The Value Perspective Podcast episode – with Simon Sebag Montefiore
Hi, everyone. This week we are delighted to welcome historian Simon Sebag Montefiore to the second of two Eastern Europe-focused episodes as we reach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Simon is a best-selling writer of history and fiction, whose books have won prizes and are published in 48 languages. His latest book is The World: A Family History but he has also written extensively on the history of Russia. In this episode, Juan and Simon discuss looking at history from the viewpoint of certain ‘mega-families’; great historical gambles; Simon’s read on the current geopolitical sphere from a historical perspective; how Russia may be judged by future historians, especially for its actions over the past 12 months; possible solutions to current conflicts; and the most amazing story regarding Simon’s access to the Kremlin archives while researching his first book on Stalin. Enjoy!
Chapter headings for Simon Sebag Montefiore on The Value Perspective Podcast
Please click on the link below to jump straight to a chapter
* Simon Sebag Montefiore, welcome ...
* When Putin takes an interest in your work
* World history – keeping it in the family
* The great military gamblers of the past
* ... and the biggest gambler of the present?
* History shows uncertainty is a constant
JTR: Simon Sebag Montefiore, welcome to The Value Perspective podcast. It is a pleasure to have you here again. How are you?
SSM: I’m really well and it’s great to be on the podcast. Great to talk to you – and thanks for having me.
JTR: Where do we find you today?
SSM: I’m in London and in my office – my study, where I do all my writing. I have been travelling a lot –promoting the book everywhere – most recently travelling around India. I’m just back here for a bit and then I’m off to Spain, South Africa, America ... all over the place.
JTR: Fantastic. Now, it is my understanding that you are a must-have author at any British house and pretty much every single British household knows who Simon Sebag Montefiore is – but, for those who might not know you outside of the UK, could you please give us a brief introduction about yourself?
SSM: That is a very difficult question – and really your job! I am a British historian and I mainly write about power. I have written four big books, specially, about Russian power: two on Starlin, based on his archives; one on Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin, about their relationship and how they conquered Crimea and South Ukraine; and one about the Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia for more than 300 years. My other expertise is the Middle East and I have written a history of Jerusalem, using the holy city as a lens to tell the history of the Middle East, really.
So those are my specialities but I have now written a history of the world, told through families, called The World: A Family History. That is really a study of power and of all the great movements of history – technological and ideological and war and pandemic – but told through the lens of family. And really, the idea of it is that most global histories are a little distant from humans – they are all about machines and technology and trade routes and commodities – yet most biographies are too focused and too small. So the idea of my new book is to capture the span of world history through the intimacy of biography.
When Putin takes an interest in your work
JTR: It is an absolutely beautiful book, I have to say, and a fascinating read – I really enjoyed every single page of it. Before we jump into some questions about it, though – did I once read that it was Vladimir Putin who recommended you to write a biography of Stalin?
SSM: Not exactly. What happened was ... as I mentioned earlier, my first history book was a joint biography of Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin, who were a fascinating couple. They were really children of the Enlightenment and more humane than most rulers of Russia, before or since. But they were also great imperialists, who conquered southern Ukraine and Crimea from mainly Islamic rulers – from the Tartars and from the Ottomans. And there they founded all the cities we now know from the Ukrainian war, such as Mariupol and Kherson and Odessa, of course, and Sebastopol in the Crimea and so on. So they have suddenly become very relevant and very important today.
Shortly before the war, Putin suddenly started mentioning them – Catherine the Great and Potemkin – and citing them and their generals to justify the annexation of the Crimea, which they had previously annexed in 1783. And it was because of these historical essays citing this period that I realised Putin was in earnest and about to invade. Then again, I knew this already because, when I started to research my book in the 1990s, I was approached by Putin’s entourage. At the time, Putin was the new acting prime minister – soon to be elected president – and they said he was already fascinated with this subject and asked me if I could write a ‘one-pager’, as we say in the West, for him about how Potemkin annexed the Crimea.
