Niall Ferguson
Professor of History, Harvard University

Where are we?

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Nuclear non-proliferation is today's single most important issue.

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard.  Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.

A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.


Question: What are the major issues facing the world today?

Ferguson: Most people today, sitting here, would probably say that climate change was one of those issues. It’s extremely hard to miss the enormous environmental impact that we’re now having, now that Asia has embraced industrialization wholeheartedly. I actually think there are more serious problems that could have an impact before the long unfolding process of global warming has whatever consequences it’s going to have.

I take the threat very seriously of climate change, don’t get me wrong. But before we ever get to Al Gore’s worst case scenario, we could have blown the world up. Because, happening right now, at full speed, is a breakdown of the system of nonproliferation set up nearly 40 years ago which very successfully limited the number of powers who could use, acquire, or have the option to use nuclear weapons.

And I think that’s a worry because even if an Iran acquires only a very small number of nuclear missiles, that significantly increases the risk of a nuclear exchange of some kind, even if only an accidental one.

The superpowers in the Cold War played a very simple game. There were just two players, and they risked mutually assured destruction if they fought. And then it turned out to reduce the probability of a nuclear war quite dramatically.

But in a world of multiple nuclear powers, where there are lots of small Cold Wars, one between Pakistan and India, one maybe between China and Japan, one between say Israel and Iran, and so on. When that world comes about, then the probability of a nuclear war is quite high because the stakes are lower.

Only the United States and the Russians still have enough weapons to blow up the world, everybody else can just blow up a few cities; but the probability is higher because you have maybe a Cuban missile crisis every year instead of just one in 50 years.

So that makes me very uneasy, and I feel as if we are stumbling towards a much more dangerous world in which a nuclear weapon will get used sometime soon. And this would be a bigger explosion than Hiroshima and Nagasaki because these weapons are far more destructive than they use to be.

Recorded on: Oct 15 2008