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Why the past 75 years of human history have been 'an anomaly'

Palestinians inspect the rubble of the Yassin Mosque destroyed after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, early Monday, Oct. 9, 2023. Israel's military battled to drive Hamas fighters out of southern towns and seal its borders Monday as it pounded the Gaza Strip. (Adel Hana/AP)
Palestinians inspect the rubble of the Yassin Mosque destroyed after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, early Monday, Oct. 9, 2023. Israel's military battled to drive Hamas fighters out of southern towns and seal its borders Monday as it pounded the Gaza Strip. (Adel Hana/AP)

With two wars raging and dynastic power on the rise around the world, the post-1945 world order feels like it’s being tested like never before.

One British historian says it’s more like a return to normality.

“It was just so unusual in world affairs to have an orderly period with rules and two clear dominating participants,” Simon Sebag Montefiore says. “While most of world history is about many, many medium powers and a few big powers and lots of small powers all fighting for survival and power.”

Today, On Point: How a world historian views our current moment, and where we could be headed next.

Guest

Simon Sebag Montefiore, British historian. His latest book is “The World: A Family History of Humanity.” He’s also the author of a history of the Middle East called “Jerusalem: The Biography.”

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Simon Sebag Montefiore is an acclaimed historian. His knowledge of the Middle East, Russian and Soviet history in particular, has been called encyclopedic. In his most recent book, he turned that encyclopedic mind towards nothing short of a history of the entire world.

This time, told through the stories of specific families throughout human history and across international borders, just as those borders themselves fluctuate along with the rise and fall of empires and the families that ruled over them. And by the way, The book, called “The World: A Family History of Humanity,” is also very funny, complete with characters such as Basil the unibrow horse whisperer.

Because let’s admit it, humanity also has a deeply absurd streak. Now, Sebag Montefiore’s book was first published in 2022, but it’s been recently reissued along with a new conclusion. And it’s that conclusion we’d like to focus on today. Because in it, he writes about what he calls the beginning of the end of the 70 year peace, and humanity’s creeping and possibly inexorable return to a time where people around the world aren’t enjoying the fruits of liberty and democracy, but instead are subject to the mercurial, self interested actions of dynastic rule.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, welcome back to On Point.

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE: It’s great to be to be with you today, Meghna. How are you?

CHAKRABARTI: I’m doing quite well and looking forward to this conversation. But, before we get to the new addition to, or new addition and addition to your book, Simon, since I mentioned Basil the unibrow horse whisperer, I think we need to tell everyone listening a little bit more about who this person is.

Tell us.

MONTEFIORE: Oh Basil. Basil I was the first of the Macedonian dynasty in the Byzantine Empire. And in the Middle Ages, and he was a fascinating character who came to power essentially because of his brilliant ability to calm horses, to groom horses.

And through that, he became great friends with the emperor, perhaps even homosexual lovers with the emperor, and the emperor promoted him to Caesar. And in the end, Basil savagely assassinated the emperor himself and seized power and founded an extremely successful dynasty. One of the most successful dynasties in the Byzantine empire, because the Byzantine empire, they never called themselves Byzantine.

They called themselves Romaioi or the Roman Empire, they were the Eastern Roman Empire. And just one of the many vast states that seemed to be eternal players in the world game for many centuries that vanished completely. And of course, world history is full of these. And that’s why, when one looks at the world today, one has to realize that states that we think of as completely eternal may not be, may be more temporary than we think.

For example, Russia itself as an empire was only founded by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, 1721 to ’22. Before that, it was called the Grand Principality of Moscow. And Russia itself has only been a big player in the way that we know it today for 300 years.

CHAKRABARTI: Very short in comparison to other previous empires that lasted thousands.

MONTEFIORE: Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: But this is the thing that I find so compelling about your book and why I’m glad you reissued it with this new conclusion. Because history isn’t simply events, right? History is the people who precipitate and cause those events and have to experience them, as well. So just sticking with Mr. Basil of the famed unibrow.

What is it about his story that you felt justified a chapter in your book? What is it about him and how he ruled that tells us more about ourselves even now?

MONTEFIORE: He’s a surprising character because he didn’t come from the elite. He rose to power through personal connections.

He was sponsored by a very powerful princess, a magnate, a female magnate. Then he was sponsored by the emperor. So his career is really about how patronage, connections, coteries form webs of power that can change history. So that’s really the significance of him. And also the fact that his family ruled for a big chunk and were incredibly successful.

And you wouldn’t really have expected that from this completely uneducated horse groom. So history is full of surprises like that. The reason why I chose families, and he’s a classic example of this, is that most world histories and we love reading them, are filled with themes, lists of commodities and trade routes and new scientific inventions.