This was pretty interesting at the time because all the Western leaders were hailing Putin as this kind of incredible liberal reformer. And yet, here he was, most fascinated really with the creation of the Russian Empire in the 18th Century. So when the book was translated into Russian, he read it and I was then approached by his entourage, who wanted to pass on that Putin really admired the book because it treats Catherine the Great and Potemkin as sort of European titans.
And they went on to say he also wanted to show how grateful he was. And I said, How? – wondering what it was going to be. And they said, We don’t know what you’re writing next but we are about to open Stalin’s archives and the president would like to offer you the first access. And this happened while I was already writing The Court of the Red Tsar, which was my book on Stalin. Maybe he knew that already and that was why he offered – but I accepted and that is how I wrote that book.
JTR: My understanding is that he did not like that book so much?
SSM: He did not – he hated it! He felt it showed Stalin as a sort of Mafia boss and so I lost all access. I mean, when I was in the archives – when I was in favour – I had people bringing me Stalin’s papers and showing me everything. I had my own room – I didn’t have to sit with the other researchers – and I could come and go as I liked. Everyone found me things – they used to come to me and say, You might find this interesting. Such is the power of the favour of the Kremlin.
After the book was published, however, I was writing a sequel, Young Stalin – I wrote them in the wrong chronological order – and when I wanted to go back into the archives, they said, Sorry, we don’t even know who you are. We don’t remember you here at all. I was like, But I was here for months – you must remember! And they smiled but said, No, we don’t remember anything and you certainly can’t have that room. So that was a very Russian story – when I asked for documents, they actually said, We can’t bring any because there has been an accident. Two guards have fallen down the lift shaft and their bodies are at the bottom so we can’t bring up any documents for you. Everything in Russia is either a conspiracy or a bungled accident but this was both.
JTR: Simon, I have to ask – I was going through The World: A Family History and, when I got to the section about the Rothschilds, I saw that the sister of Nathaniel’s wife married a Montefiore ...
SSM: Yes. The families intermarried – I don’t know – about eight times although that marriage was not an arranged one. At the time, Rothschild and Montefiore were not unknown but they were rising young financiers – so they were not dynasties at that point and there was no reason for them to arrange a marriage. But it was a very good marriage for both of them – both were marrying into a wealthier family than their own, which was the family of Levi Barent Cohen, who was a Dutch financier. So they married sisters and, from one sister, the Rothschild family is descended and, for a while, Montefiore and Rothschild lived together in the same building, in what is now New Court, where the Rothschild Bank still stands in the City of London.
They lived together above the shop where they traded gold bullion but, of course, with the coming of the Napoleonic War and as that war developed, the Rothschilds became the most important bankers in Europe – as Britain became more important in Europe too. They started as the main suppliers of specie – of gold coins – to pay the armies of the Duke of Wellington in Spain and Portugal. They were experts at, I guess, the secret work of getting the money across the channel and to the army – and, from that, they built their career as arguably the greatest banking family of all time.
And the Montefiores remained a sort of ‘sub-Rothchild’ – you know, they remained constantly intermarrying with the family and very close together. And Moses Montefiore and Nathaniel Rothschild – and then his son Lionel Rothschild, who was his nephew, of course – remained extremely close, right the way through the whole 19th Century effectively. They were two extremely important Jews – two extremely important bankers – and they worked extremely hard to lift the restrictions against Jews in Britain and elsewhere. And of course they were remarkable businessman as well.
World history – keeping it in the family
JTR: That is absolutely fascinating. Now, The World: A Family History is so well-weaved and just a fantastically impressive piece of research so I wanted to ask you – from a research perspective, how does one approach such a massive project and make it successful?
SSM: What I realised was that no-one had done anything like this before – and Benjamin Disraeli always used to say, When I want to read a book, I write it myself! So, as I said at the beginning, I really wanted to find a way to combine these two genres of history into one. I wasn’t sure it would work but I played with the idea – I needed to find families that linked together the whole of world history. Of course, Asia, and Africa and Europe are all very closely linked together but the Americas and Australia were completely separate for many, many centuries. So they were harder to bring in but the essential idea was that families would provide links across history.
