About halfway through writing my biography of Henry Kissinger, an interesting hypothesis occurred to me: Did the former secretary of state owe his success, fame and notoriety not just to his powerful intellect and formidable will but also to his exceptional ability to build an eclectic network of relationships, not only to colleagues in the Nixon and Ford administrations, but also to people outside government: journalists, newspaper proprietors, foreign ambassadors and heads of state—even Hollywood producers? If Volume I had surprised readers with its subtitle—“The Idealist”—should Volume II perhaps be subtitled “The Networker”?
Whatever your views of Kissinger, his rise to power is as astonishing as it was unlikely. A refugee from Nazi Germany who found his métier as a scholar of history, philosophy and geopolitics while serving in the U.S. Army, Kissinger was one of many Harvard professors who were drawn into government during the Cold War. His appointment as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser in December 1968 nevertheless came as a surprise to many people (not least Kissinger himself), because for most of the previous decade he had been so closely identified with Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s patrician rival within the Republican Party. From his sickbed, the former President Eisenhower expressed his skepticism about the appointment. “But Kissinger is a professor,” he exclaimed when he heard of Nixon’s choice. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything.”
Most writers who have studied his subsequent career in Washington have tended to explain the rapid growth of Kissinger’s influence in terms of his close relationship to Nixon or his talent for the very bureaucratic infighting he had condemned as an academic. This, however, is to overlook the most distinctive feature of Kissinger’s mode of operation: While those around him continued to be bound by the rules of the hierarchical bureaucracy that employed them, Kissinger from the outset devoted considerable energy to building a network that extended horizontally in all directions beyond the Washington Beltway: to the press and even the entertainment industry inside the United States and, perhaps more importantly, to key foreign governments through a variety of “back channels.” Kissinger brought to this task an innate capacity to make emotional as well as intellectual connections even with the most aloof of interlocutors, a skill he had honed long before his appointment by the famously aloof Nixon. It was Kissinger’s unique talent for networking, not just his scholarly acumen or his astute reading of power politics, that made him such a formidable figure. And it was his arrival on the political scene just as the world was shifting from the ideological bifurcation of the early Cold War—a duel between two hierarchical superpowers—to a new era of interdependence and “multipolarity” that made Kissinger precisely (in the words of TIME magazine) “the right man in the right place at the right time.”
Indeed, it was networking—ironically, a chance encounter with an official from the Eastern bloc—that presaged Kissinger’s greatest diplomatic triumph: the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and Mao Zedong’s China.
A characteristic feature of the Soviet system, which endured long after Stalin’s death, was the systematic destruction of private networks and the isolation of individuals. Even in the late 1960s, when Soviet citizens encountered Americans—which of course they very rarely did—they had to be on their guard. The Pugwash conferences of scientists were a rare exception. Today, having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, Pugwash is almost synonymous with disarmament and conflict resolution through so-called “track two diplomacy.” During the Cold War, however, the conferences had a more ambiguous character, as the Soviet academics who attended had to be approved in advance by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and sometimes even by the Politburo. Kissinger thrived in this environment—charming and impressing Soviet apparatchiks with his trademark mordant humor—and he attended the gatherings several times.
In 1966, at the Pugwash conference in the Polish resort of Sopot, Kissinger was startled by the violence of Soviet invective against China. “China was no longer Communist but Fascist,” the Soviet mathematician Stanislav Emelyanov told him during a boat trip to Gdansk harbor. “The Red Guards reminded him of nothing so much as the Hitler Youth. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had a common interest in preventing Chinese expansion.” Candidly, Emelyanov admitted he had not seen the Soviet government so confused since the aftermath of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech. It was through Pugwash that Kissinger received an invitation to go from Poland to Prague, where he met Antonín Šnejdárek, the former head of Czech intelligence operations in Germany who was now director of the country’s Institute of International Politics and Economics. The two men met again in Vienna at the annual meeting of the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies. The Czech frankly warned Kissinger that the Soviets had no sincere intention of helping the Americans extricate themselves from Vietnam. Indeed, he said, the crisis in Southeast Asia might end up being “a convenient pretext [for Moscow] to tighten control over Eastern Europe.”
