Centennial Speaker Series Session 1: What Are the Lessons of History for Our Era?

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Professor of History, University of Toronto; Emeritus Professor of International History, University of Oxford; Author, War: How Conflict Shaped Us


President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction; @RichardHaass

The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas

Margaret MacMillan discusses prominent events in history that can help increase our understanding of current events and guide policymaking. 

This meeting launches CFR’s new speaker series, The 21st Century World: Big Challenges & Big Ideas, which will feature some of today’s leading thinkers and tackle issues ​that will define this century. 

This event series was also presented as a special podcast series, “Nine Questions for the World,” in celebration of CFR’s centennial. See the corresponding episode here.

HAASS: Well, thank you. Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. I'm Richard Haass, fortunate enough to be president of the Council on Foreign Relations. For those of you who don't know who we are, we are an independent, nonpartisan membership organization. We're also a think tank, a publisher, and an educational institution. We were founded a century ago in 1921. And now a hundred years later our membership has grown to over five thousand men and women across this country. We are dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries in this very complicated, dynamic world of ours.

Today's meeting is the first in a new series here at the Council on Foreign Relations designed to parallel for our centennial. It is on the twenty-first century world, the big challenges, and big ideas. Today's meeting is on, specifically, the lessons of history for our era. We would be hard-pressed to find someone better to both kick off this series, as well as to discuss the specific issue of what history has to tell us, to understand our situation, what history has in its way to guide us about what we might do, than Margaret MacMillan. Margaret is the professor of history at the University of Toronto, and she is the former warden of St. Anthony's College at the University of Oxford. Two points of disclosure. One, I was a student at St. Anthony's College long before she was a warden, but we have that in common. And second of all, if and when we get to the point where once again this institution can be in residence, Margaret MacMillan will be our first historian in residence. It's a question of when and not if. She is one of the leading historians in the world. Her books are many. Her most recent book is titled, quite directly, War: How Conflict Shaped Us. I expect many of you are familiar with some of her previous books, including Paris 1919, The War That Ended Peace, and Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, which in many ways is a perfect lead-in to where we are today. So Professor MacMillan, again, thank you, both for being with us today, but also for all you've done over the years and decades to inform and raise the public conversation about the past and the relevance to the present.

MACMILLAN: Thank you very much. It's an honor and a great pleasure. I only regret that I can't be there in person, but we've all learned how to Zoom here and there around the world.

HAASS: Yes, I'm sure there's lessons of history for Zoom, but we won't go there. Let's begin, though, before we get into specific history with a small "h." Let's start with history with a capital "H," if you will. And just to set the stage for what we'll talk about ourselves and then for the Q&A to follow, about what you see both as the utility of history in making sense of the present in potentially informing policy, but then I also want you to say something about the risks. Like any tools, it can be used as well as abused as you suggested in the title of your book.

MACMILLAN: Well, I think the first thing that history can do is help us to understand others because we all know that when you're dealing with other groups of people or even other individuals, the more you know about them, the more success you're likely to have in avoiding things that they may feel angry about or dealing with them or finding ways of negotiating. I mean, this seems, I know, very obvious, but I think we forget about it sometimes when we're dealing with other nations or other groups of people united perhaps by different political and social and religious values. And I think we have to remember how much we are all, whether we're groups or individuals made up of experience. What we've been through has helped to shape us. So I see history in diplomacy and international relations as something that is a way of gaining insight, gaining greater understanding of those whom you're dealing with. I mean, I think it’s very hard—you know Russia well and China, of course, too—but I think it’s very hard to understand, for example, those powers without understanding the recent history because that's what they're remembering and that's what's helped to shape them.

We can see Putin, for example, President Putin, as a typical tyrant, perhaps a typical authoritarian leader. But his particular goals and his particular animosities and his particular wishes for Russia are shaped by Russian history and by his own experience of Russian history. So I see history as giving very valuable insight into those that we're dealing with. And I think it can also help us in asking the warning questions. You know, what is likely to happen? You know, we can't predict the future. We do our best to make an educated guess. But if we understand the past, we might have some sense of where we might go wrong. I think history is very good at saying "just be careful" in a situation like this. You know, if you are in a world where alliances are beginning to become unstable and when people are perhaps thinking of switching sides, that's an unstable world. Be careful. Or if you're in a world in which you have a power driving for greater share as the Germans said before the First World War, a "place in the sun," then that is something that has to be dealt with and accommodated. So I think history can help us to formulate questions. If we don't ask the good questions, we don't have any hope of trying to get to answers. The danger—sorry—

HAASS: I was going to get to that, you know, the danger, which is how do we avoid the situation where if you've got a hammer in your hand everything looks like a nail. And we see situations that are, on the surface, perhaps, there's some similarities, but if you were to delve deeper the differences actually are more pronounced. How do we avoid in that sense what you might call the pitfalls of history?

MACMILLAN: It's a good question. We don't always do it. We get locked into a particular analogy from the past. For example, I mean, I keep thinking of the appeasement analogy, which has played out in so many different countries in so many different parts of the world. You know, it started as an attempt to try and accommodate the rising powers or the revengeful powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and then to some smaller powers as well, in the 1930s. And I think in some ways it was an honorable attempt to try and avoid war. But it became seen as compromising with evil and compromising with those who would disrupt us of the international order and seen as leading to the Second World War. And too often, I think, since 1945, we have put that appeasement analogy on top of a very particular situation. And so we've got to be tough with this particular group of people or the same thing will happen again. So yes, I think if you try and apply a model from the past too rigidly you can get locked in, and that doesn't allow you to think of other possibilities. I mean, my whole argument about using the past is it should open up possibilities, not close them down. But sometimes by grabbing onto an analogy from the past we simply close down ways of thinking about the present situation.