And, really, this idea depended on it just being a fact that families or dynasties have been the predominant method of government throughout world history for thousands of years. And we can discuss why that might be but, even today, this is still very true. You only have to look across Asia and the Middle East – and Africa, for that matter – to see rulers are still ruling through families today. And it isn’t something that is diminishing in the 21st Century – it is actually increasing now again, after a period when it seemed to be in abeyance.
So family is a very good way to look at world history – but then I had to select the families and I had to find a way of telling the story. And really, it had to be readable and the scholarship had to be correct. So it was an immense challenge to write this. I don’t think I could have written it without Covid and lockdown because that gave me a chance to be completely focused – I was alone in this office, where I’m speaking to you from, for two and a half years. But, of course, the challenge was to master all these subjects and that was really murderous – I barely survived the stress of doing it and I didn’t really sleep for about two and a half years.
Still, the essential criteria is that each family is a way of telling some story. I mean, you mentioned the Rothschilds, which is a way of telling the story of the creation of modern capitalism and capital markets and the world we exist in today. But you could also look at, say, the pottery tycoon Josiah Wedgwood, who invented modern marketing, or the Rockefellers, who invented the oil business, and so on. So you can look at business families, for example, and of course there are many banking families, whose banks still exist today in various forms – all of whom could be used to tell stories.
I mean, another family I am related to is the Sassoon family, who were the ‘Rothschilds of the East’ and controlled huge amounts of trade in Bombay and Shanghai, for example. But I decided not to cover the Sassoons because I was covering the Rothschilds. So I constantly had to make decisions about who to cover, but also who not to cover. But the essential rule was I wanted to make this the most diverse history of the world that had ever been written – and the way I did that was to treat the ruling families of Dahomey or Mali or the Zulu kingdom or the ruling dynasties of India or China exactly the way I would treat, you know, the Habsburgs or the Rothschilds or the Romanovs.
I wanted to treat them all exactly the same – and that’s what I’ve done in this book. So that is one part of it and another part of it is female history – you know, when I grew up, women were left out of a lot of history. And so this book is absolutely full of interesting and brilliant women – and, by the way, they are no better and no worse at governing than men! That is one of the conclusions of the book. But it has been an amazing challenge and I am so excited it is done. So thank you for saying you enjoyed it because that means a lot.
JTR: It is such an impressive feat – almost 1,300 pages and they go by very quickly. Now, I guess this is going to be a very difficult question but who or what are your three favourite characters or families or passages of world history and why?
SSM: Wow – that is a very difficult question. But I guess there is a simple answer for that, which is that, when I started to write this book, I was looking for families that linked up everything – that crossed many centuries but also many worlds. And so the book has three ‘mega-families’ in it and so I guess I should name them. The oldest one was the family of the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants. You know, if you follow the Muhammad family dynasty ... it is never called that, of course – we call those different dynasties the Abbasids and the Fatimids and the Umayyads and the Hashemites of today but, actually, you can really follow from about 500 or 600 AD all the way to today through that one family. So that has to be one of the great families. Indeed, if I could choose any time to live, it probably would have been in the 8th and 9th Centuries at the court of the Caliphs – Harun al-Rashid and others of that time in Baghdad and the Umayyads of Damascus – because, to me, that was the height of human culture and literature and music and everything and I think those were great times to live.
The second mega-family would be the dynasty of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan – starting with Genghis Khan in the first millennium around the year 1000. The Mongols obviously conquered much of the world, which was the greatest empire the world has ever known, and when that empire broke up 400 years later, Tamerlane – Timur the Lame – became an emperor and ruled his own dynasty and married into the Genghis Khan family and his family then ruled Mughal India. The Mughals were the family of Tamerlane and they ruled right until the 1850s. So that spans over 800 years of Asian history. And then I guess the third mega-family would be the Habsburgs because there is a single family from Charlemagne – the family of the Pippinids – right through to the Habsburgs. That is well over 1,000 years too – that ends in 1918 – and that is all one family as well. So those are the three mega-families that really are the centre of the book.
The great military gamblers of the past ...
