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Ukraine, Israel and Cold War II | WSJ Opinion Free Expression Podcast

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Thought Leader: Niall Ferguson
December 7, 2023


From Israel to Ukraine, 2023 has been a year of spreading violent conflict, increasing instability and posing stiff challenges to U.S. global strategy, all within the context of the developing new Cold War with China and its allies, Russia and Iran. It seems likely that our adversaries will probe further in 2024, and with a presidential election in the U.S., geopolitical uncertainty will only intensify. On this episode of the Free Expression Podcast, historian Niall Ferguson tells Wall Street Journal editor at large Gerry Baker about the dangers that could come with a Russian victory in Ukraine, why Israel would benefit from a second Donald Trump administration, although it could lead to the end of NATO, and how the election in Taiwan next month will be a time of great danger as China plans its next move. The two also discuss how pro-Hamas protests on campuses have left American universities in a parlous state.


This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Niall Ferguson: From the Opinion Pages of the Wall Street Journal, this is Free Expression with Gerry Baker.

Gerry Baker: Hello and welcome to Free Expression from the Opinion Pages of the Wall Street Journal. I’m Gerry Baker, editor-at-large with the Journal. If you’re not already a subscriber to Free Expression, please do sign up at Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you do your listening. This week as 2023 comes to a close, the world seems to be in a dangerously volatile state. In Europe, war between Russia and Ukraine drags on with less and less evidence by the day that Kiev backed by U.S and NATO arms, money and political support will actually succeed in pushing Vladimir Putin out of the country. In the Middle East after a pause for the trading of Israeli and other hostages for Palestinian prisoners, the fighting between Israel and Hamas has resumed. Across the region, U.S forces and military assets have come under sustained assault from a range of forces mostly backed by Iran. At least tensions between the U.S and China seem to have cooled a little following President Joe Biden’s meeting with China’s Xi Jinping in San Francisco last month. But no one really believes the strategic challenge that China represents to the U.S has dimmed in any way. And with a presidential election next month in Taiwan, the risk of a renewed escalation remains high. And with other familiar geopolitical hotspots around the world simmering, India and Pakistan, multiple conflicts in Africa, Kim Jong Un in North Korea looking as threatening as ever. The wider picture seems ominously like one of those periods of history in which regional wars build and escalate into a broader conflagration. All this as we’re about to enter a U.S election year in which the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been. So to take the geopolitical temperature at the end of 2023, I’m joined again this week by one of the world’s leading historians and keen watcher of all these contemporary events, Niall Ferguson, Niall’s the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and holds other academic posts at Harvard, Oxford and elsewhere. He’s of course a prolific writer, the author of many books, including I should say, a multi-volume biography of Henry Kissinger who died just last month. And Niall Ferguson joins me now. Niall, thanks very much for joining Free expression.

Niall Ferguson: Good to be with you Gerry.

Gerry Baker: So we’re looking back really at 2023 and of course forward to 2024. You’ve written a lot about how the world is in a cold war 2.0, a new cold war and like the last cold war, characterized not obviously just by the big power confrontation, in this case obviously between the U.S and China, but by the kind of successive hot wars around the world. And we’ve certainly seen that, we’ve been seeing that for the last couple of years. Obviously Russia, Ukraine, which began in 2022, and now Israel and Hamas in 2023. As you look back on the year Niall, how do you see the state of the world and in terms of that construct that you’ve talked about of cold war 2.0? How is that unfolding? How are we managing this new era of strategic challenges?

