How Can We Use (but Not Abuse) History?

Richard Haass and Margaret MacMillan, one of the world’s foremost historians, discuss how best to apply history to better understand current global challenges, including the erosion of democracy, the rise of China, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

December 16, 2021 — 35:24 min
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Richard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations Full Bio

Episode Guests

Margaret MacMillan

Professor, University of Toronto

Show Notes

About This Episode


It is often said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But history is open to a wide variety of interpretations, and historical precedents can be used to justify wise and unwise policies alike. In this episode of Nine Questions for the World, Richard Haass sits down with one of the world’s foremost historians, Margaret MacMillan, to examine different ways to apply history to better understand current global challenges, including the erosion of democracy, the rise of China, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 


This podcast series was originally presented as “The 21st Century World: Big Challenges and Big Ideas,” an event series in celebration of CFR’s centennial. This episode is based on a live event that took place on April 13, 2021.


See the corresponding video here.


Dig Deeper


From Margaret MacMillan


Why the U.S. Has Spent 200 Years Flip-Flopping Between Isolationism and Engagement,” History


The big idea: is world government possible?,” The Guardian


Which Past Is Prologue?,” Foreign Affairs


From CFR 


Claire Felter, “The COVID-19 Vaccination Challenge: Lessons From History


James Lindsay, “Lessons From the U.S. Entry Into World War I


Living in History,” Why It Matters 


Read More


John Jeffries Martin, “Why study history? Because it can save us from democratic collapse.,” Washington Post


Lucian Staiano-Daniels, “When Germany Was China,” Foreign Policy

Michael Schuman, “China’s Inexorable Rise to Superpower Is History Repeating Itself,” Bloomberg Businessweek




Hello. I’m Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and this is Nine Questions for the World, a special limited edition podcast series. 

In each episode, you’ll be hearing me in conversation with some of the best thinkers of our time, as we ask fundamental questions about the century to come.  

For those of you who don't know, The Council on Foreign Relations or CFR, is an independent, non-partisan membership organization. We are dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. We're also a think tank, a publisher, and an educational institution. 

Today’s episode features a conversation that took place on April 13th, 2021. I spoke with Margaret MacMillan, a professor at the University of Oxford who is one of the great historians of our time. We spoke about history, and what it can tell us about present challenges, including the state of democracy, the rise of China, and Putin’s Russia. Most importantly, we talked about the  right and wrong ways to use history to help us make better decisions affecting the present. It all made for a fascinating conversation.

Richard HAASS: Professor MacMillan 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 its relevance to the present.

Margaret 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. Just to set the stage for what we'll talk about, about what you see both as the utility of history in making sense of the present and potentially informing policy, but then I also want you to say something about the risks, like any tools that can be used as well as abused as you suggest in the title of your book.

MACMILLAN: Well, I think the first thing that history can do it helps 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 the more finding ways of negotiating. 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. And so I think 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 think very hard, you know Russia well and China of course too, but I think very hard to understand, for example, those powers without understanding the recent history, because that's what they're remembering and that's what helped to shape them. And I think 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. And 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, what is likely to happen? 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. 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 Germany 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-

HAASS: I was going to turn to that. Yeah, the danger, which is how do we avoid 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 are 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 keep thinking of the appeasement analogy, which has played out in so many different countries, in so many different parts of the world. It started as an attempt to try and accommodate the rising powers or the revengeful powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and 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 were disruptors 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 process, 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 you on appeasement, it reminds me, I don't know if Churchill said it, he just said everything, or he's 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. And it seems to me, 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: Yeah. Well, 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. 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 not going to push back. And that was an element in appeasement, you will satisfy what is seen as certain aims, but not all. So 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 and it was quite a morning. You had talk on news reports of Russian 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, and some parts of the world 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 roll over, 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 of the institutions only work if you have shared norms and values and shared understandings about how they should work, but those are crumbling, they haven't been reinforced sufficiently, 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 the common border. India, Pakistan still remains a problem. Egypt and Sudan and Ethiopia now seem to be getting across each other, Egypt and Ethiopia in particular. And I’m in the UK at the moment, it looks like Northern Ireland could well be going back to a version of the trouble. And then you lay COVID onto 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 things, if there is a lesson of history, is that you can't predict coincidence, and 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. And 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 40 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. And 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 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. And 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 in wits about them?