JTR: So interesting. This podcast explores how human beings make decisions under uncertainty and historic analogies always come up – one of the most famous ones being Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and his line: “The die is cast.” What other passages in history have a similar parallel – when a big gamble was taken for good or bad? Examples I read in your book could be Frederick the Great during the Silesian wars of the mid-18th Century saying ‘My only motto now is conquer or die. I must embark on a great adventure and play double-or-quits” – or maybe Louis XIV’s gamble to support the Americans a few decades later?
SSM: Well, political life and power is filled with gambles and so, for example, every leader who has ever ordered an invasion has taken a massive gamble. All military expeditions and ventures are enormously risky. And one of the things I wanted to do in this book – and I did it deliberately – was switch abruptly from continent to continent. I wanted to get a feeling for the messiness of human affairs, and therefore the complexity of human decision-making, where every leader – even today with Rishi Sunak, for example – is facing many crises in many places.
And one of the interesting things is that you never know which crisis is going to solve itself. Rising gas prices, for example, were a huge concern but prices can also go down – indeed they are going down – but then you never know which of the many matters on your desk are going to explode. And that is even the case with many reactive leaders – with the western democracies, many of the leaders are essentially reactive, which is one of the problems with our systems.
One of the problems with decision-making in the western democracies is that, while you can get rid of the governments easily, they are in power for a very short time so the leaders are often rather ordinary, rather managerial. On the other hand, you can have the autocratic systems, where the decisions can be made much faster – because fewer people need to be consulted, obviously – but the downside of that is you can never get rid of the rulers and, if they get it wrong, they tend to double down instead of switching. You go back to democracies and the great criticism is that they are completely inconsistent. Every five or 10 years, they completely change policy and no-one knows where they are – and, again, that is a contrast with autocracy.
So decision-making is really an interesting one. As an example, Bismarck continually compared his decisions to go to war with a man in a casino making a gamble. So, you know, virtually all these leaders recognise that military affairs are a huge gamble – and we are seeing that today. I mean, I think Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 is – in terms of the size of the armies and the intensity of the clashes – the greatest gamble in modern world history taken by one man. That counts as much greater than Frederick the Great – although that was an example of a gamble that ultimately paid off but almost destroyed him many times.
And there are many other examples: Alexander the Great making the decision not just to invade the Persian Empire on a looting expedition. He probably only planned to invade Anatolia – so, present day Turkey – but then expanded that to an attempt to conquer the greatest empire on earth from his small, mountainous, forested fiefdom in Macedonia in what was then northern Greece. That also has to rank as one of the great gambles of all time. So my book is basically, as you said, a study of decision-making – and, you know, the decision-making by leaders is always extremely flawed and the decisions are made with very little information, compared with what you require.
But you are right that, even when there is information, people often take the wrong lessons from it. I mean, a little bit of history is perhaps worse than no history at all – for example, American leaders, and particularly George W. Bush, say, did not know much history. In fact, the only history they really did know was about the start of the Second World War and Munich and Churchill – and so it was presumed that every enemy America had must be Hitler in 1938/39, which of course is not always the case. So I think the study of history is useful – providing one realises that, in making decisions, history is one of the things one consults, but one mustn’t depend on it. History does not contain actual answers to contemporary problems but it does contain lessons and guidance – and that is why it is interesting as well as, hopefully, enjoyable.
... and the biggest gambler of the present?
JTR: Is Putin the ultimate dice-thrower and, given your intimate knowledge of Russia, how do you think history will judge the events of the last 12 months in the region?
SSM: Well, first of all, I think Putin has always aspired to be a great Russian ruler. And when he’s talked to people, he’s always spoken in terms of, How will history judge me? And he has also often talked to his entourage about how he judges previous rulers of Russia. And he looks back at those rulers, really without any ideology – so, for example, he regards Peter the Great, Nicholas I and Alexander III, as great rulers. And Stalin, of course – he regards Stalin as really the most successful Russian ruler of the last 200 years ... since the early 19th Century. Of course, there was that great story when Averell Harriman congratulated Stalin on taking Berlin in 1945 and, quick as a flash, Stalin replied: “Yes, but Alexander I took Paris.” That says a lot about the way he saw the world.
