Harvard historian Niall Ferguson‘s latest Newsweek column focuses on possible outcomes in the unsettled Middle East. Like former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Ferguson discusses “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.”
But Ferguson also points to the importance of what he labels “unknown knowns,” “the things that people who ignore history don’t know, but historians do know.”
First, there’s the point that all our wonderful information technology has helped make the world more integrated than ever before. But highly integrated networks, though they enhance efficiency much of the time, are very prone to occasional, massive crashes. Globalization has collapsed before.
Second, the rising middle class in emerging markets means not just soaring demand for Western brands. It also means soaring demand for Western rights. A revolutionary bourgeoisie in Asia is about to start demanding the rule of law and no taxation without representation. That is what the bourgeoisie has been doing since 17th-century England.
Finally, the resurgence of China and the stagnation of the United States remind us that it’s precisely when great powers change places that you need to watch out.
Last week I suggested that China rather than the United States should lead any intervention in Syria on the grounds that China’s economic interest in the Middle East will soon exceed that of the U.S. I was being at least half ironic. Yet on the very day of publication, the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars announced a joint Chinese-Iranian-Russian exercise, involving 90,000 personnel, 400 airplanes, 900 tanks, and 12 Chinese ships, to take place in … Syria.