MACMILLAN: Yeah. 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. Quite often people were sleeping as they did during the Cuban missile crisis, because they were sleeping in their offices and new material was, 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. We get all sorts of plans being made. And we 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. And the First World War, I think is also an example of deterrence. I think there was a tendency that you will mobilize some troops and move up to the frontiers, 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're 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 they're times when they can actually decide between war and peace.

HAASS: When you look at the pre-World War I parallel situation, do you find parallels as some historians have suggested in particular to comparisons between contemporary China and Germany at 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 think again that history never repeats itself, but there are suggestive parallels and I think you have a Germany that was actually a very new country, had grown enormously quickly economically, and of course it was very powerful militarily, feeling that it wasn't taken seriously enough. And feeling masses, I think in international relations, feeling that you're not taking seriously enough or feeling you've been insulted, these things can actually play a part in how nations and individuals act internationally. And I think with China, 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. And it's not the classical China. It's a very different China. I think that whole century, as the Chinese call it, of humiliation, probably transformed China forever. It's a different sort of country. And I think in China as well, you get the sense that we're still not taken seriously enough. And sometimes what may seem like to others bullying belligerence, which I think is there as 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 with 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 increasing like was 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, 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, and that followed roughly two decades of quasi pullback from the world. When you see what's going on in this country and almost 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 a United States that again, and 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. Well, look, I'm Canadian. So the United States always makes us uneasy, the famous ... Well, you're our great big neighbor and the famous Pierre Trudeau, the father of prime minister Trudeau. But when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, he said, living next to the United States is like living next to an elephant. If it size and turns over it could squash you. And so in Canada, we pay a lot of attention to the United States, but 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 prepared to support it, and prepared to put the effort in. And 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 and it's 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 20th century. I no longer think it's so 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 is the United States going? A lot of understandable preoccupation with 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, 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 as 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 a fatalism concern or do you feel that contemporary democracy has assets and strengths that previous eras of democracy did not?