HAASS: Hearing on appeasement reminds me, I don't know if Churchill said it. He either said everything or he is said to have said everything. But he was said to have said that “at times even appeasement can be the right policy, that compromise has its place in diplomacy.” It seems to be the danger of the appeasement line is in some ways it shuts down a serious public conversation because it makes those at the receiving end look weak and unprincipled when it actually, in certain circumstances, compromise might be all in all the least bad option.

MACMILLAN: Well, you know, I've sometimes thought that you could actually call the policy of the West towards the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, you could call that appeasement. You know, we call it containment, but in a sense what it was doing was saying to the Soviet bloc, "You can keep what you gained, but no more. You've got enough. We're now going to push back." And that was an element in appeasement, you know, that you will satisfy what is seen as certain aims, but not all. So, you know, I think it's how we think about it and how we label it, but I agree with you.

HAASS: So, when I got up this morning, I was looking at the news. It was quite a morning. You had news reports of Russia massing of troops against Ukraine, various parts of Ukraine. You have China making new incursions, military incursions into airspace and waters adjacent to Taiwan. You had reports of what was said to be an Israeli attack on an Iranian nuclear program that has gone far beyond the 2015 nuclear agreement. North Korea wasn't in the news today, but it was in the news the last few days with its continuing military buildup. Reports of record U.S. deficits and debt. New reports of divisions and distractions here in the United States. And COVID-19, rather than necessarily disappearing or fading, making certain comebacks in parts of the country and parts of the world. In some parts of the world it has never gone away in the first place. So when you wake up to these same things and others, what flashes through your mind? You've got as full and as rich of a library of history in your head as any person I've ever met. So when you wake up to all those, other than perhaps the temptation to rollover, what occurs to you?

MACMILLAN: I sometimes think there's too much happening at once, you know, that we can deal with one or two crises and we can deal with a crisis in a particular part of the world. But when you get a series of overlapping crises, that's what worries me. And it seems to me that at the moment, the international institutions and the ways of behaving internationally—because the institutions only work if you have shared norms and values and shared understandings about how they should work—are crumbling. That they haven't been reinforced sufficiently and that we have real possibility of conflict in parts of the world. I mean, you haven't even mentioned India and China, who've been clashing up on their common border. India and Pakistan still remain a problem. Egypt and Sudan and Ethiopia now seem to be getting across each other, but Egypt and Ethiopia, in particular. I'm in the UK at the moment, it looks like Northern Ireland could well be going back to a version of the Troubles. So, you know, it just, I almost think, and then you layer COVID on to that and the longer-term problem with climate, and I almost think that these things make each other worse, that you can get too many things happening at once. And that's one of the, I think, if there's a lesson of history is that you can't predict coincidence. Sometimes coincidence can be very destabilizing, indeed.

HAASS: Let's go back to something you've written about and I've studied, which is the run up to World War I. I recently wrote a book and it forced me to reread things, in many cases, I hadn't read since I was a student at Oxford some forty or so years ago. And I was struck when I read it all about how the outbreak of World War I was not so much by design, so much as it happened, almost more than a war of choice. I thought it was something of a war of carelessness, that the leaders of the day lost control to the extent individuals can ever be said to control events and history. And what you said, the reason I mentioned this, Margaret, is what you just mentioned. That one senses at the moment that the diplomatic circuits are in danger of being slightly overloaded. I was wondering does that make you then think in some ways of the pre-World War I period where you have dynamics and a lot of things going on, and it's asking an awful lot of those in positions of responsibility to keep their head and wits about them?

MACMILLAN: Well, one of the things I thought when I looked at the last desperate weeks before the First World War broke out is just how tired they must have all been. You know, I mean, quite often people were sleeping, as they did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, because they were sleeping in their offices. New material was coming in. Telegrams in those days were coming in the whole time. And I think there was almost too much information and too much pressure on the people who actually had to make the decisions. And I think that is a real factor that we have to take into account. You know, we get sort of all sorts of plans being made, and we'll say that when we get a crisis, we'll do this, this and this. There'll be careful steps and so on. It doesn't work like that as we know in a crisis. People simply get overwhelmed, and they can get into situations. The First World War, I think, is also an example of deterrence. I mean, I think all sides thought we will just do a bit of mobilization. Well, they thought different things, but I think there was a tendency that you will mobilize some troops and move up to the frontiers and the other side will recognize our signals and back down. But the signals begin to get jumbled because as you get more and more worried about what the other side is doing, you begin to suspect the worst. And so everything the other side does—and it may indeed be malevolent and purpose—but everything the other side does you begin to feed into this scenario of they are out to get us. And so I think we have to be aware of what happens when you get these tense situations with enormous pressures and enormous loads. And you're quite right, individuals don't make history but there are times when they can actually decide whether or not between war and peace.

HAASS: When you look at the pre-World War One situation, do you find parallels, as some historians have suggested, in particular, to comparisons between contemporary China and Germany of the time? Essentially a rising power not content with the status quo and essentially wanting to remake the world order. Not bent on war, per se, but bent on remaking a world order and potentially, therefore, in a position to set in motion changes that could lead to conflict. Does that seem overdrawn to you? Or is there something there potentially?