Niall Ferguson: We’re not managing it very well. I still think cold war II is the right framework and it’s helped me understand 2023. On a point of nomenclature, it should be cold war II, Roman numerals, not 2.0. In the same way that world war II was the successor to world war I, cold war II is the successor to cold war I, and we are out of the interwar period and have been I think for about five years, I first started talking about cold war II, five years ago to try and help people realize that we’d entered a new regime of international order in which the people’s Republic of China had taken the place of the Soviet Union. And the lessons of history are pretty clear, cold war is a state of peace that is no peace. That was George Orwell’s definition in 1945 in which two nuclear armed superpowers compete in terms of ideology, in terms of technology, in terms of military capability. They compete geopolitically. And I think that’s been going on now for at least five years, if not longer, that doesn’t preclude hot wars, but they’re generally proxy wars because the superpowers really don’t dare fight a head-to-head war. That would be world war III. And we avoided that in cold war I and obviously so far we’ve avoided it in cold war II. But the proxy wars are happening. Ukraine is one of them. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine went ahead because Putin got a green light from Xi Jinping. I don’t think it would’ve happened otherwise, and I don’t think Russia could continue its war without the large scale exports that China sends to Russia, dual use technology. And I think we should also understand the crisis in Israel in these terms too, because Iran now works in cahoots with Russia. And Iran detected as Russia did, the weakness of Joe Biden’s administration. And the last point I’ll make is the Biden administration is bad at deterrence. That’s really its problem. It doesn’t seem to remember the lessons of cold war I when it comes to deterrence. It certainly didn’t deter the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan. That’s obvious. It didn’t deter Russia from invading Ukraine and it hasn’t deterred Iran from attacking Israel. A crisis that is by no means over. The big question, Gerry, is does the Biden administration still have time to fail to deter China from taking Taiwan? And I think that’s the big question of 2024.

Gerry Baker: We’ll come to that, but let’s talk about these hot conflicts that are ongoing and let’s start with Russia-Ukraine, which is coming up to second anniversary of that war. I think it’s fair to say that the hopes that many of us had, and certainly NATO and the United States had that the military and financial support in terms of arms and financial support that the US and NATO were offering were sending to Ukraine would actually succeed in 2023 in some kind of a Ukrainian victory. I’m careful about defining our terms. But the Ukraine with its counteroffensive, particularly in the spring, would push Russian forces out of most of the territory that they’ve occupied since February ’22. As the year draws to a close, it does look as though that isn’t happening, and at best there seems to be some sort of a trench warfare kind of stalemate that’s developed in Ukraine. How do you see it? Are you now concerned that the objective of getting Russia back to its February ’22 positions is now unachievable?

