New York Times bestselling author, Emmy award winning documentarist, and celebrated conservative intellectual — predicts this year’s newest conflict zones and examines President Donald Trump, the most controversial guest attending the upcoming World Economic Forum.
Niall Ferguson can often be found above the clouds crisscrossing the United States, Asia, and Europe. The conservative Scotsman currently calls the Hoover Institution at Stanford University his intellectual home.
He is the author of fifteen books, including the definitive biography of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. True to form, Ferguson is in Taipei airport to board a flight back to the US when Die Weltwoche is able to wrangle a phone call. Next week, he will be here in Switzerland joining the World Economic Forum for the first time in four years.
Next week, the World Economic Forum is gathering in Davos after a spectacular beginning of 2020 — the Iran situation, bushfires in Australia, impeachment looming in the US, Brexit ahead. These must be amazing times for you.
Certainly, the year got off to start with a bang. I don’t know that it is easy to connect all of those different events. The trends I am watching in 2020 are, firstly, the “Trump Unleashed” phenomenon. Remember all of the people, who at the beginning of the administration were there restraining him, like Jim Mattis and H. R. McMaster? Now, they are fellows at the Hoover Institution with me. Trump is far less constrained than he was, and we can expect to see more of his distinctive, Don Corleone-style of foreign policy, this year. Especially as I think it plays quite well with American voters to see shows of strength.
The second trend is kind of the other wave: climate change and issues that mobilize younger voters around the world, also in the United States, and tend to shift them leftwards. One thing to watch out for is that Bernie Sanders probably has a better chance of getting the Democratic nomination than most people currently realize because he is tapping that youthful radicalism which is manifesting itself in all kinds and parts of the world.
So, we are heading towards a collision between national conservatism, Trump style, and a youthful radicalism on issues such as climate change and inequality.
You are attending Davos. The two ideas you mentioned are also going to clash there. You have Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg coming.
It is fair to say that the kind of people who go to Davos are inclined to identify themselves more closely with Greta Thunberg than with Donald Trump. In Corporate America and in Corporate Europe, ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] is the acronym of the day. And there is a sense amongst most senior executives that they need to be doing more, and to be seen to be doing more, on issues from climate change to gender equality. And that’s not Donald Trump’s agenda.
So, my expectation is that a majority of Davos attendees will want to ingratiate themselves with Greta and be seen to distance themselves from Trump. But, in truth, Trump is more likely to get reelected than not. We are probably another four years away from a shift to the left in the US. Whereas, it’s going to be another two years before Greta Thunberg can even vote.
My guess is that the Davos crowd will be out of sync with the world as it is. And right now, the national conservative trend – which is a better way to describe it than populism – is far from over. You saw that in the British election in December delivered a resounding victory for Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservative Party. In the short run this year – I still think that the national conservative forces have the upper hand.
What about the long term?
I think, the trend over ten years is going to be to the Left in most developed countries just because of demographics.
What do you think about Greta Thunberg?
My view about Greta Thunberg is that she should be directing her rhetoric to Beijing, not at New York or European cities. The reality is that something like 57 percent of the increase in CO2 emissions since 2007 is due to China. Another nineteen percent is due to India, and the rest is due to the Middle East. Greta Thunberg is talking to the wrong people and addressing the wrong politicians. Davos is very predictable: They will fawn over Greta Thunberg and they will smear Donald Trump. Those who take a different position will be in a very small minority. But that’s Davos.
Donald Trump made a last-minute decision to attend Davos. As you mentioned, he will be quite isolated ideologically there. What does he have to gain from going? Boris Johnson said he wasn’t going because he has to sort out Brexit and the National Health Service (NHS) instead of sipping champagne in the Swiss mountains.
It is important to remember that Donald Trump has been a fantastic president for business and for investors. People have been predicting recession and stock market disaster since November of 2016. Yet, here we are in 2020, and markets are still up.
The problem for people at Davos is: They may not approve of Donald Trump’s personal style, but they cannot pretend he has not been good for business. He has been fantastic. He has delivered from the point of view of investors in equities much more than European governments have delivered. From his point of view, it might be tempting to just come and remind folks at Davos that the reason why they are riding high is him and not any “Green New Deal.”