The most revelatory of all these encounters came in January 1967, when Kissinger returned to Prague. Again Šnejdárek warned that Moscow “was becoming increasingly sensitive about the growing freedom of movement of the East European countries and especially the Czech effort to reduce their economic dependence on Moscow.” But now he startled Kissinger with a question that Kissinger had to admit “had never occurred to me”: if he thought a ‘U.S.-Chinese deal was in the making.” Sensing the American’s surprise, Šnejdárek explained:
“The Soviets took the Chinese attack on them [a key feature of Mao’s Cultural Revolution] extremely seriously. They could not easily reconcile themselves to the end of Socialist unity and even less to the challenge to their position as the chief interpreters of Leninism. The extent of their attempt to influence internal Chinese developments is therefore not always grasped. They supported the party apparatus against Mao ...”
The Maoists, in turn, were now desperate “to expel the Soviets physically from China. Nothing less than a complete rupture with the Soviet Union will enable them to feel secure.” True, the Cultural Revolution looked like an ideological rift, with the Chinese as the more radical Marxists. But:
“[w]hatever Mao’s ideological fervor, the human material available to him will force him in a nationalist direction—assuming he is still in charge of his movement. Despite their wild talk, the Maoists might turn out to be more flexible toward the U.S. than their opponents. They will have to shut off China in any event to reconstitute governmental authority and a form of non-aggression treaty with the United States might fit this design very well. Of course they hate the U.S. too; but … no Communist can forget the Hitler-Stalin pact.”
From a Czech point of view, such a “Johnson-Mao pact” was an alarming scenario because “if the United States settled with China it would step up the [Soviet] pressure in Europe.” Fearful of isolation, the Soviets would clamp down on what Šnejdárek obliquely called “the prospects of East European national development.” Kissinger was amazed, yet his Czech host’s fear of “a U.S.-Mao deal” seemed “genuine and deep.” Scholars have long speculated as to which American strategist conceived of the opening to China that would so transform the geopolitical landscape in 1972. But it was not Americans who thought of it first. It was the strategic thinkers of the Soviet bloc who foresaw the new world conjured up by the Sino-Soviet split, and they did so more than four years before Nixon’s historic visit to China.
Beginning in January 1969, Kissinger set about applying some of the lessons he had learned as an academic and public intellectual: in particular, the lesson that informal networks could provide diplomatic channels superior to foreign ministries and embassies. As a prelude to writing the second volume of his life, I have attempted to map Kissinger’s network on the basis of all the published memoirs that relate to his period in government. This provides a preliminary plot of his and others’ networks as they were remembered by Kissinger himself and his contemporaries in government. The graphs depict Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s ego networks, based on their memoirs; the Nixon and Ford administrations’ ego network, based on all members’ memoirs; and the Nixon and Ford administrations’ directed network, depicting how prominently members figure in each other’s memoirs. In the first three graphs (figures 1-3), relative importance is represented by both the proximity to the central “ego” node (which in the third case is the combined identities of all members who wrote memoirs) and the area of the node. In the fourth graph, we can see who mentioned whom and how often they did so in terms of mutual proximity, edge width and arrow direction.
The graphs leave little doubt about who mattered in the Nixon-Ford era. Kissinger abounds—as important to Nixon as his wife, and the second most important member of the two administrations, outranking Ford, who became president. Next (see figure 4) came Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, followed by Ford and White House counsel John Dean. Also ranked highly on this basis were John Ehrlichman (assistant to the president for domestic affairs), Treasury Secretary John Connally, future president George H. W. Bush and Alexander Haig (Kissinger’s assistant, then deputy, and Haldeman’s successor after Watergate).
It’s particularly striking to see the difference between “the world according to Nixon” and “the world according to Kissinger.” Nixon’s inner circle (figure 1) was that of a man whose experience of the presidency was to a remarkable extent confined within the walls of the White House. Aside from his wife and daughters, he refers most often in his memoir to Kissinger, Eisenhower (whose vice-president he was), Haldeman, Erlichman and Haig. Kissinger, by contrast, mentions key foreign leaders almost as much as the presidents he served, and more often than the secretary of state who preceded him in that office, William Rogers (figure 2). The more striking thing is which foreign leaders loom largest in Kissinger’s memoirs: the Soviets (their ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, their foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, and their premier, Leonid Brezhnev) came first, followed by Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, and Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president. Apart from Brezhnev and Dobrynin, only one other foreigner was among the 40 individuals most frequently mentioned by Nixon: Nguyen Van Thieu, the South Vietnamese president. By contrast, only 16 of Kissinger’s top 40 were Americans. Of course, we would expect the national security adviser and secretary of state to spend more time than the president with foreigners: that is the nature of the job. Yet it is difficult to believe that any previous holder of those offices had been quite as indefatigable a traveler and negotiator.
