Dominic Lieven is an award-winning historian and scholar.
He was a lecturer, senior lecturer, and professor at the London School of Economics from 1978 to 2011. He was head of the department of government there from 2001 to 2004 and head of the department of international history from 2009-2011.

Dominic graduated from Cambridge University, where he graduated top of the class. He was also a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University. He has been an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge since 2019. Other honors include being a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

His new book is IN THE SHADOW OF THE GODS: The Emperor in World History, In it he examines the strengths and weaknesses of the emperors and empresses who ran and shaped our world. It is an intimidating tome that examines leadership and power through history around the world.

What a perfect guest for these insane times. This episode is a short course in European history and dysfunction. ​​He explains the situation in Ukraine as few people in the world can. He also applies his knowledge to the current situation in the United States.

Enjoy this interview with Dominic Lieven!

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Dominic Lieven:

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is the Remarkable People Podcast. I'm on a mission to make you remarkable.
And helping me in this episode is Professor Dominic Lieven.
He's an award-winning historian and scholar. He was a lecturer, senior lecturer, and professor at the London School of Economics from 1978 to 2011.
During that time, he was head of the Department of Government from 2001 to 2004, and head of the Department of International History from 2009 to 2011.
Dominic graduated from Cambridge University at the top of his class. He was also a Kennedy scholar at Harvard University. He's been an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge since 2019.
Other honors include being a fellow of the British Academy and an honorary Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
His new book is called In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History. In it, he examines the strengths and weaknesses of the emperors and empresses who ran and shaped our world. It is an intimidating tome that examines leadership and power through history around the world. What a perfect guest for these insane times.
This episode is a short course in European history and dysfunction. He explains the situation in Ukraine as few people in the world can. He also applies his knowledge to the current situation in the United States.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. And now, here is the remarkable Dominic Lieven.
I call this Russia for dummies. Could you explain how Russia got to be Russia?
Dominic Lieven:
I think part of it is just geography as always. In the sort of geopolitical sense that I know best, it's a tradition of living with indefensible borders on the boundaries of the step where the nomad warrior dominated and raided for 1,500 years. It's insecurity, geopolitical insecurity.
I think in a way, it's less that Russia is unique than that America is. Among all the great powers in history, the United States was born under the luckiest star. There has never actually been, since America became an independent state, a serious rival, great power on the American subcontinent.
And that is unique. That, I think, allows in some ways for a very sunny and optimistic set of assumptions, over and above the ones that came out of the various sort of cultures which went into the United States.
Russia is very different. This is a country with a sense of siege. It's also, if you go right back, a country in which, you are very far north. The soil in the traditional great Russian areas is pretty bare, living is a hell of a struggle. And the growing seasons are short, the winters are long.
There are a whole range of issues piled in. And then, of course, you have the cultural issues. You have Orthodox Christianity, which has a very deep sense of sin apart from anything else. There is a sort of basic pessimism again, which is very un-American, in the sort of folk wisdom of the Russian Orthodox peasantry traditionally, the basic idea that anyone with power or wealth is out to get you rooted in actually the rather justified historical experience that they are.
Apart from anything else, again, once you get to politics, to create a viable, powerful state right out on the periphery of Europe, in a very unfavorable geographical climate, it took a formidable amount of collective discipline and imposed control.
So all these things go deep, deep, deep in the Russian psyche and in Russian history. It's just a very, very different historical experience and set of assumptions.
It's also, I'd say, Orthodoxy is different to Protestantism, I think. In terms of popular attitudes, it's more akin to Catholicism, but you don't have this stress traditionally on reading the Bible, literacy, independent communication with God, none of this. It's quite different.
Nor in the Russian tradition do you have, really, well, it's sort of different. You do have the sense of expansive frontier's movement. That is colonization.
There, you do get the similarities between the two. But at its most basic, I think, scratch an American, you find an optimist. Scratch a Russian, you don't, not usually. And there are damn good reasons for that.
Guy Kawasaki:
So perhaps you can explain why the Soviet Union collapsed so easily.
Dominic Lieven:
Yes, this is a real puzzle.
During those years, it's the only time I've really been very involved in contemporary politics, because I was on Margaret Thatcher's little foreign policy consultative committee, but I was of no importance. But it was a very fascinating little perch to watch the end of the Cold War, seeing how sort of key policymakers did think and act.
