World Today ‘Not Unlike Situation in 1914’ War in Ukraine, the Power of Individuals, & Canada’s Defence Complacency
An Interview with Margaret MacMillan
“Kyiv, of course, is seen by Russian nationalists like Putin as the birthplace of Russia. A great irony, in a way, considering Putin is prepared to destroy that birthplace to prove a point.”
You’ve said that the greatest conflicts and their outcomes have often been shaped as much by personal leadership as by resources or military strength. Do we underestimate the power of individuals to shape world history?
There’s been a trend, which has a lot of validity, to look at the great forces that lead to great events in history. To look at the economic, sociological, and political forces, and argue that these are more important than who happens to be alive at a particular moment. However, when you have people in positions of great power, who have the authority to take their countries into war or keep them out of war, you do have to look at individuals. We’ve become more aware of this with what’s happening in Ukraine. I describe it as Putin’s war. I think he wanted it. He brought it about, given his position in Russia. The war would not have happened unless he wanted it. Sometimes you must take into account the individual. In the 17th century, Louis XIV wanted glory, and he saw war as an avenue to achieve it. It can matter depending on the time and circumstance.
There’s a lot that’s not known about Putin, but there’s quite a bit that is known. His background in the secret services matters. He developed as a young man in a world where conspiracies were suspected everywhere, and in which those with the levers of power exercised them in a secretive way. He comes out of a society that, under the Bolsheviks and later the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was organized in a top-down hierarchy, with a very small group of people at the top. Stalin—the obvious example—was a dictator with virtually unlimited powers. Those are the models he had before, and even though he has repudiated communism, he does say that Stalin was a great leader. Putin can and does look further back to some of the great despotic leaders in Russian history; he often compares himself to Peter the Great.
On the topic of the influence of personalities on world events or history…why, given his extraordinary power, wealth, and control over the Russian state, do you think Putin would invade Ukraine? Where might we be right now if Trump were still in power instead of Biden? How has Biden’s leadership influenced the trajectory of this conflict? Furthermore, what might the state of Ukraine be right now if not for Zelenskyy?
Putin thought he could start a war because he’d gotten away with it before. He had gotten away with it when he seized Crimea, when he went to war in Chechnya and Syria, and when he threatened war against Georgia. He had come to see war as a usable tool of the state. He assumed that Ukraine would not fight. If you look at the Russian column that came into Ukraine, they thought they were going to have an easy drive down to Kyiv, take the city with no resistance, and set up a puppet government. There are stories claiming that there were dress uniforms in Russian luggage captured by the Ukrainians, which implies the Russians were planning a victory parade. Putin thought Ukraine was weak, divided, and would not stand up to Russia.
We must consider his sense of history, as he thinks of a different history than many of his neighbours. The history he’s thinking of is of a great Russia. He wants to restore the greatest boundaries of Russia. Putin wrote in a long essay last summer that he views the Russians and Ukrainians as one people spiritually, that Ukrainians are part of the family, and should be within the Russian tent. Kyiv, of course, is seen by Russian nationalists like Putin as the birthplace of Russia. A great irony, in a way, considering Putin is prepared to destroy that birthplace to prove a point. Putin thought the West would not respond. He and many of those around him have come to view the West as weak, divided, and decadent. Putin tends to dwell on the social customs of the West. He often brings up our acceptance of homosexuality. To him, same-sex marriage is a sign of weakness and decadence.
If Trump was still president, you would probably find a very different Western response. What has taken Russia by surprise are two things: the resistance of the Ukrainians, which if anything is growing, and the willingness of the West, led by the United States, to give Ukraine the supplies it needs. If Trump had been elected for a second term, I suspect none of that would have happened, and the United States would not have taken a leadership role.
Zelenskyy has been key. You can understand why Putin and others underestimated the former comic. This was someone whose approval rating was around 28% when the war started. There were all sorts of problems in Ukraine, which is a politically divided country with widespread corruption problems. Most people wrote him off as a pushover. However, Zelenskyy has proved to be the man of the hour. Whatever you think of his leadership, it is clear to me that it’s made a difference. He has a great capacity to speak to the Ukrainian people. He’s speaking to them and rallying them—he’s helping Ukrainians come together. But he’s also got a great capacity to speak to the world. He’s made the West realize that it needs to do more to defend its democratic values. Putin dislikes an independent Ukraine. He saw it as both illegitimate and a threat to his role. Having a neighbour like Ukraine, which was prospering despite all its problems, which was doing better economically, while being more democratic and open than Russia, is something Putin didn’t want his people to see.