Richard Nixon's ego network, based on his memoirs.
Henry Kissinger's ego network, based on his memoirs.
While in office, Kissinger appeared on the cover of Time magazine no fewer than 15 times. He was, according to one of the magazine’s profiles of him, published in 1974, “the world’s indispensable man”—though one who stood accused by his critics of paying more “attention to principals than principles.” The hypothesis must be that Kissinger’s influence and reputation were products not only of his intellect and industriousness, but also of his preternatural connectedness. Shuttle diplomacy was a part of this. So was schmoozing journalists, at which Kissinger excelled, though he scarcely mentioned them in his memoirs, despite the closeness of his friendships to the Alsop brothers, Stewart and Joseph, and the columnist Tom Braden. As Time noted, Kissinger had “a finely tuned sense of hierarchy.” But what mattered much more were all the other relationships in a network—including an “old boy network” of former participants in Kissinger’s summer seminars at Harvard—that spanned the globe. “He always looks for the guy who can deliver,” an unnamed aide told Time. “A lot of doors open for him,” said a “Washington friend and admirer.” The network was the precondition for his “chain reaction” diplomacy—a phrase used by the Israeli deputy premier, Yigal Allon. That was what justified the claim that Kissinger “probably [had] more impact than any other person in the world.”
The Nixon and Ford administrations' ego network, based on all members' memoirs.
The weakening of hierarchy and strengthening of networks that characterized the 1970s had many benefits. From Kissinger’s point of view, these trends significantly reduced the risk of a Third World War: that, after all, was the central rationale of more frequent dialogue with the Soviet Union, as well as the beginning of communication with the People’s Republic of China. Contemporaries often summarized Kissinger’s foreign policy as “détente.” He preferred to speak of “interdependence.” A “new international system” had replaced “the structure of the immediate postwar years,” he declared in London in December 1973: one based on “the paradox of growing mutual dependence and burgeoning national and regional identities.” “The energy crisis,” he suggested three months later, was one of “the birth pains of global interdependence.” By April 1974, “The Challenge of Interdependence” had become a speech title; by 1975 interdependence was “becoming the central fact of our diplomacy.” “If we do not get a recognition of our interdependence,” Kissinger warned in October 1974, “the Western civilization that we now have is almost certain to disintegrate.” Academics at his alma mater such as Richard Cooper and Joseph Nye obliged by writing books on the subject. Interdependence found institutional expression with the first meeting of the Trilateral Commission at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills in 1972 and the first meeting of the “Group of Six” (Britain, France, Italy, Japan, the United States and West Germany) at Rambouillet in 1975. The New York Times chose to mark the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence with an editorial entitled “Interdependence Day.” It was a concept enthusiastically adopted by President Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
The Nixon and Ford administrations' directed network, depicting direction and frequency of members' references to each other in their memoirs.
Yet there were costs as well as benefits to inhabiting a more interdependent world. As Brzezinski argued in his book Between Two Ages, the new “global city” being created by the “technetronic age” was “a nervous, agitated, tense, and fragmented web of interdependent relations.” This was true in more ways than one. During the first half of the Cold War, the superpowers had been able to control information flows by manufacturing or sponsoring propaganda and classifying or censoring anything deemed harmful. Sensation surrounded every spy scandal and defection; yet in most cases all that happened was that classified information was passed from one national security state to the other. This, too, changed in the 1970s. Leaked official documents began to reach the public in the West through the free press—beginning in 1971 with the Pentagon Papers given by Daniel Ellsberg to The New York Times—and (to a much smaller extent) in the Soviet bloc through samizdat literature, notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Leaks to the media in turn fueled the dramatic escalation of social protest on university campuses and inner cities that made the early 1970s seem so febrile compared with the sedate quarter-century after 1945. Altogether close to 400 different groups were involved in some form of protest in the United States between the 1960s and the 1980s: what had begun with the campaign for African-American civil rights soon encompassed campaigns for women’s rights, Native American rights, gay and lesbian rights, and campaigns against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, poverty and industrial pollution.
