Niall Ferguson: ‘The Russians can win the war. The foreign policy of the Biden administration has been very unsuccessful’

The historian criticizes the U.S. government’s inability to deter attacks by the Taliban, Putin and Hamas, and warns that AI may negatively affect our cognitive abilities

Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson, Harvard University historian, on December 19, in Saint Vincent (Italy).Andrea Rizzi
Andrea Rizzi

The world is facing a period of great upheaval and transformation, from Russia’s attack on Ukraine to the artificial intelligence revolution. Historian Niall Ferguson, 59, who holds positions at Harvard and Stanford University, calls for maximum alertness in the face of the several risks inherent to this era. In an interview on the sidelines of the Grand Continent Summit, an annual conference organized by Le Grand Continent magazine in Saint-Vincent (Aosta Valley, Italy), Ferguson says he believes that the foreign policy of the Joe Biden administration has been a failure as it did not deter the Taliban, Putin or Hamas from launching their attacks. He believes that Donald Trump is likely to win the U.S. elections again, and warns that Ukraine may lose the war, that Europe cannot forget that its security depends on the United States and that artificial intelligence may seriously affect our cognitive abilities.

Question. How do you see the West in this fragmented world with increasingly antagonistic powers? There was a united response to the invasion of Ukraine, but now support is wavering.

Answer. I think if future historians try to sum up the Biden administration’s foreign policy, one way they might do it is to say, these guys were very bad at deterrence. They failed to deter the Taliban from taking complete control over Afghanistan. They didn’t deter Putin from further invading Ukraine. They haven’t deterred Iran from launching attacks on Israel through its proxies. And it remains to be seen if they deter China from blockading Taiwan, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they failed there too. The response of the West to the invasion of Ukraine has become a slightly mythologized subject. When the U.S. came round to realizing that Putin was serious, rather than deter him, they just published the plan. The Americans didn’t expect Ukraine to hold up. They expected [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy to fly out. Everybody was truly surprised by the success of the defense of Kyiv by the Ukrainians. Only then did we start to supply them with arms. And from the moment that we began to supply them with arms, we supplied them with enough weapons not to lose, but never enough to win. People in Washington said, ‘oh, this is great. Russia’s military is being degraded, and we don’t have to do the fighting.’ But that created a major risk to Ukraine, which we now see: it ran out of offensive capability. We should have seen the need for an armistice last year when things were going really well for Ukraine. We’ve created a very bad situation in which Western support has begun to decline. The Ukrainians are already running out of ammunition. And that’s potentially a year before Donald Trump is in the White House. The foreign policy of the Biden administration has been very unsuccessful. It makes Trump look good.

Q. You mentioned the Taiwan issue. Faced with the threat of China, do you think the European Union should align itself closely with the U.S. or rather seek its own position?

A. We’re in a cold war. Two superpowers — the United States and China — are competing ideologically, technologically, in economic terms, in geopolitical terms. There are only two, because superpower status today is about AI, quantum computing, all of those things. And for Europeans, it’s a complete delusion to think that there’s a choice. Because this continent relies on the United States for its security. It’s unbelievable to me that Europeans think they have a choice. And yet they do. If the United States elects Donald Trump, and he withdraws from NATO, then Europeans are going to discover what strategic autonomy means.

Q. What does it mean?

A. It will turn out to be a very unpleasant thing, because it will cost a lot of money. It will be very hard to achieve in any kind of realistic time frame. And then Europeans will find themselves quite exposed, not just to China, but to China’s proxy Russia. The situation is really quite a bit worse than most Europeans recognize. If Ukraine is defeated, then Russia’s at the borders of Europe. And Europe, if it doesn’t have the United States, has to find a huge amount of money. And not only money, but the capability to arm itself, which it currently lacks. All this can happen quite quickly.

Q. What do you think needs to be done?

A. I think we have to be very, very, ready to work extremely hard to keep the transatlantic lives together. Because if we’re divided, we’re in a much weaker position. Currently, there’s a good deal of doubt on both sides. We’re very bad at imagining defeat. It’s really one of our big myopic problems. We can’t quite picture the day Kyiv falls. We can’t quite picture what it’s like if Trump gives a speech in 2025, and he says the United States is leaving. We can’t picture [Chinese President] Xi Jinping in Taipei after a successful takeover. And all of these things can happen. We might have a rude awakening.

Q. Since 2016, it has been evident that the extreme right is gaining ground in the West. Far-right parties are either surpassing moderate groups or impregnating their ideology in them. Do you think that the traditional right can still prevail in this battle?

A. Classical liberalism achieved a very clear dominance that lasted right down until the 2010s. It beat the Soviet Union, beat the leftists, persuaded [U.S. president Bill] Clinton and [British prime minister Tony] Blair. Once there, you had nowhere else to go but to create a global economy based on free markets, free trade, free capital movement, and indeed free movement of people. And that was bound to generate a backlash because it wasn’t likely to benefit everybody. In fact, it was quite likely to hurt the white working class of Western Europe and North America and benefit the working class of Asia. That’s the big story. These arguments are still alive. They’re still strong, they’re still compelling, and they’re still winning elections. But in Europe, ultimately, the populist right doesn’t have a solution to the problem of aging populations. It doesn’t have a solution to the problem of low productivity growth. It doesn’t have a solution to the economic problem. And in many ways, its solution to the immigration problem just makes the economic situation slightly worse.

Q. How should leaders of the traditional right approach this situation? Should they partly buy into the arguments of the radical right? Or emerge as a clear moderate alternative?

A. I think if you want to be elected as a conservative, you have to join these different elements together. You can’t just be elected by disaffected working class nationalists. But you can’t also expect only free market business people to support you. So how do you get them together? I think you say the following: we are in terrible fiscal trouble. This is going to create a burden for your children and your grandchildren. We have to address the problem of low growth, we have to address the problem of high debt. But we also are against open borders, and we also are against cultural relativism, and therefore we combine classical economic principles with a controlled immigration policy. If you can’t do both those things, you will fail.

Q. In these troubled times, the artificial intelligence revolution is bursting onto the scene. It has enormous potential, it could lead to great advances, but it also comes with risks. What will its socioeconomic impact be?

A. You already see white collar clerical jobs being destroyed. There will be a large scale transformation of middle class employment because a whole raft of jobs will be gone really soon. Adoption is pretty rapid, and the first data show that there will be major gains in productivity through large scale job losses. I think economic history tells you that you get a bunch of new jobs after 20 years, but in the transition period, you have a great deal of distress and discontent that will find a political outlet of some kind. But there is another issue that is even more worrying.

Q. What is that?

A. Artificial intelligence will have unintended consequences for our powers of cognition. In the same way that Google destroyed our memory, because we no longer had to remember things, I think large language models will actually destroy our path of thinking, because it will essentially construct plausible-sounding arguments for us. And because we’re very lazy as a species, most people will essentially let it do that and lose the ability to do it themselves. If we don’t cut children off from large language models and make sure that they’re educated without them, we will not be able to teach children to think. I think they will simply get GPT4 or 5 to do the thinking for them, and that’s actually more worrying to me than the effects on employment. If we lose the ability to construct an argument in answer to a question, because we delegate it to a machine, I don’t think we have much of a future as a species really. That’s my bigger fear. The large language models are an invitation to mass mental laziness.

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