MACMILLAN: Well democracies have a capacity to renew themselves and they go through very bad times. The United States went through very bad times at the end of the twenties. And there were those at the time who said democracy is finished in the United States, 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 with democracies is they're messy and they often take a very long time to get there. I think again, Churchill who seems to have said everything said, "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'm impressed with the resilience of democracy and you see it around the world, clearly there is a pent up desire for democracy. When you see what's happening in Burma today, the extraordinary reaction of the Burmese people. This is in defense of their own very limited and very short experience of democracy. So I'm not a pessimist, but there are 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, 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 can probably be said that U.S-Russian relations are even measurably worse. And famously after the First World War, I think that was a Cambridge man at the time, Mr. Keynes wrote a book about the economic consequences and basically blamed a punitive piece on Germany after World War I for what became the rise of Nazi Germany. And the reason I raise it is after the Cold War, the United States and the West did certain things, 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 is very much can be understood as a creature of Russian history. There's something about Russian political culture that explains where Russia is today, it's alienation. Would 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: Yeah. I certainly don't buy the argument that the Slavs are somehow different and this of course is an argument Putin makes, 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. Some of the people he has around him have some really mad theories, there's the one who believes that the Russians were created by bolts from outer space, which makes them pure and more energetic than anyone else. There is some pretty wacko stuff going on, but I think 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 type of government today. I think a number of things went wrong in the 1990s and certainly the West didn't help. We lauded it over I think in a very unfortunate way, the Russians, you must follow our example, everything you did was wrong. And 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 when they were inferior, we did make a mistake there. I think there were also mistakes made by those who were in charge in the 1990s, when the Yeltsin era was one of corruption and competence, and I think it helped 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 violence, disorder. And I think for a lot of Russians Putin initially was someone who brought a sort of stability. But my sense is, whenever Russians get a chance to express themselves, particularly these days, it seems to me again, a longing for a different sort of government. The success of the opposition to Russia, in spite of all the obstacles it faces, I think says something. And I think Putin has really been shaken by Navalny, for example, and by some of the revelations of the video, I don't know if you've seen it of this palace, I don't know what to call it, it only rivaled I think by Ceausescu's marble parliament in the central Bucharest. There is a sort of dictator-chic, isn't there, which is pretty ugly. Anyway, I think we shouldn't assume that political cultures or 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's 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 is new, does history have anything to inform us or 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 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 may need to pull back a bit. It seems to me that we've perhaps gone too far down. I certainly think so and others may disagree with me, the path advocated by the neo-liberals, Reagan who famously said, "The most terrifying words you can hear is I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." I think we went too far down the road of thinking that 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 after the Second World War, there was in a number of countries, including the United States, a very real sense that we made mistakes in the twenties and thirties, and we need to pull back from those. And so they set up both an international system and the domestic order, which involved a fair degree of government intervention in such things as building infrastructure and education in the case of the British and 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. Let's talk a little bit about global governance in another way, which is, you had the failure of the League of Nations, and I'm not quite sure how people would rate the United Nations, 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 think we have to understand that we often expect too much of international organizations. 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 in 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. And if its members particularly the powerful ones are not prepared to support it, there's a limit to what it can do. But I don't 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, the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, the Bretton Woods organizations. 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 and airplanes can take off and land safely. It 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 powers matter. 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 they're really big powers, unless China, unless the United States, unless Russia, unless the European Union, unless the big regional powers like Indian and Brazil play their part, then we're all in trouble because 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. One, a 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, populous challenges also in France. Is it your sense when you look at what was built in Europe, do you feel that in many ways, it's, what's the word, precarious? It's the question about what's the norm and what's the aberration and do we see the European project? Which do we see it as?

MACMILLAN: I don't know. You use the word precarious and I hope so much hope you're wrong, because 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 history to surrender a degree of autonomy or an authority to a supranational organization, it seems to me is absolutely extraordinary. And 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, Putin's mode of operating I think is to probe and to make trouble wherever he can. And a 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 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 suffering real strains.

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

MACMILLAN: Well, I always worry when people begin to think in terms of a coming conflict, because then it seems to me that psychologically you begin to prepare for it, you begin to think in those terms. 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 competitors 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. 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. 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 said, the Canadians have always worked being on good terms with you, but I think the world learned 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 and it's a big if, I think there are all sorts of problems that China is facing and who knows 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, will 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. There's 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 of might not. So let me circle back to your last book has the title of War, and academic shockingly enough go through fashions and for quite a few years, there was a fashion that wards somehow become obsolete. 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. And 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. And 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 I think 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 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 think not all States inspire this great feeling of nationalism, but I think China does and I think the United States does. And 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. And 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 someone, an Archduke into another one, an Archduke gets assassinated and people in different countries have to respond. And their responses, sometimes are stupid, their 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 decisions 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 happened in the South China seas, 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? What if someone shoots down someone else's plane or sink someone else's ship by mistake, what then happens and what will the leadership in the United States and China do? And that's what worries me, it's the possibility of accident in a situation that is already inclined to be tense.

HAASS: Professor MacMillan, just personally want to thank you for being with us today and getting us off to such a really fantastic start.

MACMILLAN: Well, thank you. It's been a privilege.

Thank you for joining us. I hope you enjoyed the conversation.

If you’d like to learn more please visit where you can find a transcript as well as additional resources on this topic. Have a question or some feedback? Send us an email at [email protected]

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. 

And with that I ask that you stay informed and stay safe.


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