Like most members of the generation who fought in the Second World War, Nixon and Kissinger had little patience with these groups; indeed, Kissinger likened the student radicals he encountered at Harvard in the late 1960s to the German students who had attended the Nuremberg Rallies in the early 1930s. Nevertheless, in the small hours of May 9, 1970, Nixon ventured out of the White House to confront a group of student protesters who were camped out at the Lincoln Memorial. It was an uncharacteristic attempt at connection by a man notorious for his reclusiveness and misanthropy. As he told them:
“I was sorry they had missed it [his press conference the previous day] because I had tried to explain … that my goals in Vietnam were the same as theirs—to stop the killing, to end the war, to bring peace. Our goal was not to get into Cambodia by what we were doing, but to get out of Vietnam. There seemed to be no—they did not respond. I hoped that their hatred of the war, which I could well understand, would not turn into a bitter hatred of our whole system, our country and everything that it stood for. I said, I know you, that probably most of you think I’m an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.”
Perhaps Nixon did understand how the protesters felt. But, as they subsequently made clear to the reporters who swiftly descended on them, they did not remotely understand how he felt, or care to.
Long before Nixon fell victim to the exposure of his own skulduggery by the Washington Post—as well as to the consequences of his own vulnerability as a network isolate, with too few friends in the institutions that might conceivably have saved him—Kissinger had understood that networks were more powerful than the hierarchies of the federal government. The protesting students he knew well enough not to waste time on. But he did tour the country in the Ford years giving speeches to Midwestern audiences in an effort to explain his strategic concept to the wider public—though with only limited success. In some ways, his most remarkable feat was to isolate himself from the one component of the Nixon network that would have been fatal to him: the part that plotted the Watergate break-in. It took a networker of genius to know exactly which nodes to avoid connecting to.
Kissinger’s power, still based on a network that crossed not only borders but also professional boundaries, endured long after he left government in 1977, institutionalized in the advisory firm Kissinger Associates, maintained by almost incessant flying, meeting, mingling, dining. By contrast, the executive branch after Nixon saw its power significantly curtailed by congressional scrutiny and greatly emboldened newspapers. No future national security adviser or secretary of state, no matter how talented, would ever be able to match what Kissinger had achieved.
Adapted from THE SQUARE AND THE TOWER: Networks and Power, from Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Niall Ferguson.
"Once Trump came into the Oval Office with a newspaper folded into quarters showing some story based on a leak from the White House. 'What the f*** is this?' Trump had shouted. Presidential flare-ups were common enough, but Trump often would not let an incident go, roaring on for too long before calming down."
"A joke among Trump's aides was that it was better to f*** up really big rather than have a series of daily minor mistakes, since Trump identified with the celebrated, all-points f***-up."
"The White House problems . . . were organisation and discipline. The staff was too often like a soccer league of 10-year-olds."
You are probably thinking - and I really don't blame you - that you have read more than enough about Michael Wolff's explosive bestselling book Fire and Fury, the core thesis of which (that President Donald Trump is a retarded man-child) received fresh support last week from the president's own potty mouth and Twitter feed.
In fact, all three of those quotations are taken from another book about another president's first year in office - The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, which Bob Woodward published in 1994. I just changed the president's surname.
A recurrent theme of The Agenda is Bill Clinton's explosively bad temper. His press spokesman George Stephanopoulos told Woodward that "he had seen and experienced Clinton's temper tantrums . . . many times . . . Others called them 'purple fits' or 'earthquakes'. Stephanopoulos simply called it 'the wave', an overpowering, prolonged rage that would shock an outsider and often was way out of proportion to what caused it."
We know from Wolff that Trump is also capable of "rages".
"Typically these would begin as a kind of exaggeration or acting and then devolve into the real thing: uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff. It got primal."
And: "At points on the day's spectrum of adverse political developments, he could have moments of, almost everyone would admit, irrationality. When that happened he was alone in his anger and not approachable by anyone." This, writes Wolff, was Trump's "fundamental innovation in governing: regular, uncontrolled bursts of anger and spleen". Nope. Twitter hadn't been invented in 1993 so Clinton's outbursts were confined to his inner circle.
My point is not that Clinton is like Trump, of course. My point is that the presidency will infuriate even the best of men. Show me a presidential biography and I'll show you - with a few notable exceptions - eruptions of fury. Yet each presidential biographer makes the mistake of presenting this as a significant character trait of his subject, rather than appreciating that it's structural: the job is inherently maddening.
So let's leave aside personality for a moment and consider a structural interpretation of the past 12 months. I submit that most presidencies have the following characteristics in the first year. The White House operates much like a royal court in the time of Shakespeare - an analogy suggested to Wolff by Steve Bannon, but not a new one. The president is the focal point; access to him is power.
