Changing Times

A Historical Perspective on Tipping Points

Changing Times : A Historical Perspective on Tipping Points - Editorial Staff


Margaret MacMillan is the Xerox Foundation Distinguished Scholar at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs and has been the Warden of St. Antony’s College of Oxford University since 2007. She was previously Provost of Trinity College and professor of History at the University of Toronto. Her publications include History’s People (2016), The Uses and Abuses of History (2010), Peacemakers: the Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to Make Peace (2001), and Women of the Raj (1988). Peacemakers won, among other awards, the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, the Hessel-Tiltman Prize for History, and the Silver Medal for the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award. She received a BA in History from the University of Toronto and a BPhil in Politics and DPhil from Oxford University. The following interview is an edited version of a discussion between Margaret MacMillan and members of the editorial staff on March 28, 2017. Some grammatical and wording changes have been made to maintain written consistency.

Our Journal’s theme this year is ‘tipping points,’ which we are loosely defining as a moment where change is inevitable but the direction of that change remains undetermined. To what extent do you believe we should focus on tipping points to understand events as opposed to looking at gradual change?

If you look at what we would call tipping points, you can see that the change has usually been occurring gradually, sometimes under the surface. There’s a very interesting book by Gail Collins, who writes for the New York Times, called When Everything Changed, about the 1960s, when suddenly it seemed that there was a feminist movement. She points out that, in fact, there was a lot happening before the high-profile stuff in the ‘60s. But she also says that at some point things were different, and things had changed. So, a tipping point is perhaps when you recognize that change has occurred. You usually recognize it afterwards, but when you’re in the middle of a tipping point you don’t always recognize it. Although, we always speculate. Look at the Trump presidency, and people ask: is this a tipping point for American democracy? Will things be irrevocably changed? Or have they already been irrevocably changed? I don’t know.  As an historian, I find it easier to judge things in the past than the present. 

What role do individual leaders play in determining the build-up to, and outcome of, tipping points? To what extent can we attribute the outcome of tipping points to these individuals, and how much are they the result of other external factors?

Tipping points seems to be an accumulation of pressure, so I think it very unlikely that a single individual can bring this about. A tipping point is more of an accumulation of forces which are moving for change in one direction or another. And at some point, they have made enough change that things really do seem to be different.

You could argue that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a tipping point, or that the years immediately after the Cold War were one. There was this period of peace that lasted for about ten years but by about the beginning of the 2000s we had recognized that the war was still with us, and the power of the United States and of its allies was shown to be limited. 

I think tipping points are made up more of forces pushing in one direction or another. This doesn’t mean that those forces will necessarily make a difference, but they often do. But I always think that a tipping point is a point at which you say: yes, it really has changed. And I think it’s unlikely for an individual to do that. I think an individual is embedded in a society, is subject to these pressures, and is sometimes able to manipulate these pressures. But I think a tipping point is something that has broad societal implications.

Building on that idea, how do you make the distinction between moments that have substantively caused societal change and those that have not?

That is something that you only know later. Every year people predict what will be the major developments in the next ten years, and they often miss what they are. There may be, for example, something happening now with artificial intelligence that very few people understand. This could turn out—twenty years or ten years from now—to have really made a difference to humanity. 

The point about tipping points is that it’s difficult after them to go back. With climate change, have we reached a tipping point where the Earth is going to get hotter and hotter and the weather is going to get more and more severe? And a lot of scientists would say, yes, that whatever we do now, we will not be able to go back to where we were. It’s just impossible. We’ve gone beyond that point.

What do you think are the biggest events changing the world today?

One of the big changes, I think, is the shift of power to Asia. It may be expressed not in military power, but in economic power and soft power. Asia, and in particular East Asia, may come to be seen as more stable, better managed, delivering more to their citizens, than countries in Europe. We have tended to think that the  normal situation is one where the West is in charge, and we might have gone beyond a point where other centers of power may ultimately turn out to be more powerful. 

Beyond that, I don’t know enough about what is happening in technology, but the development of artificial intelligence makes us question whether we are reaching a tipping point where much of what we do and many of the skills that we have are no longer needed. The prediction is that, with driverless cars and trucks, around a million truckers will be out of work. Those jobs are going to disappear, and new jobs may not be created. We may be entering a new sort of society where work is something that not everyone is expected to do. We may be reaching that tipping point. It used to be that in previous big technological revolutions, like the Industrial Revolution, jobs were destroyed but new jobs were created. We may now be in a situation where jobs will be destroyed, but new jobs won’t be created at the same rate. That may be a tipping point that affects the way we look at work, and the ways we look at supporting those who  can’t find work. You can’t go back. A technological revolution is not something you can undo. We can’t control it. 

