The colossus and the tigers
NIALL Ferguson is a colossus. He bestrides History – like the golden idol of Helios by Rhodes’ waters edge – not only physically by virtue of his sizeable frame, but due to the reputation which precedes him. And, like that fabled statue, he acts as a link, a bond between the two flanks of academia: the accessible, public intellectuals; and the savants who swoop about the dark corridors of our great institutions.
Prof. Ferguson has spent most of his recent years working out of the United States, as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard. Working in a climate of greater academic and personal freedom has enabled him to further develop his ideas on the politics and economics of the Cold War. Now, he has returned to our shores to share with us his findings, as the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the LSE.
His first, extremely well-attended lecture, entitled “The Political Economy of the Cold War”, was constructed in two acts. He opened by proposing one of those unanswerable historical questions of inevitability: “was it a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union would fall behind the United States.” Conventional wisdom today argues for this motion, primarily, Ferguson asserts, because of the benefit of hindsight.
Having acknowledged this though, he did not go on to repudiate this orthodoxy. It was apparent from the quality and availability of consumer goods during the postwar period that the Soviet Union’s economic superstructure was not built to last. There was a total absence of investment in infrastructure (making a Chernobyl-type disaster inescapable), and as such they could never have kept up with the pace of development in the West.
His statistical evidence appeared to support this claim. The Soviet Union enjoyed robust growth in the 1950s and 60s, but by the 1980s parts of the empire such as the Central Asian republics had fallen into negative growth. Soviet GDP was but 36pc of the levels enjoyed by the United States in 1990, up from only 27pc in 1945. Taking his cue from Stephen Kotkin, Ferguson concluded that only the oil price spike, which occurred in the 1970s, kept the Soviet economy going.
For the sake of argument though, it should be noted that despite this evidence of economic slowdown, the United States believed, almost until the very end, that the Soviet Union was and would remain an economic superpower and threat to the West. Such a belief was not unreasonable at the time: well into the 1980s, the Russians continued to spent vast sums of money on armaments (14pc of GDP in 1990); aid allied regimes fiscally and military; and were reasserting their presence in neighbouring Afghanistan. There were no external signals that – in spite of the grey and miserable lives the people of the East lived during this period – the whole empire would collapse in such swift and undramatic fashion.
Though the central thesis holds, for in a command economic structure such as that the Soviets maintained from the days of Stalin to the dissolution of the empire, there is no room for dynamism and innovation. Therefore it was perhaps inevitable – to use that dreaded word – that the Soviet Union would slip into a position where they would be forced to perpetually play catch-up to the West, in order to meet the true aspirations of the people.
Ferguson’s second act though was perhaps more challenging to the Eurocentric historian. He attempted through statistical manipulation to debunk the idea of the postwar economic miracle, and instead highlighted the “failure of the social democratic model” in the 1970s. Inflation hit double digits during this period, as high as 25pc in the United Kingdom. And, in fact, thanks to the oil boom in part, Soviet growth overtook that of the United States in the later part of that decade.
The real miracle in fact came in East Asia, for Western European reindustrialisation was not remarkable, when compared to the manner in which the ‘tiger economies’ outperformed all other nations during the Cold War. Under the protection of the United States’ security umbrella, Asian share of global GDP increased from 14pc to 34pc in the space of forty-five years. Japan was able to become the world’s premier export economy, and overcame its previously feudal mode of land ownership.
On the surface this in an intriguing premise, but there are signs that indicate that this was not per se a miracle. For the most part, the types of countries Ferguson noted – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore – are examples of territorial microstates that were able to conjure explosive growth through specialisation in banking, international finance or otherwise, and attract foreign investment through lenient tax policy. In this respect, their story is no different to that of say Liechtenstein or Monaco. The only remarkable element is the speed with which the growth was achieved.
Furthermore, the stories of postwar Japan and West Germany are in fact quite similar. Both states prior to 1941 had economies geared toward heavy industry with respect to total war. What is more, they were each blitzed in the closing months of combat (for the Japanese of course, there was annihilation by way of Little Boy and Fat Man). Reconstruction in West Germany and Japan was achieved rapidly, under allied occupation, along capitalist lines with an emphasis on exports, and, importantly, with democratic regimes in Bonn and Tokyo. It seems incongruous and therefore ahistorical then, to choose to label Japan a miracle and Germany not, merely because it suits Ferguson to trash the European story as a means to giving gravitas to his new East Asian theory.
Primarily it should be stated though, that whilst Ferguson’s new line of inquiry does signal the emergence of an intriguing new approach to Cold War studies, the success stories of Japan, South Korea and others do not in fact add much, if anything, to the war’s overall narrative. Ultimately, while being within the United States’ sphere of influence, those states were rather peripheral to postwar high history. The centres of power, interest and conflict remain the European front, and the various battlefields on which the United States and Soviet Union staged conflict by proxy. As Ferguson alluded to, the Asian chapter of the Cold War in truth opens with the rise of Red China, and comes to a head with the escalation of the wars in Korea and Indochina.
Thus while Prof. Ferguson’s lecture was of tremendous interest – he spoke eloquently and vividly for a good hour or so, holding the audience captive – his new interpretation of the Cold War narrative is one that in truth only adds colour to our pre-existing understanding. It does not and factually can not whitewash over the dominant Eurocentric story.