Niall Ferguson: Well, I was never terribly convinced that Ukraine’s counteroffensive would sweep Russia back to where it had been before February of last year, much less to where it had been before 2014 because we gave the Russians enough time to regroup and dig in and prepare to defend a very long front, and this was one of the succession of mistakes that I think the West has made. I’m very pro-Ukraine just to put my cards on the table. I’ve been to that country pretty much every year for the last 12 years, and I was tearing my hair out in 2021 when I could see the mistakes that were going to lead to the Russian invasion, or I should say the second Russian invasion because of course there was already one in 2014, and those mistakes included reducing arms deliveries to Ukraine. They included lifting the sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and generally signaling to Russia that the most that Putin would have to worry about was more sanctions if he tried to take more territory. And so I think this was an avoidable war, and it happened because of a delusion which was very widespread that somehow he wouldn’t do it. That these days you don’t just send massive armies into neighboring countries. I tried to warn people about this. I remember writing in the first week of January last year, war is coming. Once it came, my view was that it should be as short as possible because of the fundamental imbalance between the Russian Empire and Ukraine. And that meant that I thought once the Ukrainians had won the Battle of Kiev and the initial Russian effort to decapitate the regime had failed, an effort should be made to try to stop the war because over time I never thought Ukraine would gain. And so the opportunity, I don’t know it, we won’t know until the documents are opened up, but the opportunities seemed to be there when the Russian plan had so obviously failed and the Russians had taken massive casualties as a result to broker some kind of deal. And I think future historians will be able to establish how close that came. But I don’t think the United States did enough. I don’t think the Europeans did enough, but especially the United States, to close the deal. What did they have to do? They had to take advantage of the fact that Putin’s war plan had failed completely. Ukraine had massively surprised to the upside in its defense of Kiev. And I think at that point you had to say, okay, let’s think about a neutral Ukraine with stronger security guarantees than it had before. But we go back to the status quo ante, and I think that deal was not totally beyond reach. With every passing month since that opportunity was lost last year, the chances of a clear-cut Ukrainian victory have gone down. There was another great moment in the fall of 2022 when the Russians were in disarray outside Kharkiv and then outside Kherson. In fact, they nearly suffered a massive defeat outside Kherson and only just got their forces out before there was large-scale capture, and that was another moment that could have been capitalized on, but it wasn’t. Why not? Because I think people in Washington told themselves, this is great, we’re getting to destroy Russia’s military at almost no serious cost in terms of Western lives and not that big a cost in terms of Western money. Let’s just keep this thing going. I heard that argument made by people in the administration. I said it was wrong at the time because it underestimated the danger of prolonging the conflict. A, because we in the West always lose interest in wars after they’ve gone on for too long. And B, because with the passage of time, Russia’s innate superiority in terms of raw resources would start to tell. So I think there were probably two opportunities to shorten this war that were missed and now we’re in a very dangerous moment at which it seems American financial support could simply be cut off because of the wranglings inside Congress and the Europeans don’t look like they really believe they can do this without the United States, and frankly, morale in Kiev is at a very low point. So it’s a very, very troubling situation for those of us who support Ukraine and want Ukraine to win this war. To put it really simply, we’ve given Ukraine up until this point, enough weapons not to lose, but not enough to win. We are now in danger of giving them insufficient weapons to stay in the war. And so the scenario starts to loom of a Russian victory, which would be a nightmare outcome for everybody in the West. I don’t understand why so few people in Washington understand these dynamics, but they will become progressively clearer as 2024 unfolds.

Gerry Baker: So you think there’s a serious possibility of, when you say Russian victory, does that mean a resolution to this that at least at minimum leaves Russia in occupation of the territory that it currently has and also obviously leaves a very, very weakened Ukraine. As we stand, is that now the likeliest outcome, do you think?

Niall Ferguson: I fear that if we don’t change our approach, that Russia can end up not just hanging onto the territory that it currently controls, but more importantly making the rest of Ukraine non-viable economically, and that would be Russian victory, to prevent a Democratic independent Ukraine from being viable. So there’s a scenario in which we avoid that. Even if the Russians take years to get out of the East and the South, there’s a scenario in which you can make Ukraine viable, but we are not anywhere close to that now. I think of this as the South Korean scenario where, and the analogy with the Korean war is actually quite good. You’ve had a year of lots of very kinetic warfare, then you get into a stalemate, and then finally you kind of have a quasi piece, you have an armistice and you have a sort of dangerous border. But South Korea was able to thrive despite that outcome in 1953 to the Korean war, and there’s a world in which Ukraine can thrive even if it can’t immediately get that territory back, but it won’t thrive if we don’t stabilize Ukraine’s security situation, and it’s not stable now. The Russians are amassing formidable firepower to try to degrade the power grid in the hope that they can really black out Kiev and other major cities during the winter. That is, I think, a real danger, and I don’t think we’ve provided sufficient air defense to preclude that. And the Russians, of course, are building up yet more cannon fodder for further frontal assaults on the Ukrainian front line. Odessa is critical to Ukraine’s future. I don’t think the black sea coast is stable either. There are all kinds of ways in which this war can go wrong, and people in the West, particularly those who kind of naively got on board the Ukraine bandwagon and said, oh, this is great. Ukraine’s going to win, Slava Ukraini, it’ll all be over in six months. I mean, those people have to understand there is a scenario in which Ukraine loses. The stalemate isn’t the base case at this point in my view, because we’re not doing enough to stabilize the security situation, and until we do that, there can be no talk of reconstruction and recovery and therefore no real prospect of a viable Ukraine.