In his first 12 months, however, he is a powerful novice. Those he appoints to key positions are also often new to government. The other branches of government - Congress, the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve - operate according to different rules. The president needs to work with them or at least to avoid their opposition. But to do that he needs experienced insiders, not his campaign sidekicks.
Meanwhile, the press exists in a symbiotic relationship with the government, needing the news it generates, communicating its actions to the voters who elected it, but also seeking to shape those actions by the stories it publishes. Somewhere out there, too, are the other governments of the world, sizing up the new guy.
Irrespective of the president's personality, the Clinton and Trump administrations had the following five traits in common during year one:
" a painful transition in personnel from campaign people to Beltway operators
" because of poor co-operation with Congress, failure over healthcare reform and narrowly won success over taxation (hikes for Clinton, cuts for Trump)
" a fixation on a particular financial market as a metric of success (the bond market for Clinton, the stock market for Trump)
" excessive involvement of family members in policy-making (Hillary/"Javanka")
" lousy press coverage.
In other words, Wolff could have written Woodward's book and vice versa.
Indeed, Wolff could have made the events narrated by Woodward sound so much worse. James Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, was dating Mary Matalin, a Republican spokeswoman who called Clinton "a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger". Zoë Baird, Clinton's nominee for attorney-general, had to withdraw because of tax evasion. Not only did the first lady play an absurdly large role in formulating healthcare policy; Clinton even put a relative in charge of the White House travel office. Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel and an intimate friend of the Clintons, shot himself dead in a Virginia park six months after the inauguration. Now that's what I call fire and fury.
As for Trump and the media, we've seen the movie before. Things were so bad in 1993 that Hillary tried to move the press out of the White House into the Old Executive Office Building. Just as Trump jettisoned Sean Spicer, so Clinton sidelined Stephanopoulos. In neither case did the press coverage improve. Still to come in Clinton's case were David Hale's revelations about Whitewater and the allegations about the president's liaisons with Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Juanita Broaddrick. Still to come was the Chinese attempt to meddle in US elections (the Russians have taken over that role).
Context matters, as well as structure. Another reason the Clinton and Trump White Houses resembled one another in year one was that neither had to contend with a crisis as big as George W Bush (9/11) and Barack Obama (the financial crisis).
I know what you're thinking. Trump is crass. Clinton is charming. Trump doesn't read. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. Trump is a racist. Clinton's best buddy was Vernon Jordan, a former civil rights lawyer. All true. But does any of that really matter in terms of historical outcomes?
How, after all, did the Clinton era unfold after its first, chaotic year? The president's party lost control of the House of Representatives in year two. He still got re-elected but - as scandal after scandal surfaced - the other side impeached him, although he survived and, with the economy booming, even saw his approval rating rise.
I cannot guarantee Trump's fate will be identical to Clinton's. But what makes you so sure it won't be the same old Shakespearean drama - just with a different cast?
Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
ILLUSTRATION: PETER OUMANSKI
It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.
Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.
But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?
True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.
Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter , told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”
Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.
The printing press helped build a network that bolstered Martin Luther’s leadership of the 16th-century Protestant Refomation challenging the established Catholic Church PHOTO: STOCK MONTAGE/GETTY IMAGES
Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”
We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.
The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.
For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza. This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.
The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”
There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.
When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.
Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.
In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere. At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.
Ambassadors attending the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reset hierarchical order in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. PHOTO: UIG/GETTY IMAGES
Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.
Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.
Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.
The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.
The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, 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 United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.
It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.
Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.
There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.
Netflix’s popular ‘The Crown,’ starring Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, attests to fascination with the modern British monarchy and its continued stabilizing influence. PHOTO: NETFLIX/EVERETT COLLECTION
Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.
We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.
Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.
Last week marked the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. On the night of November 7, 1917, the Winter Palace in Petrograd was occupied by the Bolsheviks. Seventy-two years later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened. In the intervening period, according to the estimates in The Black Book of Communism, the grand total of victims of communism was between 85m and 100m.
Mao Tse-tung alone accounted for tens of millions: 2m between 1949 and 1951, another 3m in the course of the 1950s, a staggering 45m in the man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward”, yet more in the Cultural Revolution.
The lowest credible estimate for the total number of Soviet citizens who lost their lives as a direct result of Stalin’s policies is 20m.
All communist regimes everywhere, without exception, were merciless in their treatment of “class enemies”, from the North Korea of the Kims to the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh, from the Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam to the Angola of Agostinho Neto. Pol Pot was the worst of them all, but the differences were of degree, not of quality.