It is also important to remember that Trump is somebody who would really quite like to be given recognition and applause by the business elites.
Finally, I would add that, although Trump has played hardball with Iran and indeed China, in the recent past, his impact is actually to seek deals with both with Iran and China. That’s the thing that people often misunderstand about Trump. He can play hardball, but it is a prelude to a negotiation. I expect Trump to be negotiating with Iran and China. In fact, the US and China are going to sign a phase one trade deal, this week.
So, he is not particularly isolationist, and he is not a complete “America First” guy. In reality, the aggressive style is designed to bring people to the negotiating table. That’s the way to understand him. It’s not that Trump wants World War III with Iran – that’s the kind of standard left-wing view. He doesn’t. He is actually going to negotiate with the Iranians. I would not be surprised if US troops ended up leaving Iraq. In some sense, the US-China relationship is leading in a similar direction. It matters that corporate leaders realize this about him — that they realize that Trump is very unpredictable but a quite effective president. Four years ago, I went to Davos and quite wrongly predicted that Trump had no chance in a presidential election. It turned out that most people in Davos were wrong about Trump. Maybe, four years on, they should start to take him more seriously than they did back then.
In your most recent column in the Sunday Times, you called Trump’s policy the “Don Vito Corleone” doctrine. Is it actually desirable to have a global superpower governed by some kind of Mafia principles?
It is clear that Trump – and indeed people close to him – are quite influenced by the Godfather movies. I showed that in the piece. I also think that the way that he has dealt with Iran has been straight out of the Corleone playbook. He has used this quick assassination of Suleimani to make a point, to assert his dominance. Not because he wants to start World World III, but because he wants to show the Iranians who the capo di tutti i capi is – and it is him. In domestic politics, you don’t want the president to be Corleone. But maybe in foreign policy, there is something to be said for it.
The world of foreign policy is a nasty world. It’s what the Chinese call a “dark forest.” One reason that people – the American liberals, but also Europeans – find it hard to get along with Trump is that they just are uncomfortable with the Don Corleone doctrine.
So, the Suleimani assassination was worthwhile?
It seems to me that Iran is a state that is currently on its knees, in the grip of really quite serious domestic instability and economic crisis. Don Corleone may very well have the last laugh. Who knows? It is imaginable that the regime actually falls apart under the pressure it currently faces. If that happens, it is going to be pretty hard to dismiss Don Corleone because he is going to have proved himself to be the capo di tutti i capi.
Trump’s promise back in 2016 was to “make America great again.” He seems to have achieved quite a lot. The economy is doing great. The US is self-sufficient in terms of Energy supply. And the strike on Suleimani is perceived by people such as General David Petraeus as a military masterstroke. Have we been witnessing the rebirth of the American superpower?
If you look at the outcomes rather than the Twitter feed, it’s not a hundred percent success. It has not been successful in North Korea, at least not yet. There is still significant risk of Iraq descending into civil war. Right now, I would say Russia, rather than United States, has become the dominant player in the Middle East. And the US-China test of strength is not over by any means.
So, I think Trump has some way to go before we can say he has really re-imposed American power after the very difficult years of the late Bush presidency and of Obama’s presidency. That is the only honest way to look at it.
If you ask yourself: Where will we be if he gets another four years? There are people who would say, “Well, the international order will have completely fallen apart,” that there won’t be anything other than a kind of realpolitik with conflict to the left and conflict to the right. The other view is that, after another four years, the United States will have reasserted itself as the dominant superpower against its enemies in the Middle East, as well as against its enemies in Asia.
If you look at this from a European perspective, Trump has won the most important argument about European policy, which was that NATO was not doing its job, and, particularly, it was taking advantage of the United States. I think the Europeans have come to grips with that. In particular, President Macron, when he said that NATO was brain-dead, was essentially echoing Trump.
