Transcript: Margaret MacMillan, Geopolitics and Learning from the Past: Key Moments
Narrator: On February 2nd, 2022, the Canada School of Public Service hosted world-renowned historian Margaret MacMillan. She spoke about the importance of history in understanding current geopolitics and the lessons that can be learned from the past to meet the opportunities and challenges of today and tomorrow.
Text on screen: The importance of history
Margaret MacMillan:I think it's important for a number of reasons. And I think we all instinctively know that. We know that the more you know about an issue, a place, a person, the more knowledge you have, the more you can deal with that issue, place or person.
So history, I think, is important, both in personal relations, but relationships, but also in understanding others and understanding other nations and understanding other groups. I mean, impossible, I think, to understand the demands that President Putin is making today and the position he's taking without understanding something of Russian history, without understanding how he sees Russia in the world and how many people in Russia support him, there is a Russian perspective on the world, and I think we need to understand that, just as there is a Canadian perspective on the world.
I think history also helps us to understand the context within which things happen. It helps us to look beyond the immediate events and ask questions. What are the economic issues, perhaps, that are affecting Russia's foreign policy today? What might be the demographic issues? How important is it, for example, that the Russian population is declining? Is that affecting Russia's capacity to project its power? Is it affecting policymakers within Russia? And so what history does, I think, is our minds to possibilities, helps us to ask questions. And without being able to ask questions and of course, we're not even going to be able to begin to look for solutions to some of the issues in which we're dealing.
Text on screen: The difference in geopolitics today
Margaret MacMillan: What is different today? I would say that we're seeing some things that are very similar, great power rivalry, for example. But what we are saying that is different, I think, is the global nature of challenges, far more even than there was in the globalized world before 1914. The pandemic, I think, is a very good example of that. Climate change, of course, and the movements of peoples on a vast scale. This is something which is now truly an international problem and is going to go on being one. We also, I think, are still coming to terms of what the impact of the Internet is, what it is doing to the formation and movements of public opinion, what it's doing to the types of leadership we have. I think we're also beginning to understand the potential perils and advantages of artificial intelligence.
Text on screen: Democracy vs. autocracy
Margaret MacMillan: I think democracies have certain advantages in the long run over autocracies. Autocracies can mobilize faster.
They can create more economies faster, as Stalin did in the Soviet Union. They can impose tight controls on their population. But in the long run, I think democracies can sustain, if their people are persuaded, it's worth it. They can sustain a struggle. Autocracy can do so much. But I think a willing participation by publics, as you got in the Second World War by the British public, the Canadian public, the American public, I think, can show the strength of democracies. It often takes democracies very long to get to the point where they actually do something. But when they do it with the support of their populations, I think they can be very, very effective.
Text on screen: Canadian values and interests
Margaret MacMillan: Values are important for Canadians, and we have done what we can to promote Canadian values around the world. Tolerance, for example, respect for democracy. Respect for the voices of those who live in a particular society. I think this is all very Canadian and I think good.
But then we have interests and the two don't always mesh together and we have to just try and work it out. You know, we have to look after ourselves. And if that means sometimes going along, for example, with certain things the United States does that we don't always approve of, then, you know, that is something we have to be done. That has to be done.
Text on screen: Uses and abuses of history
Margaret MacMillan: We're seeing history being used to make claims for various sorts of things. Claims for territory. Ukraine, says Putin, and he said it repeatedly, is part of Russia, has always been part of Russia, is not separate from Russia. And I think we need to know enough of the history of Ukraine to be able to say, well, wait a minute, there are other ways of looking at Ukrainian history. And that history that Putin and his supporters are putting forward may not be the only history of Ukraine.
What history can also do is help us to understand what might be different and what isn't that different? How different are the times in which we are living? And this is tricky because again, we tend to overemphasize what is new. Sometimes I think we need to remember that we have had similar situations before and we may be able to draw not clear blueprints, but we may be able to draw some useful lessons, useful warnings. And so, for example, looking at our own times, I think we can see that we're in a time of transition internationally. That's happened before. And we can look at those times before 1914, for example, and try and understand where they might have gone wrong, where they might have done something that was sensible.
Text on screen: The event can be viewed in its entirety at: https://youtu.be/yVZNAZH-Cyg
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