MACMILLAN: No, I don't think it's overdrawn at all. And I think you put it very well. I mean, I think, again, you know, history never repeats itself, but there are suggestive parallels. And I think you have a Germany that was actually a very new country. It had grown enormously quickly and economically and, of course, was very powerful militarily, feeling that it wasn't taken seriously enough. And, you know, feeling masses, I think, in international relations, feeling that you're not taken seriously enough or feeling you've been insulted, these things can actually play a part in how nations and individuals act internationally. I think with China, I mean, the Chinese make a great deal of their ancient civilization. But in some ways, it's a very new China. It's a China that went through a traumatic period and then came together again in 1949. It's not the classical China. It's a very different China. I think that whole century, as the Chinese called it a humiliation, probably transformed China forever. It's a different sort of country. I think in China, as well, you get the sense that we're still not taken seriously enough. Sometimes what may seem like to others bullying belligerence, which I think there is an element of that, is perhaps also driven from inside by this need to be taken more seriously. But it is dangerous, and it's how other nations respond to it. If you respond without outright hostility, then you may just make the situation worse. But how do you contain the will and the wishes of a very powerful nation, powerful both economically and increasingly, of course, in China's case, militarily, given their increases in defense spending? How do you contain it so that it doesn't feel that it's being shut out, that it doesn't feel that it's being in any way insulted? It's a huge problem, I think, for the international order at the moment.

HAASS: What about your take on us? We were late to get into World War I and only did so whether it was the attacks on shipping. Some would say German diplomatic mischief with Mexico may have had a side role. But we were reluctant participants in World War I. And again, we were late to get to World War II. Again, and that followed roughly two decades of quasi-pullback from the world. When you see what's going on in this country—most of the conversation has been about the domestic plans of the still very new administration, the struggles with COVID, the struggles with the economy, questions of race, questions of partisanship—does it make you uneasy when you see the United States, again, not just this administration, but the last two administrations, in some ways increasingly reluctant to play the sort of role that we've played for the bulk of the post-World War II period? Do you see any echoes there that keep you up at night?

MACMILLAN: Yes, look, I'm Canadian. So the United States always makes us uneasy. Well, you're our great, big neighbor. And you know, the famous Pierre Trudeau, the father of Prime Minister Trudeau, but when Pierre was prime minister, he said, "Living next to the United States is like living next to an elephant. With its size and turns over, it could squash you." And so, you know, in Canada we pay a lot of attention to United States. But you know, I'm not sure I would have said this when I was younger, but I think a world order can work successfully when there is a hegemon that's prepared to support it and prepared to put the effort in. That doesn't mean it does everything right. It will make mistakes. But on the whole, I think, we all benefit if there is order and stability in the world. Without a rule of law or without order we can't do all sorts of other things. And the United States, it seems to me, has always had this strand in its thinking right from the time you became a country of wanting to turn its back on the rest of the world. And, of course, you've been blessed by geography with the ability to do that at least until the late twentieth century. I no longer think it's possible because geography—the two seas, the landmass—will not keep you safe in a way that it would have done in the past. But I do see, when I look at the United States, a mood of introspection, a lot of soul searching about where's the United States going, a lot of understandable preoccupation with the domestic problems. It strikes me. I look at the New York Times and the Washington Post every morning. Often the foreign news comes very far down. You know, I have to go down past all the COVID, past the Biden administration. All of this is absolutely important. Past the latest regrettable shooting. I have to go quite far down into those newspapers to find out what's happening in Burma or what's happening elsewhere. And that seems to me indicative of a preoccupation with what's going on at home. But you know and the Council on Foreign Relations, of course, knows for sure the world isn't going to leave you alone. It will continue on its way and the United States is and has been a key player and so I think we will all regret. I certainly will regret if the United States decides to withdraw more from involvement with the world.

HAASS: Another thing about the interwar period was the decline of many of the, not all, but many of the democracies, obviously Weimar Germany and so forth. When you see the struggles that democracies today are having with populism and having trouble dealing with some of their economic and social and political challenges, what's your take on that? Does that lead you to fatalism, concern, or do you feel that contemporary democracy has assets and strengths that previous eras of democracy did not.

MACMILLAN: Democracies have a capacity to renew themselves. And they go through very bad times. I mean, you know, the United States went through very bad times at the end of the '20s. And there were those at the time who said democracy is finished in the United States, you know, the impact of the Great Depression. And there were concerns in Canada and concerns in Britain, too. But democracies can be resilient. I mean, I think we recognize and we pay, perhaps, more attention to the ones that fail. But the ones that somehow muddle along—and the problem of democracies is they're messy, you know, and they often take a very long time to get there. I mean, I think, again, Churchill, you know, who seems to have said everything, said, you know, "Sooner or later they'll do the right thing, but it'll take them a long time to get there. They'll try everything else first." And I think, you know, I'm impressed with the resilience of democracy. You see it around the world. I mean, clearly there is a pent-up desire for democracy. You see what's happening in Burma today. You know, the extraordinary reaction of the Burmese people. I mean, this is in defense of their own very limited and very short experience of democracy. So, I'm not a pessimist, but there's certainly things to worry about. And I think populism is dangerous because so often populism is not just about us the people, it's about excluding others. You know, populism so often needs enemies, not always perhaps, but so often it does. And it can so often turn into hostility, racism towards minority groups who are said not to belong. There's a very dangerous undercurrent in populism I think.

HAASS: As difficult as U.S.-Chinese relations now are, I think it could probably be said that U.S.-Russian relations are even measurably worse. And famously after the First World War, I think he was a Cambridge man at the time, Mr. Keynes wrote a book about the economic consequences that basically blamed a punitive piece on Germany after World War I for what became the rise of Nazi Germany. The reason I raise it is after the Cold War, the United States and the West did certain things and not others. But one of the things they did do is expand NATO and so forth. And now we have a Russia that's clearly aggrieved. Is it your sense that that was inevitable? That there's something about Russian history and Mr. Putin, who you alluded to before, can very much be understood as a creature of Russian history? That there's something about Russian political culture that explains where Russia is today, its alienation? Or do you think also that the—we'll raise Mr. Churchill again, that his comment about "in victory, magnanimity," that the West was not sufficiently magnanimous after the end of the Cold War, that Western policy might also account for the Russia we see today?