And Putin disdained the rulers who he thought had broken or abdicated or given up – and he regarded Gorbachev and Nicolas II as interchangeably useless, which is interesting, because in the West we see that very differently. We see Nicolas II as a sort of romantic figure and dramatically doomed and we see Gorbachev as a great reformer. So we see them as opposites while Putin sees them as very similar people – as men who lost an empire. And he has a very mixed view of Lenin, as the person who, with Stalin in 1922, designed the structure of the Soviet Union and its rather clever but, as it turned out fatal, structure with all these new republics, like Ukraine and Belorussia, which were supposedly semi-independent and could leave but in fact, never could, because they were kept in the Soviet Union by force. But of course, when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, they all became independent and Putin has never forgiven that.
So, yes – Putin looked out at the world and waited for an opportunity to see if he could reverse the break-up of the Soviet Union. And he did that, both as a nostalgic revanchist for the Soviet Union, but also as a revanchist for the Russian Empire, which he saw as a distinct and special world of Russian culture, Russian language, Russian religion ... going back a millennia. He saw the first opportunity around 2014 but he didn’t go through with it – he annexed Crimea and he invaded the Donbass in a sort of indirect way. I believe that is the great ‘mistake’ he made – if he had invaded full-scale the Ukraine in 2014, he might have got away with the whole thing. I’m glad he didn’t but I think he might have got away with it. And that would have changed the whole of world history early as I’m not sure the West would have got itself together at that point.
Actually, he tried a different method – he thought he could just cripple Ukraine. And when that failed, during Covid, he began to brood about Russian history and much of it is the Russian history I have spent my own life writing about – particularly the Romanovs and Catherine the Great and Potemkin. Anyway, I think he looked at the world and he saw a unique opportunity. We were talking about decision-making and he had been an extremely successful ruler – perhaps he was spoiled by easy successes – but, as I was describing earlier, democracies are quite easy to outmanoeuvre at first, because autocrats have such opportunities for quick movement and quick decision-making. Whereas democracies are by their very nature – and indeed it is one of their virtues – cautious and moral. More moral anyway. So I think it gave him a feeling that he could get away with anything – and an overconfidence.
But, looking back at the world, you can see how he thought there was a unique opportunity – you know, the Americans had fled in chaos from Kabul in Afghanistan; the EU had broken up with Brexit; Boris Johnson was prime minister in the UK and widely regarded by his fans as a bit of a bumbling Maverick – and by his enemies as a complete clown; and then, of course, NATO seemed to be paralysed or ‘brain-dead’, as president Macron said.
Furthermore, he already regarded Ukraine as a kind of false state – a sort of ersatz state that was really part of Russia – and saw the Ukrainians, really, as sort of second-rate Russians. And then Ukraine, this very corrupt and quite ineptly managed state elected an actual comedian – an actual clown – as president so you can see how, from his very distorted worldview and his distorted view of Russian history, Putin felt that the Ukraine state would surely collapse. Surely a state that elected a comedian as its president would collapse? And so I believe he felt it was a unique opportunity and that is why the decision was made.
As it happens, I think it was a disastrous decision for all sorts of reasons – not least, it underestimated the fact his own actions, starting in 2014, had actually transformed Ukraine. It is one of the fascinating things in history that people don’t just fail to bring about their projects – the very attempt to bring them about can achieve their exact opposite. In this case, his own actions have created a much more intense Ukrainian feeling of nationhood, of shared experience and of defiance – and a real aspiration to be part of a Western democratic world and not a Russian world. Some of this had been achieved by Putin’s own cruelties and violence.
So I think he has made a colossal mistake. I think Russia is already a subordinate state to China but will be much more so in the future. And we shouldn’t necessarily presume that Russia in the next 50 years is even going to remain as a single state – you know, actually, if you look at history, one presumes all these countries have been around forever. But actually, the Russian Empire was only created by Peter the Great between 1700 and 1725 – and he even gave it a new name. Before that, it was the Grand Duchy of Moscow and he renamed it ‘Russia’, which was a kind of imperial idea. And Russia retains that idea of itself as a state.
So it also could break up and it could disintegrate. I’m not sure that complete disintegration would be a good thing for everybody but who knows? You might get a very powerful Ukraine; you might get a very powerful Poland. When you write world history, you begin to realise that empires fall, states disintegrate and nothing is forever. So there could be a massive change – the Russian population is shrinking or they have a demographic crisis and how long are carbon fuels going to be enough to fund that empire, that state?