What causes of historical tipping points can we observe today?

I think there are tipping points in ideas and ideologies. We’ve seen that right throughout history. We’re celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Reformation and Martin Luther’s theses. Who would have thought that one person expressing those views would be a tipping point? However, what he was doing, of course, was expressing something that had been there. There had been lots of complaints about the Church, and lots of calls for reformation before. In 1516, that was a tipping point in people’s understanding. Another tipping point in ideas was the French Revolution, where there were enough people who felt that something had to change. It reached a point, a bit like a fire that was ready to be lit. Something has to light it, and sometimes it doesn’t. It was similar  in Russia with the Russian revolution. There was a lot of discontent with the regime in Russia before the First World War. There was very nearly a revolution in 1905 which didn’t happen, but by 1917, the forces pushing for revolution and the disintegration of the old regime had reached a point where they couldn’t be tamped down. Or take the disappearance of Austria-Hungary. It was shaky, but it reached a point during the First World War when it couldn’t be saved. People just broke away and said: we don’t believe in it any more. Ideas or ideologies can be very powerful. 

With religion, it’s interesting. Nobody I know would have predicted at the end of the Cold War that, twenty years later, religion would be the thing that so many people would be concerned about, but there it is. I don’t know if that’s a tipping point, but certainly you can see that the pressure is building up. Ideas are very important and need to be recognized. The notion of tipping points is an interesting one. The more I think about it, I see it as the sense that you cannot go back to where you were. 

If tipping points occur after pressure has been built up, how do you prevent it from breaking out into violence, as it did in the French or Russian revolutions? How do you guide these moments’ outcomes?

The trouble with build-ups of pressure is that it is like a volcano and it just explodes. Society can be fortunate enough to let the pressure escape in time. You can have an enlightened elite which will recognize that things need to change. In Britain, for example, there was real pressure to have parliamentary reform in the beginning of the 1830s. There were enough people in the ruling class that said: “you have to change something because otherwise we’ve had it.” Of course, they had the example of the French Revolution in mind. You got the same thing in the U.S. before the First World War with the Progressive movement. There was a lot of concern with corrupt elites and oligarchs, and with gilded rich people not paying taxes. But within the governing classes there were enough people like William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt who  recognized that something had to change. Sometimes, you can make changes in time.  You can have change without violence when pressures build up, but it depends a bit on the elites, funnily enough. I suppose it also depends on those who are leading the forces of change, and whether they are prepared to compromise. And sometimes they are not. Robespierre wasn’t prepared.  Lenin wasn’t prepared. Others in Russia were, but he was more ruthless and more determined. 

De Tocqueville always said that the most dangerous time for an authoritarian regime is when it begins to give way because then people lose confidence in it and demand more. When everything is in play, what really sustains regimes—the whole regime, not just the people ruling—is everyone believing in it. In the French Revolution and in Russia, even those people who benefited from the regime stopped believing in it. I think that’s what the Chinese communists are worried about— that people don’t believe in them. It’s like the Hans Christian Andersen story of the emperor who has no clothes. It was fine as long as everyone believed that the emperor had clothes, but as soon as one person says: “well actually, no he doesn’t” … 

Along that vein, there has been a lot of talk recently about the erosion of trust in democracy, even though, theoretically, democracies are supposed to be more responsive to these moments of pressure. 

I think democracy is more responsive—at least it offers safety valves, which is why I think that India is more resilient than China. India has problems, but it’s not as brittle as China. It does have safety valves: it has a free press, it has elections, it has a judiciary, it occasionally throws its governments out. And China doesn’t have that. You know the great Winston Churchill line about how democracy is the least efficient of all governments except for all the others. All forms of governments have their strengths and weaknesses. But think of how badly wrong dictatorships go. They leave much more mess in the world than democracies. 

What is the role of fear, and especially the fear of change, in shaping tipping points?

