master of the sort of fake revolution that has the appearance of change, but only the appearance. In fact he’s a sort of personification of what has been typical of the French elite for the past 30 or 40 years…
GR: Falconeri’s paradox in Lampedusa’s Leopard… “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same”
NF: Yes, that captures pretty much the mind-set of continental Europe!
GR: If we now look at the current state of the Transatlantic relationship, that seems to have been somehow weathering for some time, is it true to suggest that the rise of individualism that has marked contemporary societies has entered the realm of international relations? Can we say, to quote German foreign policy advisor Weiner Weidenfeld, that we’ve moved from an Alliance to coalitions.
NF: Well talking of alliance, I’d first say that the central one, i.e. NATO, is still here, and despite President Trump’s ambivalence about it, I don’t think it’s about to be dissolved. So there is still an alliance, as such, and it’s a pretty important one. Would it survive a test, such as a Russian invasion of Lithuania? I don’t know. I hope so. I think it probably would, because although President Trump is a sceptic about NATO and strangely friendly with Putin, the American national security establishment is overwhelmingly committed to NATO and it would be very hard for Donald Trump to renege on Article 5 in the event of a Russian move. In fact I think he wouldn’t be able to. So I think the Alliance is real, in that if it were put to the test it would pass the test. But what I think is striking is that it remains as unloved as it was in the 1970s. Complaints about burden-sharing by Americans actually go back to the 1970s, indeed to the 1960s! Kissinger even wrote a book called The Troubled Partnership in 1965! Europeans are always hostile to Republican presidents. They hated Nixon, they hated Reagan, they hated Bush, and they hate Trump. And yet we act like this is new! So we have these conversations about the Atlantic relationship every ten years or so, and it’s always when there is a Republican president in the White House, because Europeans really dislike Republicans. It’s very strange.
GR: One cannot really say that there was anything particularly friendly or healthy under President Obama either!
NF: Actually you’re right. But nobody in Europe ever criticised him!
GR: Not openly.
NF: The relationship was the same: the Germans weren’t spending enough on defence, there was all kind of disagreements over Syria, but we pretended that everything was fine. So I think Europeans have a complete myopia, an inability to realise that we’ve been having this conversation since at least the 1970s. It always intensifies when there is a Republican in the White House. Europeans always hate the Republican presidents, until it turns out that they were actually great presidents, like Reagan, or for that matter Bush Sr. And as far as I’m concerned, it will always be like this for the rest of my life. I think the terrible truth is that the Americans have been right for 40 years to complain about insufficient European expenditure of defence. It is inexcusable that the security of Germany, the biggest economy in Europe, is still dependent on the US. Why? Why is it actually the responsibility of the US to defend an extraordinarily wealthy country like Germany? The Germans should be paying for their own defence. It’s a long time since 1945! So I do think that the problems lie more on the European side than on the American side. The Americans have been remarkably indulgent and patient in putting up with the costs of defending Western Europe, in return for which they get vicious criticism (and I think this is especially true in Germany, where you have almost every week a negative cover of Trump on the Spiegel)…
GR: Well one could also argue on the other hand that Mr. Trump, for that matter, has also had some very poetic words towards the Germans… But let’s perhaps not count points here. What seems clear to every observer is that the American foreign policy of the past three years has definitely shown an objective disregard for multilateralism and dialogue amongst traditional allies. The unilateral withdrawal from JCPoA (the Iran Nuclear Deal) in particular, without any prior alignment with the Europeans speaks for itself. It sounds a bit like “Now we just walk our own way, whatever our traditional allies might say”.
NF: Well… this is a question partly about the nature of the Iran deal…
GR: Well, and also about the White House’s method, i.e. the absence of real consultation of America’s historical allies. The same method actually applied to the Paris Agreement too.
NF: Well, look. The US and Europe have tended to take very different lines on the Middle East, really, from as far back as the 1950s. Remember, the Suez Crisis was not really the high point of Transatlantic cooperation. The attitude of European governments towards recurrent Middle Eastern conflicts involving Israel has been quite different from the attitude of the US. And looking at the specific issues you’ve raised (Iran and the climate accord), I think there is less of a discontinuity than you’re implying. Because I honestly don’t think there has ever really been a period (other than maybe briefly in the wake of 9/11) when Europeans and Americans agreed on the policies that should be pursued in the Middle East, or indeed those that should be pursued with respect to fossil fuels. Because there are just fundamental differences of interests: the Europeans basically have no oil, have to import oil, have strong incentives to do business with Iran. The US is on its way back to being energy-independent as it was in the mid-20th century. So there is a conflict of interests, there is a conflict of philosophies, about how you deal with the Middle East. And so it’s not surprising that the very fragile and circumscribed agreement on Iran didn’t survive a change of government—also because there were so many flaws in this agreement, the fact that it simply didn’t constrain Iran from conventional military action or sponsoring terrorism being the most obvious. So I don’t know that it’s such a huge departure, and I think we should stop exaggerating the degree of discontinuity that the Trump Administration represents, because, in reality, there have been discontinuities every time there has been a change of party in the White House. It’s only, after all, a couple of decades— less—since the period when the Bush Administration very rapidly burnt up the good will that followed 9/11 in Iraq. I don’t think there’s ever been a period, in other words, when the US and Europe have had a uniform and united policy towards the rest of the world and especially towards the Middle East. I would even go so far as to say that if you look at what all the Obama Administration did—from the vantage point of the Middle East, not from that of Europe—it was the real discontinuity. Because what Obama did was to say, “Actually, Saudi Arabia and Israel are no longer going to be treated as having special relations with the US; I would rather bet on Iran”.
GR: It’s true that the famous “Obama Doctrine” he highlighted in his political interview to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic did not particularly point at any alignment with old Europe…
NF: Absolutely. It was striking to me in this interview how dismissive Obama was of nearly all America’s traditional allies, including, by the way, Great Britain. So I think when you turn the question around and ask which government was the real source of discontinuity, from the vantage point of the Middle East it was clearly Obama. And what Trump has done is to revert to a US policy based on Israel and Saudi Arabia. So that’s the real continuity there. Europeans have never been comfortable with that policy; they were not comfortable with it during the 1970s either. We shouldn’t really expect the US and Europe to have the same policy towards the Middle East, because I think their interests are fundamentally different.
GR: Well and in the meantime, there’s one watching the game and counting points without taking the knocks, it’s China…
This was the first part of the interview. You can read the second part here.