MACMILLAN: I certainly don't buy the argument that, you know, the Slavs are somehow different. And this, of course, is the argument that Putin makes. I mean, he's increasingly using this argument about the Russian soul and about how they're not European and how they're this extraordinary Eurasian people. I mean, some of the people he has around him have some really mad theories. I mean, there is the one who believes that the Russians were created by bolts from outer space, which makes them pure and more energetic than anyone else. I mean, there is some pretty wacko stuff going on. But, I think, you know, that the Russians have had certainly a lot of autocracy. But there were, before the First World War, strong democratic tendencies in Russia. I think a lot of Russians would prefer a different sort of type of government today. I think a number of things went wrong in the 1990s. And certainly the West didn't help. You know, we lorded it over, I think, in a very unfortunate way. The Russians, you know, was follow our example, everything you did was wrong. They were coming out of a period of authoritarian rule. What they needed was support and help, not to be told that everything they'd done was wrong and they were inferior. We did make a mistake there. I think there were also many mistakes made by those who were in charge in the 1990s. The Yeltsin era was one of corruption and incompetence. And I think it helped to make a lot of Russians fed up with what they saw. They thought that what they were getting was democracy, and instead what they got was a kleptocracy. They got, you know, violence, disorder.

And I think for a lot of Russians, Putin initially was someone who brought a sort of stability. But my sense is, you know, whenever Russians get a chance to express themselves, particularly these days, you know, there seems to me, again, a longing for a different sort of government. I mean, the success of the opposition to Russia, in spite of all the obstacles it faces, I think, says something. I think Putin has really been shaken by Navalny, for example, and by some of the revelations. The video, I don't know if you've seen it of this palace? I mean, I don't know what to call it. I mean, it is the most—only rivaled, I think, by Ceausescu's marble parliament in the center of Bucharest. I mean, there is a sort of “dictator chic," which is pretty ugly. Anyway, I think, you know, I think we shouldn't assume that political cultures of all nations are always the same, they change. And I think the population in Russia is now very different from the population of 1917. It's much more educated. It's much more open to what's going on in the world. So I'm not a pessimist. And I also don't think that things are inevitable.

HAASS: We're living at a time where some of the great challenges are associated with globalization. Obviously, climate change. We're living with a pandemic. There are other challenges related to the use of cyberspace. There's proliferation. It's a long list of things. Because some, but not all of globalization—does history have anything to inform us? Is there anything to contribute to how we ought to try to make sense of it, how we ought to go about trying to structure it or regulate it?

MACMILLAN: I think, you know, if history tells us anything, it's we tend to go down a particular path until it gets difficult. And then we begin to realize we need to pull back a bit. I mean, it seems to me that we've perhaps gone too far down. I certainly think so, and others may disagree with me, of the path advocated by the neoliberals. Reagan, who famously said, you know, "The most terrifying words you can hear is, ‘I'm from the government. And I'm here to help.’” I mean, I think we went too far down the road of thinking you didn't need regulation, you didn't need an international regulatory structure, that you didn't need government. And I think the COVID pandemic, in fact, has perhaps been a salutary lesson in that, that there are times when you certainly do need government and you do need societies to work together for common goods. And I think, you know, after the Second World War, I think there was in a number of countries, including the United States, a very real sense that we made mistakes in the '20s and '30s, and we need to pull back from those. And so they set up both an international system and a domestic order, which involved a fair degree of government intervention in such things as building infrastructure and education. In the case of the British, the welfare state. And that may have gone too far. I mean, government may have interfered too much. But I think we may now see a recognition that there are some things that government can and should do both internationally and domestically.

HAASS: I will resist the temptation to go down that path because it raises interesting questions about whether at times we undershoot the role of government, whether now we're in danger of overshooting the role. But we'll save that for—let's talk a little bit about global governance in another way, which is, you had the failure of the League of Nations. I'm not quite sure how people would rate the United Nations, whether it's a—I guess it's—there might be those who call it a modest or limited success. Others who would call it more disappointment or failure than anything else. What is your take then on the ability to think about global arrangements? Do you feel in some ways that the lesson of history is that there's a real limit to what we can expect from that type of international coordination? And that what really matters most is not international arrangements, per se, but essentially how the major powers sort themselves out and what kind of formal or informal understandings or undertakings they enter into?

MACMILLAN: I don't think it's an either/or. I mean, I think we have to understand that we often expect too much of international organizations. I mean, the League of Nations had tremendous hope, partly, and I think largely, because it was created at the end of the First World War, which had been a catastrophe for Europe and very damaging for much of the rest of the world. And so there was a hope, perhaps almost desperate, that this new organization would put war behind us all and begin to tackle some of the problems of the world from poverty to slave trading to gun trafficking to arms races. And, of course, no international institution could meet all those goals and could do as much as was hoped. And no international institution is any better than its members. If its members, particularly the powerful ones, are not prepared to support it, there's a limit to what it can do. But I think the same thing is true of the United Nations. There were tremendous expectations, understandably, after the horrors and loss and catastrophe of the Second World War. No institution could have done as much but to go to the opposite extreme and say, “Well, it's all useless. It's all a failure.” And I think we also have to look not just at the United Nations and the League of Nations, but all their related institutions, you know, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, the Bretton Woods organizations. I mean, we now have a web of organizations, some linked to the United Nations and some independent. We have built, for better or worse, a functioning international order. I think we don't often recognize how good it is. The fact that airplanes can fly around the world and that we have rules about aviation, which pretty much affect every country in the world, that airplanes can take off and land safely, you know, gives me hope that we can actually build organizations that will work. But again, the problem is always unless the powers are behind it. So I think, you know, powers matter. I mean, you know, I come from a country that is small in terms of power. And I think we've always recognized that. There's so much we can do in conjunction with others, but unless there are really big powers, unless China, unless the United States, unless Russia, unless the European Union, and unless the big regional powers like India and Brazil play their part, then we're all in trouble. It's a combination of things. We can set up the institutions. We can have the practices, but we still need the power to make them work.