Gerry Baker: Let’s just hypothesize that this kind of worst case scenario that you are sketching out here turns out that Russia is able essentially to win on the terms that you’ve described, in terms of what sort of a blow would that mean for the US and NATO, and how would it change the strategic picture for the United States globally?

Niall Ferguson: Well, first Gerry, it would of course be seen as a defeat by all the West’s enemies. The conclusion would be they talk the talk about doing whatever it takes, but they don’t deliver. And so you just have to hang tough and the clock will run down, the electorate will lose interest, and you win. And from Xi Jinping’s point of view, that has to be an encouragement to think that a confrontation over Taiwan would be worth risking. The second problem is that Russia won’t just be content with breaking Ukraine. In fact, the foreign minister Lavrov said just this week that there were other dishes on the menu. Baltic states, Moldova, Russia can make the whole of Europe insecure simply by demonstrating that it can break Ukraine with an acceptable economic cost to itself. And that means that the cost of letting Ukraine fail would be much, much higher than the cost of helping Ukraine win. If we fail to support Ukraine, and if it is irreparably broken by Russia, then we will have to spend much more money making NATO much more credible than it currently is in order to defend the NATO members from future Russian aggression. And let’s not forget, one thing that Putin’s counting on is that if Donald Trump is re-elected, and I wouldn’t say that that was a remote probability scenario, then NATO itself may lose American support given that Trump remains in his heart an isolationist who regards alliances as a kind of scam where America pays and the allies don’t really deliver much in return. So that’s the problem. It’s not just that we would stop having to pay for Ukraine, we’d have to increase what we pay for security elsewhere if Ukraine is seen to lose the war.

Gerry Baker: Again, you know him as you’ve just described in there, you know what he stands for and you know what the people around him and you know what the political circumstances that are driving Trump, if he does win, would a Trump victory be the death knell for NATO? Do you think it would essentially mark whether or not the U.S formally remains a member or withdraws? Would it essentially mean the end of NATO as a serious military alliance as an important strategic player?

Niall Ferguson: It might. After all, a second Trump administration would be very different from the first. In many ways, the first Trump administration was an improvised coalition between the Trump organization, which didn’t really expect to come into power, didn’t expect to win, and the Republican establishment and the military establishment. And that was why you had, in many ways, the Republican leadership in Congress dominating the legislative agenda and a bunch of generals acting as the guardrails around Trump’s foreign policy. Trump’s instincts were heavily hemmed in by people like H.R McMaster and Jim Mattis, and that was why Trump was sort of cajoled into giving speeches that essentially repeated U.S commitments to NATO that date back all the way to the foundation of NATO. He did it through gritted teeth if you remember the Warsaw speech. None of that will be true if Trump is re-elected, the administration that will be formed by January of 2025 will look completely different. There’ll be no generals involved. There’ll be very few Republican establishment figures. There’ll be people from the America First Institute and from Heritage whose priorities are domestic. I mean, I think it would be primarily payback time for all those elements of the so-called Deep State that Trump and his close advisors think undermine the first Trump administration. But when they got around to foreign policy, it’s hard to believe that item number one on the agenda would be increased support for Ukraine. After all, it’s not like there’s good blood between Trump and Zelensky. A phone call to Zelensky got Trump into a whole lot of trouble in his first administration, and I don’t think Ukraine is exactly his favorite place. Oddly enough, I think it would be good news for Israel if Trump were re-elected because the Trump administration’s Middle East policy was much superior to the Biden administration’s, we, I think would’ve a decent chance of reverting to the Abraham Accord strategy and the isolation of Iran. As for Taiwan, I just don’t know. We know from John Bolton’s memoir that Donald Trump does not feel strongly that the United States should fight for the independence or autonomy, I should say, of Taiwan. I wouldn’t imagine that Donald Trump would send a naval expeditionary force if Xi Jinping, blockaded Taiwan. So there too, I think a Trump administration would represent basically the end of the Pax Americana, not only in Europe, not only the Atlantic Alliance, but I think all the alliances would be in a great deal of fragility the day that Trump was inaugurated.