Communist regimes were aggressive, too, invading country after country during the Cold War. Moreover, we now know just how extensive and ruthless the KGB’s system of international espionage and subversion was.
Could more have been done to halt the communist pandemic after it broke out in Russia in 1917? And, if so, have we learnt anything from the mistakes of those who failed to stamp it out when they might have?
The Bolsheviks could certainly have been stopped. After all, the only reason Lenin was able to get from Zurich to Petrograd in 1917 was that the imperial German government paid for his ticket — and more. An estimated $12m was channelled from the Kaiser’s coffers to Lenin and his associates. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equivalent to about $250m (£190m) today.
The provisional government thus had every right to arrest Lenin and his band of associates on arrival. They were German agents. And Alexander Kerensky, the Socialist Revolutionary who took control of the provisional government in July 1917, had even better grounds to round up the Bolsheviks: by then, they had attempted a coup and failed.
The problem was that people underestimated Lenin & Co. They seemed an unruly bunch of intellectuals: writers of pamphlets, makers of speeches. No contemporary western observer thought for a moment that their crackpot coup would last. Naive American bankers failed to appreciate that the Bolsheviks meant exactly what they said about defaulting on the entire Tsarist debt. No one foresaw that hereditary nobleman Ulyanov (to give Lenin his original name) was equally capable of ordering mass murder.
Foreign intervention, incompetent liberals, clueless bankers: that makes three reasons the Bolsheviks weren’t stopped. Let me not forget the fellow travellers. John Reed, with his risible glamorising of the revolution, would have many, many heirs. George Bernard Shaw’s callous commentary on the show trials of the 1930s perfectly encapsulated this intellectual deformation.
Not many went as far as the Cambridge spies, who shamefully betrayed their own country to Stalin. But how many intellectuals between 1917 and 1989 turned a blind eye to communism’s crimes? Because Hitler’s crimes were in some way worse. Because the industrialisation of Russia could be achieved in no other way. Because one had to crack an egg to make an omelette — and all the other cant.
Another, less obvious, reason that the communist virus continued to spread for so long was that good men underestimated the Soviet threat and were assailed by doubts about how much should be done to resist it.
From the outbreak of the Korean War to the final confrontation in the early 1980s, even those who considered themselves anti-communist frequently lacked the stomach for the fight. Time and again during the Cold War, eminent Americans — especially the products of Ivy League colleges — succumbed to relativism. Perhaps this contest between the superpowers was really the fault of the United States? Perhaps the US should simply withdraw its forces from the contested grey zones — from southeast Asia, from Central and South America, from sub-Saharan Africa?
And yet behold what happened when the US did that. It is now more or less orthodoxy that the Vietnam War was a great disaster. I am of the unfashionable view that the real disaster was to abandon the people of South Vietnam to their cruel and entirely predictable fate at the hands of the communist North.
Have we learnt anything from this history? Not nearly enough, I would say. It is not just the millennials in Che Guevara T-shirts I worry about. It is not just John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who as recently as 2011 said he “still sees the relevance of Trotsky” and who owned a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book until 2015, when he tossed it at George Osborne in the House of Commons. It is not just the revival of “Antifa” by young Americans presumably unaware of the co-operation between the German communists — the original Antifa — and the Nazis that helped seal the fate of the Weimar Republic. It is not just the rising power of a China still ruled by communists. It is not just the North Korean nuclear missiles.
No, what concerns me today is the entirely familiar response we see to a different but, to my mind, equally dangerous threat. Ask yourself how effectively we in the West have responded to the rise of militant Islam since the Iranian Revolution unleashed its Shi’ite variant and since 9/11 revealed the even more aggressive character of Sunni Islamism. I fear we have done no better than our grandfathers did.
Foreign intervention — the millions of dollars that have found their way from the Gulf to radical mosques and Islamic centres in the West.
Incompetent liberals — the proponents of multiculturalism who brand any opponent of jihad an “Islamophobe”. Clueless bankers — the sort who fall over themselves to offer “sharia-compliant” loans and bonds. Fellow travellers — the leftists who line up with the Muslim Brotherhood to castigate Israel at every opportunity. And the faint-hearted — those who were so quick to pull out of Iraq in 2009 that they allowed the rump of al-Qaeda to morph into Isis.
A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire, despite their stated intention to plot world revolution and overthrow both democracy and capitalism. Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our existence.
It would be hard to devise a better illustration of George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)