HAASS: I've just got a few final questions, and then I will open it up. One part of the world we really haven't mentioned is the part of the world you're sitting in. I don't mean just the UK, but I'll use the word Europe generously despite Brexit. Like many others, I always thought the European project after World War II was one of the great projects of creative diplomacy. Beginning with the Coal and Steel Community through the Community through now the Union, you've now had Brexit. You've got nationalist challenges in Germany and populist challenges also in France. Is it your sense when you look at what was built in Europe, do you feel that in many ways—what's the word—precarious? it's almost hard to know. It's the question about what's the norm and what's the aberration? And do we see the European project at—which do we see it as?

MACMILLAN: I don't know, I hope. I mean, you used the word precarious. And I hope so much you're wrong because, I mean, I do think what's happened in Europe is extraordinary. For a continent, which has been plagued by war for all its long history as far back as we can tell, to actually do this. And for very proud nations with their own histories to surrender a degree of autonomy or an authority to a supranational organization, it seems to me is absolutely extraordinary. Europe has benefited hugely from it. What worries me are the things you mentioned. It couldn't be a worse time for Britain to have left, I think, precisely when you need a strong and united Europe. And, of course, you've got the problem with some of the nations over in the east, Hungary and Poland, who are becoming increasingly intolerant and illiberal and are quite prepared to take money from the EU, but not prepared to share its values. You have a Russia who, you know, Putin's mode of operating, I think, is to probe and to make trouble wherever you can. And Russia, which under Putin, sees the EU as a deadly enemy and will do its best to disrupt it and make life as difficult as possible for it. And a China, of course, which is seeking to extend its influence. And so, no, this, I think, is really worrying. I mean, I don't see the EU or Europe, which of course is more than the EU falling to pieces anytime soon, but I think at the moment is much less than it could be and I think it's suffering real strains.

HAASS: Two last questions. One, you mentioned China. I just wanted to circle back to it. Many people would, I believe, correctly say China constitutes the principal geopolitical, possibly geoeconomic challenge of our era. Is there any precedent there in terms of how to either understand its rise and its challenge or how to contend with it? Are there any likes or dislikes or do's or don'ts that you would put forward?

MACMILLAN: Why, I always worry when people begin to think in terms of upcoming conflict because then it seems to me that psychologically you begin to prepare for it, you begin to think in those terms. You know, I think we have a long way to go before the United States and China become adversaries. They are competitors, and I think that is something that's important. They're competitive strategically, as well as economically. But I think it is still possible to see areas where they can work together. And what they've got to do, of course, is come to some sort of understanding in the Pacific. That seems to me the most sensitive and dangerous area, particularly, of course, the issues around Taiwan. But it is possible. I mean, you know, when the United States rose to power, its rise was very rapid. It had only begun to translate its huge economic and other sorts of strengths into military strength before the First World War. I mean, it had an army smaller than Italy's. I think it had a Navy that wasn't all that big. And it grew hugely, as we know, and was a superpower by 1945. And other nations learned to deal with it. The British came to terms with it. As I say the Canadians have always worked at being on good terms with you. But I think the world learned how to deal with the United States. And, of course, it helped that the United States was a democracy and open society. But I think it is possible to imagine that if China continues to rise, it's a big if. I think there are all sorts of problems that China is facing. You can't predict the future there. But if China becomes increasingly powerful, then let us hope that its neighbors and other countries around the world will find ways of dealing with it or find ways of working with it. As in the past, people found ways of working with the British Empire. They found ways of working with the United States. So I hope and I'm inclined to be optimistic that it will be possible.

HAASS: Implicit in this last answer is the idea that, yes, you hope and you're hoping that it can be worked out. But implicit in that, tell me if I'm going too far, is obviously the possibility it might not. So let's let me circle back to your last book. It has the title of War. Academics, shockingly enough, go through fashions. For quite a few years there was a fashion that war had somehow become obsolete, that the territorial acquisition was a quaint relic of the past. You mentioned something like Taiwan. We have the Ukraine situation. So let me put it to you just directly. Are we seeing in some ways history reviving and that certain challenges that many academics or analysts thought had in some ways faded, either have returned or actually they never faded in the first place? And the stuff of history, whether it's temporarily left or not, is very much with us, including the possibility now, not just the war within countries, which is rather commonplace, but also the idea of war between and among countries has returned as a serious international issue?