Gerry Baker: We’re going to take a short break there, but when we come back, I’ll have more with Niall Ferguson on the state of the world and what might happen in 2024. Stay with us.

Speaker 3: You’re listening to Free Expression with Gerry Baker. Don’t forget, you can listen to the latest episode anytime on your smart speaker. Just say, play the Opinion Free Expression podcast. Now back to Gerry Baker.

Gerry Baker: I’m back with historian and commentator on global events, Niall Ferguson. Okay, so let’s move on to the Middle East. After the Hamas attacks of October 7th and Israel’s response, there was a (inaudible) obviously to a lot of support for Israel to carry out the actions that it was doing. There was concern that this could escalate into a wider conflict. There was the belief that we know that Hamas is strongly backed by Iran. Hezbollah in the north of Israel, also backed by Iran, might’ve seized the opportunity to make incursions into Israel to complicate Israel’s task and the risk obviously, given Iran’s proxies all over the region, there were all kinds of risks that the U.S could get dragged into a wider Middle East war. Now that hasn’t happened, although it is important to say that it does seem Iran has been, the Pentagon said the other day, more than 70 attacks on U.S assets and forces in the region. Many of them obviously carried out by Iran’s proxies. How do you see the conflict now? We’ve had the truce that truce has expired and Israel is now once again conducting hostilities in Gaza. How do you see that? Do you still see that there is a risk of escalation or spread, or do you think this is largely contained for now and indeed at some point, Israel presumably will declare that it’s achieved its objectives? How do you see it unfolding in the next few months?

Niall Ferguson: Well, two months ago, the fear was that the Hamas attacks from Gaza were the opening salvo in what could become a multi-front war against Israel. And all eyes were on Hezbollah in Lebanon with its formidable arsenal of rockets and missiles as well as of course on the West Bank where there was trouble on Syria, where all kinds of militias seem to be rallying, potentially the Golan was in play, and basically not much of this has happened. Does that mean it won’t happen? I think it could yet. Two months is a relatively short time in a crisis of this sort, and I don’t really believe that the Iranian regime has been deterred from continuing to probe through its various proxies, the US and Israel’s defenses. There are those who say Joe Biden acted decisively, went to the region, sent two aircraft carrier strike groups, that deterred Iran. That’s why Hezbollah hasn’t really been active. And my response is, if Iran is deterred, why are they and their proxies carrying out attacks directly on US forces? The problem with sending two aircraft carrier strike groups, but saying the kind of things that the administration has said over the last couple of months is it’s not very credible and you don’t look like you are serious about using the hardware on board those ships. The language from pretty much the outset was, well, we stand by Israel, but we don’t think Iran has anything to do with Hamas attacking Israel, which I thought was an extraordinary thing to say when it was very clear that Iran was involved, particularly given that Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. So I think we’re still in a very delicate situation. The Iranians have the option to escalate, but right now I think they don’t need to because what’s happening is that Israel is becoming more internationally isolated and support from the United States is weakening to the point that now the administration sees its role essentially as being to tell the Israelis to wind up their operation in Gaza prematurely. And Israel can’t win. If it gets the civilians out of the way, it’s ethnic cleansing. If it doesn’t, it’s genocide. The Israelis cannot win in the international court of public opinion because the pro-Palestinian forces in the international media, in international academia are very powerful and they’re winning a battle for hearts and minds, especially amongst young people in the West. So I don’t think Iran has been deterred. I think Iran has decided we’ve already achieved a lot through Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Let’s see how this plays out and keep Hezbollah in reserve in case it looks like Israel’s getting out of the hole that it’s in.

