Ian Morris Interview 17Academy
Ian Morris
Stanford Professor and author Ian Morris says that what happens next in Ukraine will determine how all of us will live. 

Alexander S. Wolf: Welcome to 17 Academy. This is Alexander Wolf and today I am joined by my idol Ian Morris.

He's a historian, an Archaeologist, and a Professor of Classics at Stanford University.

Hello, Ian. I'm so happy that you're here.

Ian Morris: Hello. It's great to be on the podcast.

Alexander S. Wolf: War. What is it good for? And since we have a war going on right now, many people might ask themselves, why is there war?

Are humans colliding animals or collaborating animals? Are we made for war or for peace?

Ian Morris: I think the answer is both.

Definitely both. I think this is true of most animals that exist, that they've evolved to be able to use force to settle their disputes.

You are a lion, and you disagree with another lion over who gets to eat that piece of meat.

Fighting is always one way you could solve that problem.

But I think what has happened is that each species of animal evolves.

They work out ways to use their force most effectively to get what they want.

And so even if you're a lion, you don't use force all the time.

Sooner or later, you're going to get injured or get infected, you'll die.

So, you learn there are some circumstances in which you use force and some you don't.

And we're just like all the other animals in that way.

But I think what makes us different is that we've also evolved to be able to create culture and to think about what we're doing, to plan and to strategize.

And over time we have actually learned to use force less and less, which no other kind of animal has ever done.

ASW: That sounds great, but if we look at Ukraine, then something has gone wrong.

Have the Russians stepped back in civilization?

IM: Yes, I think it's tempting to say that the Russians have stepped back in civilization, especially when you look at the reports of some of the things that are going on in Ukraine right now.

But unfortunately, I think it's not quite that straightforward.

And one pattern we see quite often in history is that big wars get fought and the end of the war people say, “oh, we cannot do that again.”

1918 in Europe would be a classic case of this.

People say, “Oh, we cannot allow that to happen again.”

They work out new networks, new institutions to solve more of their problems peacefully.

Then somebody comes along, somebody like Hitler in Germany in the 1930s says, “oh, look at this. Everybody is solving their problems peacefully.”

And you prod and you poke, and you realize, “oh, I don't think there's anything I could do that would actually provoke other people to use force to stop me.”

Ian Morris: Hitler wasn't an idiot.

Whatever else you think about him, he wasn't an idiot.

He knew that if the great powers combined against him, they would crush Germany.

But he calculated, “I can fight and win a war before they have time to react and get their systems together.

I can actually use force to get what I want.”

And of course, it turned out he was wrong.

Ian Morris: And I think Putin is looking at the world in the same way.

There's something he very badly wants.

All Russian leaders want to get Ukraine under Russian control one way or another.

They kind of have to. It's forced geography.

But he is taking this gamble; “There's nothing I can do that would actually provoke the West to get together and stand firm and support Ukraine against me.”

ASW: This was all a mistake because in 2014 he tried taking the Crimea and we didn't do anything, just a few sanctions.

So, he thought, “well, the West is busy with buying Christmas presents, so let's just go to the next step.”

IM: I think in 2014, he was much cleverer about it at that point.

Strategists will often say that some modern countries, particularly Russia, have developed this new way of using force; They call it the Gerasimov Doctrine, after this guy who is the Chief of Staff of the Russian army.

And the point of this is, nothing is ever clear. Officially, this isn't a war.

Ian Morris: It's not clear whether there's a war going on, whether there will be a war going on. It's not always clear who's on which side.

In a situation like that, there was no possibility in 2014 of the US or Germany sending the kind of military support they've done to Ukraine because it wasn't even clear there's a war going on.

Everything was ambiguous and it worked really well.

Alexander S. Wolf: That's like the CIA version of a war.

Since Putin was a KGB man, he just used the KGB method of leading a war. It's a concealed war.

It's a very sort of very cold and rational way of thinking about using violence that you've got a problem you want to solve.

And one option to you is just to hit the other guy over the top of the head.

You're going to think about it, or maybe just subconsciously.

Your body does this for you. You can make calculations about the costs and benefits.

Say, I'm teaching at Stanford University and a student says something sarcastic to me, my brain will do this quick calculation: “Should I hit the little guy?”

And I will decide “No”.

He'll be 35 years younger than me.

For one thing, he would beat me senseless.

There's no way in which the benefits of assaulting a student are ever going to outweigh the costs for me.

I will get fired instantly if I do this. I know this. I'm just not going to do it.

And so, the Russians in 2014, they know that if they invade Ukraine full bore, this will be a disaster.

It will unite the world against them.

So you find other ways to accomplish what you want to do.

And I would say al Qaeda's strategy against the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, they knew they couldn't go head-to-head with the Americans in a straightforward military conflict.