Still, in the short term, I think he has made a big mistake. I mean, the initial military invasion failed and now, a year later, Russia has lost 180,000 men. Now, that sounds like a catastrophic amount to us but of course, in the first year of World War Two, Stalin lost six million – six million – and he recovered to win the war. So, you know, the Russian ruler has to use terror to keep power. He is about to launch a massive offensive as we speak and, while I don’t think it will succeed, it could throw the front back further and there could be a military crisis. I personally think that, in the end, Ukraine will in some form or other win this war. I hope they will win this war and I believe it is possible for them to win this war – but, for them to achieve that, we need to arm them a lot more vigorously than we are currently.
JTR: This may be a bit of an illogical question but, as a Russian expert, what probability do you give to a resolution to the conflict anytime soon – even within the next few months?
SSM: I think it is possible. The only way that would happen, though, is if Russia was firmly defeated – because a real defeat would cause the fall of Putin. The Russian presidency – and, before that, the general secretariat of the Communist Party – is very like the Imperial throne. It is a sort of military high command and has always been structured like that since 1613, when the Romanov dynasty came to power – and a really firm defeat and humiliation would bring down Putin. But it is the only thing that would.
A much more likely scenario is that it will be stuck and there will be a sort of stalemate. Then there will be some sort of peace negotiation and it will become the sort of conflict that explodes again every few years and the borders will be somewhat like the borders of Israel and the Arab countries in 1948, for example, or Pakistan and India or the Korean peninsula. That last one has not exploded into further wars but the others have. There have been three Pakistan-India and five Israeli-Arab conflicts.
So the most likely scenario, I think, is they will be stuck but that Ukraine will develop as a democracy – as an armed democracy or what I call a ‘war democracy’. In my book, I say there are ‘comfort democracies’, which is Western Europe, and those are democracies where the population believes they are owed massive amounts of benefits by their state – benefits that those states will now increasingly struggle to provide, due to ageing populations and the reluctance of many people to work as hard as they used to. And, for these reasons, these comfort democracies will face massive challenges in the next few years. You know, comfort democracies being Britain, America, France, Western Europe – ‘the West’, as we used to call it.
But ‘war democracies’ – of which Israel is a classic example but also South Korea and Taiwan – their populations are already mobilised and ready to make sacrifices. So they have, I find, different political cultures – and Ukraine will be one of those and will be an armed camp for the foreseeable future. And, you know, it will develop an incredibly dynamic economy because one of the things my book, The World, shows is that war is the most intense incubator and spur for creativity and ingenuity and technology. We are seeing that already in this war. So I think Ukraine will be an incredibly advanced economy – but on a constant war footing – and Putin will remain in power as long as he’s alive.
History shows uncertainty is a constant
JTR: There is a tendency to think the world is more uncertain than usual at present but uncertainty is a constant and it is only our perception of it that changes. With a historical lens, then, how do you read the current geopolitical status quo and the relationships between the Chinese and the Americans, China and Taiwan, Russia and Europe, China and India, China and Europe ...?
SSM: First of all, I see the period after World War Two – or 1945 to 2020, say – as a uniquely stable period in world history. Of course, there were constant wars but they were fought by proxies, not by great powers – and they were not fought by nuclear powers. One of the things I have done in the book is to show there are wars we may have barely heard of, such as the great African war in Congo, the Great Congo War, where millions of people died, or the war between Iran and Iraq, where a million people died. I mean, these are catastrophic world events but they had very little effect on us in the West – so we regard it as a peaceful period.
And, in fact, it was a peaceful period – but it was totally exceptional. The only parallel, perhaps, was the period after the Congress of Vienna, from 1814 to 1848, when Europe was really governed by a very small group – something like the UN Security Council – by the rulers of Russia, Britain, France and so on. The ‘Congress System’, as it was called, sort of worked for a while in Europe. Another interesting thing about the post-war period is that, from 1945, there was a unique moral and liberal development – I mean, even if a country wasn’t a democracy, they wanted to look like a democracy, which is interesting. Think about it – in Russia and China, they have presidencies and elections, which are all based on and inspired by America. Of course, they are not real elections but they want the look – every state now has to have that representation.
