Niall Ferguson compares balance of power to Congress of Vienna at Policy Exchange’s Anglo-American conference

Dec 12, 2017

Professor Niall Ferguson, who spoke at the launch of Policy Exchange’s new Anglo-American project, argued that the best historical analogy for the current balance of powers is with the pentarchy of five great powers that dominated European (and hence world) affairs for a century after the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15. A modern pentarchy was created in the form of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Professor argues that “Whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again is the great geopolitical question of our time.”

Professor Ferguson’s full remarks are given below:

In the wake of President Trump’s recent inflammatory tweet of videos purporting to depict acts of Islamic extremism, and his subsequent Twitter spat with Theresa May, it is tempting to echo the mainstream media view that, bad though President Obama was for the Anglo-American relationship, his successor is somehow managing to be worse.

The last president was said to have an animus against Britain because his father was a Kenyan. This president has no obvious reason to bear a grudge. His mother, who is said to have been a lifelong monarchist, was born on the Hebridean isle of Lewis. He himself has repeatedly expressed his affection for the United Kingdom, owns one of its most famous golf courses and vocally supported Brexit last year.

Yet this is unrequited affection. In their assessment of Mr. Trump, Britons do not differ greatly from their continental neighbors. In June, the Pew Research Center published a report that juxtaposed President Obama’s final global approval ratings with President Trump’s first ones. 79% of Britons had confidence in Obama to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” compared with 22% who felt the same way about Trump. That’s not quite the north European spread – 93 to 10 in Sweden, 92 to 17 in the Netherlands, 86 to 11 in Germany. It’s also a smaller spread than in South Korea. And it’s almost identical to sentiment in Canada and Australia. If you want a special relationship today, look elsewhere: to Israel – 56 to 49 in favor of Trump – or Russia – 53 to 11 for Trump.

This is a little disappointing. This time last year, I published an article in The American Interest, which argued that the Trump administration should take a leaf out of Franklin Roosevelt’s book and seek to build a grand alliance between the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France: not coincidentally, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The US, China and Russia, I wrote,

might agree on the demotion of Europe from great power status, taking advantage not only of Brexit but of the increasingly fragmented and introspective character of EU politics. One possible way to do this would be for Trump to propose replacing “little” NAFTA with “big” NAFTA – the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, which would bring the United Kingdom directly into a post-EU Anglo-Atlantic sphere, while at the same time delivering on Trump’s anti-Mexican (though not anti-Canadian) election pledge.

At the same time, Trump could credibly apply pressure on other NATO members to increase their currently risible defense budgets. Finally, he and Putin could work together to help continental populists such as Marine Le Pen win the elections of 2017.

That hasn’t worked out too well, either. First, Continental populism foundered on the rocks of electoral systems designed to institutionalize center-left plus center-right politics. With the triumph of Emmanuel Macron and the survival of Angela Merkel, European federalism is enjoying a new lease of life, even if few Christian Democrats and almost no Christian Socialists share the enthusiasm of the Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz for M. Macron’s plans.

Secondly, the exposure of Russian meddling in last year’s American election has led to a tremendous case of blowback. The repairing of relations between Moscow and Washington does not seem likely anytime soon; rather, sanctions have been ramped up by Congress and, as long as the Mueller inquiry exists, there will be little chance of a diplomatic thaw.

Meanwhile, the evolution of Brexit from electoral revolt into mind-numbingly tedious divorce has shattered the high hopes of some Brexiters that the UK was bounding free from a constraining EU into the arms of a brave new Anglosphere—the British Empire, born again, but without the politically incorrect features.

My books Empire and Colossus, published in 2003-4, argued that the American experiment with empire-in-all-but-name, launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, would ultimately end in failure because of three deficits: the manpower deficit, the fiscal deficit and the attention deficit disorder.

I predicted that there would be a backlash against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the result would be a less assertive presidency and foreign policy. In 2008 that came to pass. By 2013 Obama was openly declining to play the role of “global policeman” in Syria. It was harder to predict what would come next when that, too, led to disillusionment.

I rather liked Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster’s definition of the Trump doctrine, back in May, as “a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” But the first question that arises is: Who are our true rivals in this competitive arena? The second question is: Does continued close Anglo-American partnership make sense in this context? Having just returned from China, I am mischievously tempted to answer the first question in terms of which Steve Bannon might approve.

After decades of “rising quietly,” China under Xi Jinping’s leadership is now quite openly seeking parity with the United States in the Asia-Pacific region and an enhanced status in the rest of the world.

As is well known, on a purchasing power parity adjusted basis, China’s GDP overtook that of the United States three years ago. It is projected to be 47% larger on this basis by 2022. By 2022, according to the IMF, China’s GDP will be close to 80% of that of the US in current dollar terms, a remarkable achievement considering that it was just 20% in 2006.

Chinese military spending, at $148bn in USD terms, remains small in comparison to the $696bn that the US will spend next year. However, because China’s personnel costs and procurement are purchased at domestic prices, such direct comparisons overstate the U.S. advantage. Furthermore, at only 1.9% of GDP, Chinese military spending has considerable room to grow as Beijing’s priorities evolve.

Apart from military ambitions, the most obvious Chinese advance is the One Belt One Road initiative. Around $200bn thus far has been pledged to this, creating a wide range of foreign investment opportunities for Chinese companies.

A further geopolitical opportunity for China lies in the realm of financial technology. The US dollar system of payments is in many respects antiquated and the faster China develops technologies that are popular with both consumers and retailers, the faster the RMB will spread as a currency for transactions (as opposed to a reserve currency).

Given the fundamental ideological difference between our multi-party democracies and China’s one-party state, it might be thought that Britain and the United States have a common interest to resist the onset of a Chinese Century. Yet there is little sign of a coherent response from the any part of the Anglosphere, except perhaps Australia. With the handover of Hong Kong, Britain ceased to have skin in the Asian game. It became just another European suitor for Chinese economic favors. In this context, appeals to the heritage of “Judaeo-Christian civilization” are more or less empty.

The central strategic problem of our time remains whether or not China and the United States can avoid what Graham Allison has called the Thucydides Trap. Like Henry Kissinger, I think it’s possible that “coevolution” may prevail over containment or outright conflict. But it will be much harder to get meaningful cooperation between the US and China on the second-tier threats posed by North Korea and Iran, implacably hostile states in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I conclude with the following observation, which is also the conclusion of my new book, to be published here next month. On paper, the great powers – a term in vogue in Beijing – face common threats, of which nuclear proliferation is just one. There is also the continuing spread of jihadism and organized crime, to say nothing of cyberwarfare and climate change.

In the wake of the WannaCry episode, even the Russian government must understand that no major state can gain from anarchy in cyberspace. That particular malware was developed by the American NSA as a cyber weapon called EternalBlue, but was stolen and leaked by a group calling themselves the Shadow Brokers. It took a British researcher to find its “kill switch,” but only after hundreds of thousands of computers had been infected, including American, British, Chinese, French and Russian machines. What could better illustrate the common interest of the great powers in acting together?

The analogy, to my mind, is with the pentarchy of five great powers that dominated European (and hence world) affairs for a century after the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15. Is there a way of replicating a similar hierarchical world order in our own time? Conveniently, as I have suggested, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy.

Whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the nineteenth century, is the great geopolitical question of our time. I suppose the fact that two of them are represented here – and still on speaking terms, despite Twitter – is a step in the right direction.

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