Gerry Baker: Israel’s stated objective at the start of this was the destruction of Hamas. It sounds from what you’re saying then, and I totally agree with you about the international opinion and the pressure that that’s placed on Israel and indeed the kind of slightly bifurcated approach that the US now seems to be taking towards Israel public support, but apparently sort of private pressure for them to let up in their actions. Let me ask just straightforward, is Israel’s objective of the destruction of Hamas achievable? And if it isn’t, what is a reasonable objective and resolution from Israel’s point of view to this conflict?

Niall Ferguson: I think it is achievable in the same way that the destruction of Islamic State was achievable. People worried a lot less about the collateral damage to that operation. The problem is not can you destroy Hamas. The problem is what do you do after that? Who runs Gaza if Hamas is gone and the Palestinian authority is an oxymoron? It’s not clear that the Israeli defense forces want to take that on. We’ve tried that before. It’s a thankless task. Nobody seems to have a credible plan to internationalize Gaza by sending in blue helmets, which might be an option. Nobody has a good answer to the question, what do you do next? And that surely is a cause for concern because history tells us that you can get rid of Hamas, but something as bad or worse can quite quickly take its place if you don’t have a strategy for making the lives of the people who live in the Gaza Strip tolerable. So I worry that there is a kind of strategic myopia here, and my knowledge of Israel is such that I know nobody believes in a two-state solution anymore. That’s something that is not, I think, fully understood by the people who talk about this when they’re pontificating Aspen or Davos or Harvard. The two-state solution has lost credibility in the region. But what’s the alternative? There isn’t one. Benjamin Netanyahu was a Machiavellian strategist who achieved a good deal through his real polity, and part of the real polity was to just let Hamas run Gaza knowing that it would never be a viable part of a Palestinian state as long as Hamas was in charge. Because Hamas is a criminal organization. It’s as much a criminal organization, a racket as it is a terrorist organization. But that strategy has blown up in Israel’s face because the terrorist part of Hamas decided to go all in and undertake a pogrom on October the 7th. So I think the problem is in many ways, a more profound one than the one that Israel faced 50 years ago when it had a surprise attack, more or less at exactly the same time, one day’s difference. At that point, all Israel had to do was to achieve conventional battlefield victory over the Egyptian and Syrian armies, and it did that, and it actually didn’t need a colossal amount of American support to achieve that. Israel’s problems today are far more profound, both in terms of the lack of international support, the weakness of American commitment, but also in terms of the military problem that it faces. So I’m concerned that no Israeli leader has a very coherent strategy to win this war, and not only this war, but the next war that I think Israel will have to fight against Hezbollah at some point next year.

Gerry Baker: We talked about these hot conflicts in Europe and the Middle East. So let’s get back to the construct of cold war II, and I apologize, cold war Roman numerals II, and not 2.0. We’ve seen a little bit of diplomatic progress, it seems, at least between the US and China this year, at least Biden and Xi Jinping met, and there seems to have been at least a bit an effort on both sides to kind of de-escalate some of the tension that had been mounting over the last couple of years, although I don’t think anybody really thinks that the underlying strategic challenge of China has gone away. How do you look back on that relationship on the direct US-China relationship in 2023? And as you said, we’ve got an election coming up in Taiwan just next month, which presumably could significantly affect the relationship in 2024. How is the US handling this cold war II challenge right now with China?