MACMILLAN: If history does teach something I think it is that nothing lasts forever, and that the unexpected may happen. I think we assume too readily, particularly those of us who live in the very fortunate part of the world that has enjoyed the long peace since 1945, that state-to-state war was something of the past. I don't think we should have assumed that. That's what a lot of Europeans were assuming before 1914, and they were going to be very rudely awakened indeed. And when you have states and we thought for a while after the end of the Cold War that state power would disappear. Do you remember all the talk about how the state would wither away, and that there would be this sort of extraordinary international society? Well, that certainly has not happened. And when you have states, which have large populations who feel an attachment to that state, I mean, I think, you know, not all states inspire this great feeling of nationalism, but I think China does and I think the United States does. Those states have a very clear idea of who they are and what they see as their place—well, perhaps not a very clear idea of their place in the world, but they have a clear sense of who they are. I do see a danger. And I do think, again, if you look back at history, wars don't always happen because people say on Thursday we're going to war. Wars sometimes happen because someone bumps into someone, a warship bumps into somewhere, an Archduke gets assassinated. And people in different countries have to respond and their responses is sometimes it's stupid, responses sometimes frighten the other side. And that's what worries me. It's what we were talking about at the beginning, that sort of making decision under pressure when you're getting pushed off and by your own people to do something to show that you're strong. That's what worries me. I mean, if something were to happen in the South China Sea, you know, where you have the armed forces of both countries. You have American and Chinese planes. You have American and Chinese ships. They're in close quarters. They have rules about how they engage with each other and so on. But what if there's an accident, you know, or what if someone shoots down someone else's plane or sinks someone else's ship by mistake? What then happens and what will the leadership in the United States and China do? That's what worries me. It's the possibility of accident in a situation that is already inclined to be tense.

HAASS: Thank you, Professor MacMillan. This has been great. What I want to do now is open it up for questions from the members of the Council on Foreign Relations. But again, I just personally want to thank you for being with us today and getting us off to such a really fantastic start. So let me turn it over to, I think, Laura. I'm not sure to who's going to take it over from here.


STAFF: [Gives queuing instructions] We'll take the first question from Bob Rubin. Please accept the unmute now button.

Q: Professor MacMillan, my question is this. You said that nations like the United States who know they are. Henry Kissinger would say that a country cannot succeed unless it believes in itself. How do you respond to people who say that the values that were in our Constitution and that our founders propounded have been violated horrendously by slavery, racism, and the sort of, if you will, reinterpretation of American history that is now fairly common in universities?

MACMILLAN: You're going through a period, I think, of tremendous introspection. It's not just the United States. I mean, other countries are doing it here—Britain. I mean, I think there's a tendency now to look back and to blame the West for a great many things, which I think, you know, is affecting every western country. It affects them in different ways. You know, what I see behind the complaints about Americans, about their own past, and about their own flaws, about their racism is still a faith in the United States. I mean, they're still thinking in terms of fixing the United States. So they're still seeing it as a possible force for good. I mean, it's not an easy time, I think. But we also think—it's difficult to tell, but I think we need to distinguish between what's going on in a handful, perhaps, of universities, what's very highly publicized complaints about the United States with what most people tend to think. I mean, I don't get a sense when I talk to Americans that you're all giving up on your country. You know, I think that the attention that's paid to those who say the United States has been flawed right from its foundation, perhaps exaggerates the angst that Americans are feeling. I mean, it seems to me that Americans still feel a sense that their country counts and they want it to be better, not that they're giving up on it. But I may be wrong. You're the Americans.

HAASS: Let's get another question.

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Esther Brimmer.

Q: Hello, this is Esther Brimmer from NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. Thank you so much for such a stimulating discussion. And yes, I'm also an Oxonian. May ask you about the role of technological change, whether it was the telegraph or the arrival of the industrial war that drove parts of the First World War to the internet today? How does technological change play into the impact of history on world affairs? Thank you.

MACMILLAN: It's a fascinating question. I think technology is enormously important, and I'm not sure we fully understand what we're going through at the moment or even fully understand its impact in the past. There's been a lot of very interesting work on the telegraph, and on the steamship, and on railways, which made communication so much faster and linked the world in ways that had never been linked before. And I think that does have an impact on how people think about their own country. I think nationalism can take root and spread when you have communications that make it possible to imagine yourself as part of a bigger grouping. And it also makes you take an interest in the other side of the world and in different parts of the world. So I think the technology, which underpins so much historical changes, is enormously important. And the ways in which we produce goods, I mean, with the arrival of the assembly line, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. All these made huge changes in society is possible. I think we're still trying to understand what the electronic revolution means. Its impact, I think, is felt so widely, but I don't think we are yet fully aware of what it means. And we're beginning, I think, to become aware of both its benefits, but also it's dangerous.

I think we're becoming much more aware of the danger of the internet and of the capacity to spread misinformation. We're also becoming much more aware of the vulnerability, and we should be much more aware of the vulnerability of our societies to cyberattacks. This is a whole new area, which is opening up in conflict between countries. Also, of course, it means that some state actors, groups who may wish a particular country or particular society ill, now often have the tools at their disposal to cause real disruption. And so I think we're beginning to think of ways in which we have to deal with this. A number of countries, including, of course, the United States, now have set up cyber-war divisions within their military to try and cope with this. And I think we're much more aware of just how much the internet can be used for mischief and to do dangerous things. So I think we're beginning to work through this, but who knows? I mean, I have really no sense of what artificial intelligence is going to do to human societies, and what it's going to do for the whole meaning of work, and how we as society is going to cope with the fact that because of artificial intelligence and automation so many people are going to be losing jobs. How are we going to deal with that? Are we going to find new jobs for them? How are we going to think of the very notion of work? I think we're undergoing a tremendous technological change, which has huge social, political and international ramifications.

HAASS: Okay, that question by Esther triggered a thought in my head. Before World War I and the decades before there was the hope that economic interdependence would discourage a movement towards war. John Bright and others were basically saying trade would become so widely positive that countries would think twice or three times before they did anything to disrupt it. Needless to say, the theory was not quite borne out by events. Now, again, we've got a considerable degree of economic interdependence around the world. Do you think that the theory now is more likely to be borne out? Or do you feel that, again, nationalism, populism, these passions of the state, if you will, are still stronger than the more intellectual case for interdependence?