It’s early days and it is certainly going to take another four years for this project to be judged a success or, for that matter, a failure. I think he will get another four years, the way things are going. And I am inclined to bet on America, because what I see is weakness on the other side. Iran is chronically weak. China has much bigger problems than people in the West realize. And I have learned my lesson four years ago: not to bet against Donald Trump.
Let’s talk about Europe. Great Britain is leaving at the end of this month. What’s your take on Boris Johnson? Is he the man who is going to free Britain from EU regulation?
Many of us underestimated Boris’s ability to win a decisive victory last year. He did that and has put himself in a far stronger position than Theresa May was in. But it remains a difficult negotiation. The divorce is one thing, but the future relationship is going to be very difficult. Certainly, it will be difficult to line it all up within a year. But Boris is not to be underestimated any more than Trump is.
I thought the appointment of Dominic Cummings as his chief adviser was very good news, indeed, because Cummings is brilliant. Cummings helped him win that election. And I think Cummings will help him revitalize Britain’s government and economy.
I think the negotiations are going to be very different from the ones with Theresa May because Boris has self-confidence politically and economically about where Britain is going. I am bullish about the way Brexit is going to work out, just as I am rather bearish about how the European Union is going to be doing when its core economy – Germany – is in a great deal of difficulties.
Are you confident about “Brexit Britain?”
I was opposed to Brexit in 2016. But we lost that argument. After we lost it, I said it was time to move on, and to make Brexit a success. I actually think that there is a good prospect that it will turn out well because Britain solved its political problem. It has got rid of Jeremy Corbyn as a threat; it has got rid of a “no-deal” Brexit as a threat; it has got rid of Remain as a threat. We are not going to have another referendum. We are not going to change our minds. This is a done deal. Europeans would be really foolish to make this difficult.
They have their own problems that have nothing to do with Brexit. This is one of the reasons that negotiations over Brexit are going to be conducted differently. Europe is losing self-confidence. That’s partly due to the economics of the situation and it’s partly because there are no really good answers to the questions. European security: If the United States is not committed to NATO, it’s not at all clear that Europe can do without it. There also aren’t great answers to the question of migration. It seems very clear that the migration question is going to come back with a vengeance, soon. The problem in Europe is precisely the lack of power. That is going to become more and more obvious this year.
Brussels’s statements still sound very dogmatic. They want Great Britain in the single market.
It is unfortunate, but there is this kind of attitude according to which somehow Britain is going to leave the EU and yet remain subject to its regulation. My response to that is, “Dream on. That isn’t happening. It’s time to adjust to reality, Brussels!”
Britain has moved on and is in a new place. Brussels hasn’t really adjusted to the new situation. I think they will adjust when they realize that Britain isn’t about to be rolled over the way it was because of the way Theresa May was negotiating. Theresa May was a very unsuccessful prime minister partly because she was a very bad negotiator. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are going to be a far more effective team. We will see a very different tone to these negotiations. I think these are mostly bluffs from Brussels. If they have any sense, they will not seek unreasonable concessions from Britain, and they will try to get a free trade agreement done as quickly as possible. I really hope that happens.
Do you think Boris Johnson can deliver a free trade deal by the end of the year, as he promised?
There is a high level of complexity with these negotiations, whether it is with the Europeans or with the Americans. It won’t get done this year, but I can imagine Phase One getting done, to borrow a terminology from President Trump
How do you read Ursula von der Leyen’s “European Green Deal”?
I think it is going to be a sure way to reduce the growth rate of the Eurozone because for Europe to impose this kind of burdens on manufacturing is just self-harm when there is no sign at all of China or India – which are now the main polluters – doing anything really to change their conduct.
After Britain is gone, Angela Merkel preparing to leave the scene, a domestically weak French president: Where does power in the European Union reside?
Power has shifted away from Berlin. The last time I was in Europe, there was the widespread assumption that it was now more likely to be found in Paris with Monsieur Macron. But he has just given in on his pension reform. It doesn’t look to me as if there is much power in Paris, either.
The truth is that there is no obvious center of power in Europe. We are almost back to the old Henry Kissinger question: Who do I call when I want to talk to Europe? The answer is: I don’t know.