And I was also on an intelligence and security top committee basically because the powers that be in Britain didn't really trust the middle generation of Sovietologists, so they brought on someone much younger because both my supervisor and my academic sort of grandfather, really, mentor, had been members of these committees.
And when one of them died, the other one brought me on.
So it was a very fascinating perch. And I wrote an enormous amount in the press at the time and did a huge amount of television interviews. And I was puzzling about this all the time.
I think if you'd said in 1985 that the Soviet Union would be dead within six years, you'd have got some pretty funny looks. That was a very minority view.
If you'd said that it would be dead with barely a shot fired in its defense, given the fact that it had a pretty ruthless history of tyranny, it had an enormous and ruthless security apparatus.
So the idea that they would basically stand aside for so long, and then when they did intervene, do it so ineffectively in August 1991 in an attempted coup, was extraordinary. I think it was partly to do with the fact that despite what had been said about the diminution of the power of the general secretary by Sovietologists in the 1970s and 1980s, actually, the Soviet general secretary still had very great power.
This was a highly hierarchical system, and Gorbachev used that power to dismantle much of the traditional Soviet apparatus of control. And he had such power and such conviction and such also tactical skill that even those who feared what he was up to didn't stop him in time.
It was also the case that there was a pretty good consensus among all, but the real golden oldies in the party, that you couldn't go on with Brezhnev and Chernenko.
I mean, this absolute stagnation with ever older and physically frailer people basically just standing. In fact, it was perfectly clear, not merely that the capitalist powers, above all, the United States, but also Western Europe were speeding ahead adopting new technologies, leaving the Soviet Union behind.
But even China was developing very quickly. So it was pretty clear to the top elite that if the Soviet Union was going to actually stay a superpower in the twenty-first century, you had to carry out reforms.
Gorbachev himself was a true believer in the system. He would not have carried out those reforms unless he believed that the system was reformable. And he was able to carry part of the elite with him a long way.
And by the time he had really got to 1990 and unlocked a lot of processes which were beginning to get beyond his or any other control, the only way you could have stopped them, would've been a very ruthless and bloody counterrevolution, a coup with a lot of bloodshed.
The problem there was that, firstly, even those members of the elite who opposed him, they were scared of acting too arbitrarily or shedding too much blood. There had been too much blood in their memory in the Soviet Union, much of it, of course, the blood of the party elite under Stalin.
So they were not inclined to putschism. They were not inclined to mass repression of that sort.
And also, they were timid. By then they were bureaucrats, scared of stepping out of line, scared of really exercising authority, but also bound, as I say, by the traditional loyalty to the party leader. It was very strange.
It was also to be said that the Soviet Union had lost quite a bit of its legitimacy. And of course, Gorbachev himself had contributed to that by opening up.
Then again, there was a point that a system like that needs enemies. The Soviet Union, particularly since the Second World War, had partly legitimized itself by telling the various peoples of the Soviet Union that the West, that the capitalist enemy was out to get them.
Once Gorbachev winds down the Cold War and begins talking about a common European home, and universal humanitarian, and human values, that spells real trouble for a regime like that. Because if you can't mobilize against enemies, how do you justify the constraints on freedom, the demands for solidarity?
And if you look at what's going on now, we've got, to an even greater degree now, the shouts going up for national solidarity, the denunciations of outside aggression on the West, all this kind of thing.
Guy Kawasaki:
Why does Ukraine mean so much to Russia now?
Dominic Lieven:
Lots of reasons. Lots of reasons. I don't know where to begin or end. In purely geopolitical terms, Ukraine was always crucial. It was crucial because of its immensely rich agricultural exports. It was crucial certainly by the late nineteenth century because it was the center of the empire's metallurgical and coal industries. It was crucial because it was a large barrier between great Russia and its enemies to the west.
It was also vital, and this is becoming very important, by the end of the nineteenth century.
Look, if, as Putin is still saying, and as Russian elites believed, and actually much of the Ukrainian elite believed, towards the end of the nineteenth century, if basically the Russians and the Ukrainians and the Belarusians were one people, all right, with interesting local folklore and regional deviations, but fundamentally one people.
In England, you'd say like Yorkshire, Cornwall, and London. Then in the end, Russians were two thirds of the population of the empire. And that made the empire more or less viable, particularly since much of the other third were central Asian tribesmen or belonged to very small people such as the Latvians, Estonians, or Georgians whom in those days it was considered they had no chance of defending themselves as independent countries. And on the whole thought, the Russians were a better bet than the Germans or the Turks.
So basically, there was pretty good confidence in 1900's that if the Ukrainians and the Belarussians were really Russians, then the empire was a national empire. And at a time when the whole name of the game in international politics and great power politics were somehow to combine the scale of empire with the solidarity and legitimacy of nation, Russia looked a good bet, the best bet in Europe in many ways.