But there were things they wanted to achieve. They thought force was going to be the most effective way to get them to their goals.

So, they figured out ways to use force that will get them what they want without provoking a full scale war.

And again, they kind of got that badly wrong.

ASW: So, if Putin tried to do the Blitzkrieg version by saying, “Okay, if I do that fast and occupy Kiev fast, the West will not react,” just like Hitler thought, “Okay, if we invade everybody fast, then the States will not come, which didn't work out.

Ian Morris: Now, Putin, of course, got it doubly wrong because the Western powers did stand together, and also the Ukrainians.

Clearly the Russians were not expecting this kind of resistance.

ASW: Okay. So Putin was the professor of pathology.

If nobody looks and if I beat that student up fast, then this is going to work out right for me.

But he was wrong because the student knows karate.

But now people are dying, and we think like this cannot be the 21st Century.

This looks like the Second World War. Do you see any sense in this?

Is there any pattern behind that? Is there any plan of God that we have to have war to achieve something higher status?

IM: This is something where looking at the long-term history is really useful because you do see this pattern over time of people finding ways to resolve their disputes without using violence to do it.

And this goes back thousands of years, and I think it's kind of been forced on us when we were all hunter/gatherers living mostly in very small bands, moving around the countryside constantly.

There were not a lot of complicated institutions to prevent people from using force.

And at the same time, if you fought a lot, it wasn't like there were complicated institutions that would all break down because everybody is fighting too much.

Ian Morris: And I think as societies have got bigger and bigger, there's more and more complexity.

It allows leaders to suppress violence.

You have something like a police force, but also it means that the costs of allowing violence keep going up and up because there's more to break down.

This, I think, has been the long term story.

We now live in a world where governments have so much more powerful than anything that's ever been seen before.

And the governments are in a position to create incentives within their societies to encourage people not to use force.

Again, unlike me not attacking students at university 800 years ago, I would have done that in some of the most violent places that we know of, or the University of Paris.

They have all these records, just astounding levels of assault, because you bring together all these young guys, take them out of their family networks, so they don't have fathers and mothers telling them to behave anymore.

And they drink all the time, and they go to Brussels and they just go nuts, basically.

But now, of course, universities have to be among the safest places on earth.

So, we've created these institutions by giving the governments and the other institutions more and more power to persuade us not to fight, to punish us if we do fight.

But of course, the flip side of that, we create more and more powerful institutions, governments have more and more force at their disposal.

If they do decide to use force, then the costs of that for everybody, of course, are so much higher.

So, of course, World War Two kills depend on how you count 50 million, 100 million people.

If we have a World War Three now with nuclear weapons, we could kill that many by lunchtime. So, there's that.

Alexander S. Wolf: We’re more efficient now.

Ian Morris: We certainly are, which is good in some ways and much less good in others.

ASW: Alec Baldwin said something very smart in a former interview that we did.

Er sagte, der Krieg selbst sollte zum Verbrechen erklärt werden. Denkst du, dass das ein kluger Ansatz ist?

IM: Yeah, I think there's no reason why that shouldn't happen, because in a way, we've sort of moved in that direction.

And I would say this is kind of what governments have done when governments first were created about 5000 years ago in the Middle East.

One of the first things we see them writing about is claiming that when a king, approved by the gods, says an act of violence is legitimate, then it's okay to do this.

If a king doesn't say it's legitimate, then it's a crime. And so all acts of violence other than the ones the kings approve, those are criminal acts.

So, I think this process of criminalizing certain kinds of violence that's been going on for thousands of years.

ASW: Wie lange, glaubst du, wird es dauern, bis wir keine Kriege mehr führen?

IM: I think if we'd had this conversation 100 years ago, it would have seemed a bit ridiculous to think that we were ever going to get to a point when there were no wars, when the sense was growing 100 years ago that the League of Nations wasn't going to be able to do this.

Ian Morris: There's no obvious reason why we would ever stop having wars.

But since the Second World War, the number of wars has fallen so sharply and the world is changing so rapidly in so many ways.

I think it's not ridiculous to think that by, say, 2100, we might live in a world where war is pretty much unheard of.[…]

We've seen a ten fold decline in rates of violent death, and that is extraordinary. Nothing like that has ever happened before.

But as I say, it's one side of the coin,

, the other side being that when things do break down, we have the potential to kill far more people than chimpanzees can.

We've given ourselves these tools.

But I think this is an uplifting story.

If I'd have come on your podcast 60 years ago and said to you, “Hey, you know, all this stuff, all these problems, it's all going to go away.

The Russians are going to wake up one morning and say, this whole communism thing, it's really not working for us.

Let's just get rid of well over 90% of our nuclear weapons. There's going to be no World War Three.