Niall Ferguson: This is a difficult question because the consensus amongst experts is that there’s some meaningful detente going on and that San Francisco and the Woodside meeting between Biden and Xi, these were meaningful events and they mean a substantive improvement in relations between Washington and Beijing, and therefore there’s a relatively low probability of a Taiwan Strait crisis next year. Another elements of conventional wisdom is that China’s not ready to have a showdown over Taiwan, and in fact, Xi Jinping has told the military to be ready to have a showdown three years from now or 2027. That’s what Bill Burns, the director of Central Intelligence, has told people. And I’m a complete outlier in this debate. I think that detente is insincere, that Xi Jinping does not mean a word of what he says when he’s making nice in California, that China is preparing for a much more imminent showdown over Taiwan because it knows that time isn’t actually on its side. It’s not on its side because the more the US thinks about this problem, the more it realizes that it has to get Taiwan ready militarily, and it has to get itself ready militarily. And if for example, there’s a Republican administration and Elbridge Colby is put in charge of this issue at the Department of Defense, there’ll be a real scramble to prepare to deter China for making a move. So I think the window is closing for Xi Jinping who regards bringing Taiwan under the control of the CCP as his capstone achievement, the thing that will him on par with Mao Zedong if he pulls it off. I think that the election in Taiwan next month is a moment of great danger because the Chinese can use it as a pretext to act, and they don’t have to invade to achieve their goal. And this is really important. Invasion is really hard. It’s a really difficult thing to do D-Day across the Taiwan Strait, there’s no way that People’s Liberation Army can do it, but they can blockade Taiwan tomorrow if they choose and they’ve rehearsed it. They have the naval and air capability to impose a blockade on Taiwan and say, “Look, we’ve always said this is ours, and now we’re just going to act like it’s ours, and you’ve always agreed under the one China policy that it’s ours. So what are you going to do about it?” And that will throw down a gauntlet that the Biden administration will look at very queasily indeed, because what are you going to do? Are you going to send another aircraft carrier strike group or two across the Pacific to run that blockade? If you do, just to use my cold war analogy again, it’s the Cuban Missile crisis, except it’s the Taiwan Semiconductor crisis because Taiwan matters a lot economically. And this time the United States gets to play the part of the Soviet Union. Joe Biden gets to be Nikita Khrushchev because in 1962, it was the U.S that imposed the blockade on Cuba, and it was Khrushchev who had to decide what to do. He sent a naval expedition, but the closer it got to being world war III, the more inclined he was to seek a compromise. And at the time, it looked as if it was Khrushchev that had blinked, not John F. Kennedy. We know now that they did a deal, but at the time, it looked like it was the Soviets who’d backed down. I do not understand why American policymakers want to rerun the Cuban Missile crisis with them playing the part of the Soviet Union. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t understand why we ever questioned strategic ambiguity, why we ever talked about a more unequivocal commitment to Taiwanese defense at a time when the United States is far less able to carry out that kind of defense than it was back in the 1990s, the last time there was a big crisis over Taiwan. So I think we’ve put ourselves in the worst possible position. We’ve upped our commitment, we’ve made it less ambiguous, but we actually don’t have the firepower to carry it out. And in an election year, is it really plausible to you, Gerry, when the U.S already has Ukraine and Israel to worry about, that it’s going to send a full scale naval force across the Pacific to run a blockade around Taiwan? If I were advising Xi Jinping, I would tell him, boss, this is your moment. The U.S is overstretched. The Biden administration has no appetite for world war III. If you impose that blockade, there’s a high probability that they’ll blink the way Khrushchev blinked. And I worry very much that we are underestimating that risk right now.

Gerry Baker: Finally, on these strategic questions, you paint a very bleak picture, really of the way the US is handling its strategic interests to look at that constellation of forces arrayed against Russia China Iran. As you said, the US has not really significantly done enough to deter Russia in its ambitions and what it’s achieving in Ukraine. It hasn’t really deterred Iran, and you’ve just again, sketched out a very, frankly rather scary portrait of the effective failure to deter China over Taiwan. I mean, without wanting to leave our listeners in a gloomy mood this holiday season, is that the picture that the enemies of the United States, the enemies of the West, have been advancing, not consistently, not unimpeded, but are advancing, and that will be as it stands with another year to go, obviously till our election, that will be the strategic judgment on the Joe Biden administration that it failed to deter these enemies of the West, enemies of freedom from advancing at a critical moment in world history.