MACMILLAN: Well, people before the First World War thought—there was a very famous book by Norman Angell called The Great Illusion. He said war doesn't pay anymore, so there's no point going to war. You'd be mad to go to war because you're much better off trading with another nation than trying to take it over. And he pointed out the way in which the world and Europe, in particular, or the Atlantic was being increasingly linked by trade and sharing prosperity. And we know that that didn't stop the First World War. And, in fact, Germany and Britain who went to war were, I think I'm right, each other's greatest trading partners. I think what we always have to take into account in human affairs is that we're not rational. You know, we're not rational economic beings. I mean, economists, I think, have given up on that idea. I think they're quite right to have given up on it because we don't always behave rationally. And things like emotions, we will often behave in ways that risk our livelihoods, risk what we hold dear because something gets ahold of us. And I think we have to remember that. The United States and China are hugely interconnected economically, but that doesn't seem to stop them from rubbing up against each other and becoming increasingly suspicious of each other.

HAASS: Let's get another question, Laura.

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Robert Kapp.

Q: Professor MacMillan, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope I'm audible. I'm looking at Vancouver. I'm in Canada across the water from my home on the Olympic Peninsula. So it's nice to see a Canadian as I speak and listen to you. I'm a China academic and nobody loves history like the Chinese. As you know, each dynasty wrote the history of the preceding dynasty and detailed all the faults and failings of the preceding dynasty. Now, as we look at China today, we are amazed at the degree to which the current regime is seeking to extirpate any signs of deviance from a particular interpretation of China's own history and its modern history, the history of the party. I guess my question to you is, how should the people in nonauthoritarian countries view countries that so dominate and so tend to try to straitjacket their histories?

MACMILLAN: Well, we should view them with alarm, I think, because it says something about countries that do that, that they want only one version of not just the past, but of the present. Because if you have only one version of the person, there can be no questions about the present. And it's often a mark, I think, of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that they want to control the narrative, control the story, so that their people believe that there is no alternative but the present leadership, the present policies, and the present structure. And the Chinese, as you pointed out, have done that down through history, but they've always been those who have dissented. There have always been the alternative views. And I don't think the government of China can possibly make a single story work for all the Chinese people today. I think China is a more open society. It's got a higher level of education. But I think the Chinese government takes history, as you pointed, out very, very seriously indeed. And, of course, it uses history as a weapon. It uses history to make other nations feel guilty. It uses history as a weapon against Japan. It's noticeable whenever the People's Republic, sorry, we don't call the People's Republic much anymore, but whenever the People's Republic of China is criticized, for example, with its treatment of the Uyghurs, spokespeople will tend to call back to the history of the nineteenth century, the century of humiliation. You know, we are tired they will say or have been told, yet again, by people from outside what to do. We've had enough of that. And I think it gives an indication of how seriously they take it. I think it's important actually for other nations to challenge those narratives and to say, "No, we have a right to say things about what you're doing to the Uyghurs. The century of humiliation is not enough excuse for everything." But it is very, very interesting how much the Chinese are using history.

HAASS: We've got time for at least one or two more questions. Laura?

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Nina Armagno.

Q: Hi, I'm Nina Armagno from the United States Space Force. Can you hear me all right?

MACMILLAN: Yes, I can.

Q: Excellent, thank you. The concept of deterrence has probably existed throughout history, though very much highlighted during the Cold War. Has deterrence changed, you know, to today and do you think the theory of deterrence will change into the future?

MACMILLAN: That's such an interesting question. I'm thinking, I mean, the basic impulse behind deterrence is to let the other side know that if they attack you, they will pay a price they don't want to pay. And so I think that essential nature of deterrence hasn't changed. What it seems to me has changed as the means of deterrence. Before the First World War, nations would use military maneuvers, for example, or very ostentatious stockpiling of horses, for example, in order to indicate to the other side that they might be thinking of going to war. This often worked; it was a type of signaling. During the Cold War, of course, there was also signaling, but you had the deterrence of nuclear weapons. What concerns me now is that I'm not sure our signaling is very good. I mean, deterrence only works if you can signal to the other side what you intend to do. And it seems to me that the lack of understanding at the moment between the United States and Russia and between the United States and China is growing, rather than lessening. And with deterrence, as always, I think, a couple of dangers. One, that the other side won't get your message. And they'll think, perhaps, that you're actually planning to attack. The other problem with deterrence is you can only use it so often before it runs out of value as a weapon. If you keep on saying, "If you do this, you will be sorry" and nothing happens, then the other side becomes emboldened. And what concerns me now, of course, I mean, during the Cold War it was frightening enough. Often, you know, we were dealing if a missile had been launched, say, from the Soviet Union towards, you know, the United States. It would have taken, what, Richard would know better than me, half an hour to get there? And so the capacity of those making decisions actually to react and to try and deal with that is much lessened. Today, I think things happen often so quickly that you can see an attempted deterrence getting very badly out of control. It's simply not working. And so I worry that, you know, deterrence relies on a sort of signaling, and I'm worrying that the signaling and the time available for the signaling are shorter. We don't have the capacity to use deterrence as effectively as we've once might once have done. I may be wrong, and I hope I am.

HAASS: No, I think you're not wrong. And I think what's made it probably even more complicated is the introduction of a whole new domain, which is the digital or cyberspace. And we haven't really articulated the rules or the boundaries. So militarily things are still relatively clear with nuclear things. Whether deterrence holds up or not is a different question. I think in cyber the rules aren't clear, and there's constant action and probing in a gray area, which is dangerous because then it could lead to retaliation and escalation very quickly. And it makes a case for the articulation of some rules and boundaries in that domain sooner rather than later just to, again, add some structure to deterrence.