In fact, the Soviet Union is going to come apart and a few hundred people are going to die, mostly in Romania. That's going to be it.

There's going to be no thermonuclear war, no hundreds of millions dead.”

If I'd said that to you in 1962, you would have thought I was mad.

Alexander S. Wolf: I would have switched off the microphone, like, “that guy gone mad lunatic.”

Ian Morris: And yet, obviously, this is what happens.

Alexander S. Wolf: What a great message for the day.

To conclude, maybe the Ukraine-Russian war is necessary to remind us that we have to connect, that we have to build organizations, that we have to stand together as civil society to prevent wars in the future.

So perhaps there has to be one war to prevent hundreds of other wars.

Würdest du dieser Schlussfolgerung zustimmen?

Ian Morris: Yeah, I think, of course, we don't know how this is going to turn out.

Already what we see in Ukraine now is so different from what everybody expected back in February.

So, we don't know how it's going to end, but I think this has the potential to be a really important moment in 21st century history that if the Russian invasion fails, it sends a powerful message to China that maybe invading Taiwan is not going to be a very good idea.

But on the other hand, if it's still perfectly possible that Ukraine will collapse, it is possible that the alliance will break down.

The Ukrainians are just tired of the bloodshed and Putin will be able to come away from this saying I want I got what I wanted and then go on and threaten and do the same to the Baltic States.

Ian Morris: If that happens, then I think we will look back on the Ukraine war as being something like in the way we look back on, say, Hitler's annexation of the Rhineland in 1936.

And this is the moment when it could have been stopped but wasn't.

That just encourages all of the dictators around the world to say, “Hey, I can do that.”

So, I think the next few weeks are going to be really, really important for the history of the next hundred years, maybe for the entire history of humanity.

ASW: Lass uns mit deinem neuen Buch mit dem Titel „Geographie ist Schicksal“ abschließen.

Kannst du uns sagen, worum es sich dabei handelt?

IM: Yeah. So, I've written all these books trying to formulate big global-level theories about how humanity works, how history unfolds, where it might go in the future, what we can learn from the past.

And all these theories about what happens over the course of 10,000 years, the entire planet, they're not really worth very much unless you can use them to explain things that are actually happening.

Vor sechs Jahren stimmte das britische Volk, wie du dich sicher erinnerst, für den Austritt aus der Europäischen Union.

Und an dem Morgen, an dem die Abstimmung stattfand, dachte ich, oh, weißt du, das ist der perfekte Testfall für diese großen Theorien.

Do the grand theories about how the world works actually help me explain why the British people made this decision?

And well, of course, the answer is yes.

And the conclusion I came to was that geography drives history.

The fact that the British Isles are, of course, islands, then the fact at the same time they're very, very close to the European mainland.

In some ways they may as well not be islands.

So, these two facts have kind of driven British history across the 8 to 10000 years since rising waters after the Ice Age turned the British Isles into islands.

And so what I realized looking at this story, though, is that while geography drives history, at the same time, history drives what the geography means.

And across these 10,000 years of British history, what insularity and proximity to Europe have meant has constantly changed.

This actually really does explain the whole story and certainly explains the debates that people were having in 2016 over whether to stay in the European Union.

It was like there was nothing new in the arguments on either side.

And I guess what I realized, there was a lot a lot of the anger about what happened in 2016 on both sides.

This was misplaced, that this was just the Brexit was just the latest round in this 10,000 year long argument about which matters most insularity or proximity to Europe.

So, so yeah. So it's destiny, but it's up to us to decide what we do about our destiny.

ASW: Du willst mir also sagen, dass sich die Briten seit 2000 Jahren nicht verändert haben?

IM: Nobody has really changed.

Und, weißt du, du könntest ein ähnliches, sehr ähnliches Buch über Deutschland schreiben.

I think you could say geography has been Germany's destiny or Ukraine's destiny even more.

Ukraine, the name of the country means borderlands. Never live in a country where the name means Borderlands.

Never live in a country where the name means Borderlands.

ASW: This was Ian Morris, professor of classics at the Stanford University and author of the new book Geography Is Destiny.

Ian, thank you very much for the insight.

IM: Thank you so much for having me on the podcast. This has been great.

This article is an excerpt from our 17Academy “Journey to Peace” podcast.

17Academy is a training platform for collaboration and peacebuilding by the AusserGewöhnlich Berlin foundation.

To learn more, visit our website: www.17academy.org

More about the Ukraine: Find it here: Alec Baldwin: Make War itself a Crime


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A regular contribution makes you a member of the network.


Further your own education while helping others to do so: Your paid subscription will enable 3 free subscriptions for NGOs to learn about collaboration and sustainable networking, so they can pursue their goals in line with SDG #17 of the UN Agenda 2030.