Anyway, I think it is interesting that ‘normal disorder’ has been restored and I think we are now getting back to the way the world always was. While that post-1945 ‘Cold War’ period resembled a game of chess between two huge players, now, it is more like a multiplayer computer game, with many more players and many more combinations. And, obviously, climate change is a huge crisis and danger but so is nuclear threat – even though nuclear proliferation has been incredibly restrained, really.
There are only eight or nine nuclear powers, depending on who you include in that list – though, in fact, that is a bit of an illusion because many more countries have what are called ‘peaceful nuclear programmes’, which can quickly and easily be converted to weapons programmes. So it could proliferate much faster than we think and, in the end, somebody will use some sort of weapon – it is no longer unthinkable. Maybe it will ‘just’ be a tactical nuclear weapon – but tactical nuclear weapons are the same size as those used at Hiroshima so this is quite a significant matter.
In terms of world crises, in my view, the leading crisis today is not Russia and Ukraine. That is a huge conflict but much more important is, of course, China and America, where tensions are constantly rising. Both sides are arming – America is modernising while China is constantly creating massive new armaments and technologies and so on. I wouldn’t yet say it is an aggressive power but it wants the potential to be aggressive – and it is no longer following Deng’s rule of sort of ‘Build but hide your power. Restrain yourself’.
And so I’d say the highest chance in the next 50 years – the next 20 years – is for some sort of confrontation. It is very important that America is courageous – in that, if it’s going to make a stand about Taiwan, it must make the fact it will make a stand incredibly clear. One of the disasters of 1914 was that Britain was always going to come in on the side of France but it concealed that fact in secret military agreements with France, which it did not reveal until the war had already started. And actually, that was completely the wrong approach – what they should have done is announce it so the Germans would plan accordingly. Instead, right up to the last minute, the Kaiser and his people were sure that Britain would not come in – when, in fact, Britain had signed agreements that obligated it to join France. So that is a key consideration.
I think the biggest danger in Asia is, in fact, Pakistan. Obviously, India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers – and that is extremely dangerous – but the biggest danger in that region, which is obviously a hugely important one, is the break-up of Pakistan. India is perfectly positioned to be the next superpower – it has everything that is necessary. It has mass; it has population – it is now the biggest population in the world; it is a nuclear power. It has what I call ‘empire state’ aspirations and increasingly sees itself as a world power. And, if it is well governed – if the president’s majoritarian government doesn’t ruin Indian ingenuity and creativity by persecuting ethnicities; in other words, if it remains a democracy – it will become the next great power. And it is perfectly positioned.
But the fall of Pakistan, which has been much predicted, really looks like it might happen any minute and that would be a disaster, of course. I mean, India would finally win Kashmir but what would it do with Pakistan, with the Punjab? It would be very tempted to take it into some sort of ‘sphere of influence’ or annexation, which would be very dangerous because it would bring China into the region – and that would bring a confrontation that could bring in the rest of the world. So, while Taiwan is the obvious spark, I think Pakistan is even more dangerous because it is much more important.
JTR: That is a really interesting insight, Simon. We are coming to the end of our conversation today but I cannot finish without asking you for a book recommendation?
SSM: Ah – a book recommendation! I think this is an essential book: Jozef Pilsudski, Founding Father of Modern Poland by Joshua Zimmermann, which I read recently. This is all about how Marshal Pilsudski, the founder of modern Poland, believed a strong Europe and a strong Poland were impossibilities without a strong Ukraine. So it is very relevant to understanding what is happening today – in fact, I’d say it was essential reading. There are millions of other brilliant books I have piled up in this office from my reading but let’s start with that.
JTR: That’s great. Simon, best of luck with your world tour promoting your book and all of your travelling in the weeks ahead. And thank you very much for coming onto The Value Perspective podcast – it was truly fascinating.
SSM: I’m really honoured to be here. Thank you very much. Enjoy the book everyone.