MACMILLAN: Yes. Yes. It worries me.

HAASS: We've certainly got time for at least one more. Laura?

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Benjamin Spatz.

Q: Hi there, and thanks so much. I'm Ben Spatz from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. And what we've heard today is a lot about our history, meaning United States, North American-European history, and how that structures our thinking. But I'm wondering, especially in relation to China, what history are they thinking about? What history is teaching them? What kind of lessons are they drawing? You know, because that's the other side of this equation, isn't it?

MACMILLAN: Yes, absolutely. And I think I mean, I think the Chinese leadership calls in an interesting way quite often on very ancient history in ways, I think, that on the whole Western leaders don't. We don't get American presidents—well, in the case of the British prime minister at the moment, who likes to show off his classical learning, you probably do get some classical references. But on the whole people tend to talk about more recent events, so more recent leaders. Whereas the Chinese will talk about Sun Tzu, for example, you know, millennia back. But the history they use mostly I think and the history they refer to mostly is the history of the period before the communists took power in 1949. So from the first Opium War, which started in 1839, to the triumph of communism in 1949. And they are looking at that history and rewriting it, I think, or reassessing it in a very interesting way. They're now reassessing Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist leader and saying, "Yes, of course, he was politically wrong, but he was a great nationalist leader, and he fought the Japanese. And China was a world power." At the end of the Second World War, China, according to President Roosevelt, was going to be one of the four policemen that was going to keep the world in order along with the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States. And so the Chinese are increasingly arguing that they helped to found the world in which we live. I mean, they are not just a part of the world, the international order today, but they are actually one of the founding members. They're also looking back and rewriting, not rewriting, but recasting that history. When they look at trade, they're framing the Belt and Road Initiative as something that in its own way is a modern Silk Road. That it is a way of encouraging trade or linking peoples, that it has a benevolent purpose and that it's not about war. And so I think they are picking out, as everyone does, particular parts of their history and recasting them to shape what is happening in the present. But my impression is, and I can certainly be corrected on this by those who know more about China, and my impression is that it's the recent history. For all that they refer to the long past history and they refer to past dynasties, it's really the recent history that they're talking about more and that they're educating the young in.

HAASS: Professor MacMillan, I'm going to try to squeeze in one very last question. You just mentioned the words "recent history." When you think historians look back on this period, what will be the defining event or phenomenon? Is it your sense that it will be the pandemic? Will it be something about China or the United States? Or something about AI and new technologies? What is your sense of where we are in history right now in this post-Cold War period, which we still call it "post" thirty years later? What is your sense of how this world is defining itself?

MACMILLAN: That's a difficult one. I mean, there are a number of things that have happened. I think, my sense is that from the end of the Cold War when there was this period, certainly in the West of a sort of euphoria, that the world was better. We were going to live in peace and harmony with each other. Democracy was going to spread more throughout the world. There was a period of tremendous optimism. And when did things go wrong? I think things began to go wrong when Yugoslavia fell to pieces and that ghastly, sort of, civil war in Bosnia. Things began to go wrong, I think, with the attack on the Twin Towers and the other attacks on the United States in 2001 when suddenly the remaining superpower suffered this terrible attack at home. I think, my impression was, that was a tremendous shock to a lot of Americans. But there are other moments out there. I mean, I'm having trouble picking out one because there was a 2008 financial crash, which shook our confidence in our own institutions and our banks and really made us face the prospect of the world going over the edge in terms of financial collapse. I mean, you know, the possibility of the whole financial structure coming crashing down, I think, was a very real one. And now I think the pandemic has made us recognize that we are interconnected in ways that we hadn't really thought about, and has shown up, I think, for a lot of our flaws and our own ways of doing things. I mean, it's very striking to me that when you look at the charts of where are the most COVID cases and the most COVID deaths, they tend to be in what we used to call the West. If you look at Asia, with some exceptions, India, of course, is different and China, of course, has had a high rate of COVID, but you look at Singapore, look at Vietnam, look at Taiwan, look at South Korea, they have managed it very well. And so I think it's a moment where we sort of think, you know, particularly those of us in the West that we have the answers to everything, we know how to manage things. I think we've been rather taken aback, and looking at our own society thinking, you know, there's a lot here we need to fix. So I can't pick out one moment when we go over that moment of happiness, I think and hope at the end of the Cold War. It didn't last really for more than about ten years, did it?

HAASS: It did not. Professor Margaret MacMillan, thank you for launching this Centennial Series here at the Council on Foreign Relations. It will reemerge both on our website and as a part of a podcast series. I want to thank everybody else for joining us today and hope that you will continue to join us for the next half dozen or so events in this series. And if you're not vaccinated, please do so. And again, thank you all for getting us off in such sterling shape. Thank you, Professor McMillan.

MACMILLAN: Thank you. It's been a privilege


Top Stories on CFR


The election date for the world’s largest democracy is set to begin April 19 and last six weeks. What would the results of a third term for Prime Minister Modi mean for India’s economy, democracy, and position in the Global South? 


The response to the temporary closure of the Port of Baltimore—from a deadly tanker collision—demonstrates the resilience of U.S. supply chains despite fears of costly disruptions.

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Violence around U.S. elections in 2024 could not only destabilize American democracy but also embolden autocrats across the world. Jacob Ware recommends that political leaders take steps to shore up civic trust and remove the opportunity for violence ahead of the 2024 election season.