Niall Ferguson: Well, Gerry, I hope that isn’t what ends up being written in the history books, but one has to remember one of the key lessons of the first cold war was that it wasn’t inevitable the US would win. It looked for much of the 1970s as if the US was losing the first cold war, and Détente came under attack because it seemed to be a kind of accommodation of a defeat as the Soviets intervened with increasing impunity, for example, in Southern Africa in the later 1970s. Now, I think Détente has had a bad press because in fact, I think it bought the United States time to recover from the fiasco of Vietnam. And I think it’s right to try Détente now. I think Jake Sullivan’s right to try to have negotiations with China on a range of issues, and he’s right to try and contain China technologically in the way that the US has been doing. I don’t think the strategy is a foolish one, but it’s just a difficult one. It’s a particularly difficult one if China doesn’t believe in détente and regards it just as a potential smoke screen for a plan of action against Taiwan. As I said earlier on, the problem with cold war is you have to really understand deterrence, and I don’t think this administration does. For example, just to be brief, when Vladimir Putin began rattling his nuclear Sabre, the correct response was to rattle ours more aggressively and to make it clear to Moscow that if they tried to play that game, then DEFCON 3 would be our response. And we didn’t do that. In fact, we took jet planes off the table at that point, the first time the nuclear threat was made. So we’ve got to get smarter about deterrence because you don’t win a cold war by bungling deterrence.

Gerry Baker: Just one final quick point on an unrelated note, but it’s an important one and a typical one. Talked a little bit about these extraordinary demonstrations on university campuses, sort of pro-Palestinian or even pro-Hamas demonstrations, and we’ve had this week, there’re perhaps even more extraordinary spectacle of three prominent university presidents on Capitol Hill, offering equivocal at best answers to the question of whether or not calling for a Jewish genocide would somehow be a violation of their speech policies. You’ve been involved in American academia and indeed British academia and other places too for your entire life. And I know you’re also now very much involved in this establishment of this new university, University of Austin, which is designed, I think, very much specifically to get us beyond to where some of these universities have gone. As you watch what’s going on in university campuses and the response of university authorities, what’s your reaction?

Niall Ferguson: Well, two years ago when Joe Lonsdale and Bari Weiss and I said we were going to create a new university in Austin, there was a good deal of skepticism and indeed some snark. I don’t think anybody now can fail to understand why we are doing this. The established universities are in a disastrous state and the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have so outraged, many donors and alumni are just a revelation of the ways in which these institutions have been rotting from within this leftward skew, which is now so complete that there are barely any conservatives left at Harvard, has all kinds of underlying causes. But its most important net result is an atmosphere of intolerance, illiberalism that is profoundly disturbing, not just to Jews who I think are not unreasonably feel threatened by some of what’s been going on. But I think to anybody who believes in intellectual freedom, it’s astonishing to me that the great universities of the United States have become the places in America where there is the least free speech, where 60% of students say they don’t dare speak their minds in class because of what they might suffer as a consequence. So we’ve got to accept that something very profoundly broken now exists at Harvard and at Yale and at Princeton right across the board. And the only solution, and it’s a very American solution, is to create new institutions. And the University of Austin is going to model academic freedom in an entirely new way, and it’s going to show that this is still the country that believes in intellectual freedom and the pursuit of truth. So I’m all in. I’m very committed to the success of this project, and as I keep saying to people who are disillusioned with Harvard or Stanford, well, instead of keeping handing those institutions money and being surprised when they spend it on things you deplore, how about a carbon offset program for every 100 million you give to Harvard, give 10% of that amount to the University of Austin and we’ll actually do something that you might find admirable instead of deplorable.

Gerry Baker: We wish you all the very best in that. I’m sure most of my listeners will be strongly supportive. Niall Ferguson, thanks very much indeed for joining Free Expression.

Niall Ferguson: Thanks, Gerry. My pleasure.

Gerry Baker: Well, that’s it for Free Expression this week. Thanks for joining us. We’ll hope you’ll listen again next time. In the meantime, have a great week.

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