The Biden administration has been firm on this and has gone a long way to supply Ukraine with what it needs while encouraging allies to do the same. One of the key elements has been the reaction of Germany. You can argue that they’ve been too slow, that they should have delivered weapons quicker, but the Germans have reversed a decades-old policy, to spend more on the military and take more of a leadership role. The fact that Sweden and Finland want to join NATO is an extraordinary reversal. This is something that would not have happened without this war. I think you’re seeing several reactions in democratic countries and not always strong ones. There are partly-democratic countries, like Hungary, which prefer to try and keep on good terms with Putin. In a way, it’s paying off for them. But the reaction of the West has been strong, and it’s taken Putin by surprise. Of course, his only reaction is to double down, to try and seize even more territory through even more brutal means.
Historians and International Relations scholars have suggested that the outbreak of WWI was in part, the result of a breakdown in the balance of power. Do you think the same could be said now with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine?
The First World War is so much debated and I think we will never come to a consensus on it. It’s used as part of the foundation of a lot of modern international relations theories. Was there a balance of power? Are balances of power inherently unstable? Or can you see them as providing a sort of stability? I would argue other factors led to the First World War. There were reckless policies on the part of Germany, and there was the accident of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo in 1914, which gave Austria the excuse it had been looking for to try and destroy Serbia. There are long-term factors and short-term factors.
What we have in the world today is a situation not unlike the situation in 1914, where you have an uneasy balance between the powers, who are jostling for advantage and power within Europe, but also around the world. World powers are competing with each other in trade, and competing to gain influence to in a way that is similar to that period of history. We’re also seeing what you saw before 1914 and throughout history, namely, a power which may be declining in power. That was Great Britain and the British Empire before the First World War, and the United States today, although I think that’s far from a foregone conclusion. Then you have new powers, the new players who want their place. As Germany put it before 1914, they want their place in the sun. You have China now, which is asserting itself, saying We were once great in the past and we want to be great again. That does make for a sort of instability, though it can be managed. Germany and Great Britain were rivals before the First World War, and so were the United States and Britain. One rivalry led to war and one didn’t. That was because the British and the Americans managed their rivalry and came to an agreement. I think it’s still possible that the United States will manage its relations with China to the extent to which the two powers could come to coexist. At the moment, the signs aren’t looking good.
You have said that Canada is complacent about defence and security. In what ways do you think we’ve become complacent? What do you think are some of the reasons for this complacency?
We live next to the United States—the world’s great power. After 1989, at the end of the Cold War, the U.S was the only superpower left in the world, at least for the time being. We got used to the idea that we were under the protection of the United States, therefore we don’t need to spend a lot on defence because the United States would do it for us. Among NATO nations, our contributions have been among the lowest per capita in terms of GDP. I think we got used to the idea that we don’t need to do very much. We have also been so preoccupied with our internal politics, constitutional issues, and questions of how to accommodate different regions and provinces, that we haven’t been noticing the world around us. Sometimes, we don’t recognize that the world is becoming more dangerous.
I think we need to be concerned about two things: 1) the United States turning even more inwards, which might well happen under a Republican President, and 2) what is happening in the Arctic. With global warming, the Arctic is now becoming a lot more accessible and open. There is a scramble there already for minerals, including rare minerals, and the Northwest Passage is becoming more of a possible waterway for trade and navies. I think we are looking at a new challenge in the north, which we haven’t yet been focusing on, and we’re not well equipped to deal with it at the moment.
In Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, you wrote that “in the fluid world of 1919, it was possible to dream of great change, or have nightmares about the collapse of order.” Looking at the world today, during this time of global change and great power politics, how do you feel about what’s ahead? Great change or nightmares?
I think it’s both. We have to be optimistic because otherwise we will just give up. But we do face, as a species, a great challenge in global warming. The planet will survive, but it’s not at all clear if the human species is going to survive into the next centuries if we continue as we have. We face a series of overlapping challenges in the world. We’re seeing the unwinding of globalization and more protectionism. We’re seeing polarization, not just politically in societies, but economically—the middle classes are being squeezed. You see the impoverishment of the lower classes, with increasing wealth concentrated in very few hands, which is bad for society. We’re also seeing regional rivalries which could spill over into the Pacific, for example, the rivalry between China and India, which people perhaps should pay more attention to. There are other parts of the world too which continue to be troubled. We have to keep on trying, we should remember we have institutions which have served us, and we have the capacity to work with each other. I hope we recognize that and do it. I will be optimistic, but we’d be foolish to ignore some of the worrying elements.
Margaret MacMillan (Toronto and Oxford) is emeritus professor of History at the University of Toronto and an emeritus professor of International History at Oxford University. She was Provost of Trinity College, Toronto from 2002-7 and Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford from 2007-2017. She is a trustee of Imperial War Museum and sits on a number of non-profit advisory boards. Her research specializes in British imperial history and the international history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her publications have been translated into 26 languages and include Paris, 1919, Nixon and Mao and The War that Ended Peace. Her latest book is War: How Conflict Shaped Us (2020). She gave the CBC’s Massey lectures in 2015 and the BBC’s Reith Lectures in 2018.