But the people are missing. And on the other hand, we love biographies that are filled with personal details, but are distorted in that direction, too. So what I wanted to do was find a way to combine the real global span of world history and the intimacy, the grip, the grit, the juice of biography. And this is the way I found to do that.

CHAKRABARTI: And in that conclusion, you write that the most successful leaders are visionaries, transcendent strategists, but also improvisers, opportunists, and creatures of bungle and luck. All those words actually sound very familiar, given where we are as a species today.

So this is what I want to spend quite a bit of time talking about with you, Simon. Because you present this idea, in the conclusion of this, of your book, of the 70-year peace and how it may be coming to an end. So what is the 70-year peace in your mind?

MONTEFIORE: I think that when we look at the world today, people are unsettled, confused, and befuddled almost by what is happening to the world.

And what they don’t realize is that what we’ve really been living through is an exceptional period, an anomaly in world history, in which, for around 70, 75 years, the world was governed, was controlled, was overseen and policed by, essentially, by two and then one mega powers. And that was the Soviet Union, United States, and then just the United States.

And during that period also, the reason why a rules-based, a rule-based world order came in, came into existence was because of the shock. Of the two great wars, the two world wars ending in 1945, and the terrible things that happened, particularly in the second one. And because of that, within our societies and in the world society, in the world game, rules were brought in.

Now, of course, it wasn’t, the 70-year peace was not a complete peace. There were many brutal wars, many of which are forgotten, in which I recount, Angola, Congo, many others, Vietnam. And so it wasn’t really a full period of peace. But two superpowers kept order. So for the first 40 years, 1945 to ’85 the Soviet Union and the United States played a sort of game of chess, two players, from ’85 to around 2015 or the election of Trump, 2016.

It was a game of solitaire, the unipolarity of the United States. And since then, we have seen a breakdown in that sort of control, that sort of discipline, that sort of order. And it’s confusing for us, but in fact, we’re returning to the way the world was always run or not run.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m glad you mentioned about the fact that the 70-year peace wasn’t exactly a peace everywhere or for everyone.

We’re going to return to that point a little bit later in the show, Simon. But you start, when you explain what the 70-year peace is in the book, you actually begin by looking at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a marking point for the possible end of this unprecedented period of peace. Why that moment?

MONTEFIORE: It was a very important moment because it was to overturn the whole way that international affairs had been organized since 1945, the creation of the United Nations. And since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Russia had accepted that all the 15 republics of the Soviet Union became independent states.

And that had been recognized in treaties and agreements. And president Putin made a decision probably encouraged by study of history, his isolation during the COVID lockdowns and other factors, too. But he made a decision to challenge that whole order. Now, he thought he was going to get away with it, by the way, without any resistance.

I also think if he tried it in 2014, he would have got away with it. So I think that he felt that he’d missed an opportunity, but he also felt he saw a unique moment that he would be able to achieve this. The EU had broken up, the Americans had withdrawn from Kabul in a humiliating retreat.

There was a slightly comical prime minister of Britain in Boris Johnson.

CHAKRABARTI: Slightly.

MONTEFIORE: And Ukraine, which he regarded as not a real authentic state or nation, had actually elected a comedian as president. And that must have seemed to him the final sign. That he would be kicking at a kind of, he would be kicking a house of cards, and that Ukraine would collapse.

And of course, as we know, it didn’t, but nonetheless, this changed the international order and it gave a chance for other powers to empathize with Russia, to ally with Russia, Iran, China, who’d long regarded the rules based international order as the invention of the capitalist West. And so the invasion was more than just Russia trying to win back a province that it regarded as an essential part of its empire.

This became a means for much of the rest of the world to challenge everything that America held dear.

CHAKRABARTI: I’ve got a follow up to that in just a second, but when you mentioned both Boris Johnson and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the same sentence. Zelenskyy, though a comedian in his previous profession, a man standing up with great dignity and strength to be there for his people and lead them through a war. That as a counterpoint to Boris Johnson, who was having parties in London during COVID while the rest of his nation was under threat of arrest if they left their houses.

Very interesting example of what you write about, how you can never really know what happens. Because leaders roll the dice, right?

MONTEFIORE: That’s right. I think the real point you’re making is that Boris Johnson was a politician who turned out to be a comedian.

Zelenskyy was a comedian who turned out to be a statesman.

CHAKRABARTI: But neither were guaranteed. Exactly. Perhaps I’m saying Johnson, in Johnson’s case, we probably should have seen that coming.

MONTEFIORE: We should have.

CHAKRABARTI: But when we come back, Simon, I want to talk to you much more about this conclusion and also reach back occasionally to some of the families that you write about and try to glean some lessons from them about this place that we are as a species now.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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