Fear can be a very strong emotion, and a lot of people don’t want change. We have grown up in a world in which we look for progress and we think change is a good thing. But not everybody does, and a lot of people find it disturbing. I think that part of the support behind the Tea Party and behind those who voted for Donald Trump is that feeling that change is going too fast, that there are too many people that we don’t know coming to live near us, and too many people with different customs. Fear of change can make you cling to what you think are certainties. And it perhaps makes you hunker down and draw the wagons around, because you don’t want to live in this rapidly changing world. It is a very understandable and very powerful emotion. We had it before the First World War, where people said: “things are moving too fast and we don’t like it. We don’t want to live in this world where everything is changing every five minutes. We want to live in secure communities we know. A very interesting book just came out in England by David Goodhart. He divides all people into what he’s called the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres”. He says that the “Anywheres” are comfortable with the world; they’re international, they live in places like London or Oxford, they move freely around the world, they have skills that are transferable. The “Somewheres” are firmly rooted in their communities; they want to be firmly rooted in their communities, and they don’t like change. And the “Anywheres” don’t understand them. I think he’s exaggerating it, but it’s an interesting point of view that helps to explain some of the vote for populist parties. These parties call on emotions of: “it’s our history, it’s our villages, it’s our society.”  These parties are born out of this fear of change, but they are often quite prepared to dismantle their institutions and to not know where things will end up. Steve Bannon says “destruction is creation,” and that you just throw everything over and see where it lands. I find that a terrifying view because he won’t pay the price of it, but others will. I agree with gradual and incremental change if possible because I think it causes less harm to people. 

So far, we have been discussing tipping points in more of a negative light, even though they can be quite positive. Is there reason to be optimistic about the tipping points we are reaching in our society today? 

I think the change in the status of women is something. There are those that would try to roll it back, but I do not think that they will succeed. There is also now the sense that we all live on one planet, that planet is vulnerable and fragile, and that if we are not careful we will make a mess of it. That’s important, as is the sense that we are responsible for each other. There is some sense of shared humanity which I think is important.  Part of what the Arab Spring was about was that sense that we want a better world, and we want to build that world and live with our neighbors in peace. 

You have made several comparisons between the world pre-1914 and the world today. That was a time of enormous interconnection between the countries and leaders of the world. Are the forces linking our modern world together—our awareness of a shared world and environment, new communication technology—strong enough to counter the nationalism, the protectionism, or other divisive forces we are seeing? 

It’s in the balance at the moment. The Internet has been linking people together, making instantaneous communication around the world possible, but it’s also made the spread of extremist ideas possible. The bad side of the Internet is that you can get small groups forming and identifying each other in opposition to others. You can get the appearance of white supremacist groups, for example, who might not have been so powerful in the past because they were scattered and might not have linked up. Now they’re linking up, and that’s dangerous.

In the end, the Internet itself is neutral. What I think is interesting now is the debate about who controls what we call the information highway. Should the Internet be like a toll road or should it be like a public highway? I tend to argue that it should be a highway because it is a common good and serves everyone, not just those who can afford to be on it. 

What is the one thing you hope to see in coming years to manage these changes?

There are many things. I would like to see a revitalization of democracy, a rebuilding of political parties, a reestablishing of trust between the public and the politicians. That would mean a number of things. It could mean, in the US for example, controlling campaign finance. Some countries have very strict rules on campaign finance, as does Canada. This means that you do not get very rich and very powerful people exerting an inordinate influence on government. They will always try, since people try to promote their interests. But I think that what’s happened in the United States is that there are very strong people who exert too much influence on the democratic system because of their money. I do not think that money should buy you influence in that way. 

I would like to see the political parties being rebuilt, and I would like to see people engaged in civil debate. One of the things I find more distressing about what happened in the UK with the referendum and in the US elections is that people weren’t willing to talk. People were shouting at each other. People did not want to understand that they both benefit from sharing the rules of the game. If you share the rules, it’s like being in a secure organization: you can have really important discussions, and you can move society one way or another without destroying the rules themselves. If you don’t have that sense of a shared organization, we’re all in trouble. I think we have lost that sense. 

What I think is necessary is trust, in each other and in politicians. Political parties form a very useful role in mediating between the public and the government. We’ve forgotten about that, and we tend to see them as impediments. However, I think that they are very useful in bringing together views, and developing clear platforms. The whole point of political parties is compromise, as is the point of democratic culture generally. You can’t get everything that you want, but what you try to do is work out what people can live with. For me, that seems to be an admirable view. When people say “well, politicians are always compromising,” I say: yes, that’s what you want! I think we have to respect that not all people have the same views. We have to find out how to work together.