But of course, if the Ukrainians and, therefore, undoubtedly also the Belarussians are separate nations, in the era of growing nationalism, there is a really strong danger that they will seek to become independent countries. At which point, lo and behold, the Russians are only about 43 percent of the population of the empire.
And at that point you're in trouble. You begin worrying whether the empire will hold together.
So it is interesting that before 1914, in the sort of fifty, sixty years before 1914, although the tsarist state, in some ways, repressed all nationalities or at least attempted to control non-Russian languages, non-Russian teaching, all these kinds of things, they were harshest of all on the Ukrainians.
No Russian ever believed that Poles were Russians. They may not have liked the Russians. They may have repressed them, persecuted them in some ways, feared them, but they never believed you could turn Poles into Russians.
They did believe that Ukrainians were Russians. And that if you could control the education of the Ukrainian peasantry, in that process, in the modern world which turns illiterate peasants into citizens and urban population of this, if you could persuade them that they were really Russians, educate them in Russian, then fundamentally the security of the empire, you could look at it with some confidence.
So the Ukrainians in those years before 1914, increasingly for the more intelligent members of the Russian government or the Russian elite, the Ukrainian issue is becoming of really fundamental importance.
And of course, they were right from their own perspective. I wrote a book, not this one, but the last one, really about why the world went to war in 1914, above all, from the Russian perspective. But much more broadly and comparatively as well, and also about the first world war itself.
Look, if you took away Ukraine in 1914 or in 1917, Russia ceased to be a great power. If Russia ceased to be a great power, then Germany would dominate Europe. And the point is that very nearly happened with the Russian Revolution in 1917, 1918.
In 1918, Soviet Russia had to recognize Ukrainian independence. And Ukraine became, in principle, independent, but in fact, a German satellite. And that was logical because the Germans and the Ukrainians had the same enemies, the Poles and the Russians. And they needed it.
But if the Germans had actually succeeded in sustaining the settlement in the east, which emerged out of the Russo-German Peace Treaty at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. Then Ukraine would've remained independent, but a German satellite. And that would've meant that Germany controlled enormous agricultural and industrial resources, Russia lost them.
And therefore Germany would've dominated east central Europe and would've had therefore enough resources to dominate the whole of the continent.
In the past, there were very, very powerful geopolitical reasons why the Russians would be 100 percent prepared to die in the last ditch to hold Ukraine. Even in the last years of the Soviet Union, although, by then, parts of Russia have also been developed into enormous industrial centers, in purely geopolitical terms, Ukraine is not as important. It nevertheless still is important.
It was in 1991, I think, really, the determination of the Ukrainian government backed in the end by a referendum to secede that doomed the Soviet Union.
Because if Ukraine seceded, Belarus would probably follow. Even if it did, what benefit was there for the Russians to be in a union just with central Asians? Actually many Russians wanted to get the central Asians out of their country because they didn't want to have to subsidize them.
They didn't want central Asians flooding Moscow and St. Petersburg with all the rights of citizens, any more than if you go back to France and Algeria. In retrospect now, the old shout of the French right, "Algérie française" would've horrified the contemporary French because it would've meant that Algerians had the right of unlimited immigration into France with full citizenship rights.
Even now, Ukraine really does matter. It's an issue of, it's a sort of atavistic sense of its traditional geopolitical importance. It still does retain significant geopolitical importance. And there is this question of identity.
When we are thinking of this, and I used to say it to the British, to imagine what happened to the Russians in 1991 in English terms, you would've had to imagine that the British empire collapsed almost overnight in the 1930s when most English people took it for granted and also, on the whole, thought it was basically a good thing. You would've had to have the secession of Wales and Scotland, which is Belarus and Ukraine.
But actually, Ukraine is more than Scotland because no Englishman believes that the origins of the English state or religion were in Scotland. But of course, the origins of the Russian monarchy and of Russian orthodoxy are geographically in what is now Ukraine. So that causes enormous sort of issues. And then there were all the other reasons.
Again, if you want to look at a list from another angle, look, Americans voted in Donald Trump on the slogan, Make America Great. But Russians had far a greater reason to feel disoriented and humiliated by the decline of their country, which was transformed almost overnight from superpower to beggar, and international supernumerary.
So again, you can understand why a nationalist, sort of revanchist feeling was strong in Russia, and why it enjoyed such nostalgia. So again, all these things go together. But Ukraine is a very significant part of it. Very significant. The Russians were more upset by the loss of Ukraine than anywhere else.
And they were most upset within Ukraine by the loss of Crimea which, of course, was not traditionally part of Ukraine and had been given to Ukraine by idiot, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1954 as a sort of 300th state present. Because 1654 is when, in the Russian understanding, Ukraine became part of the Russian empire.
So Khrushchev, in a way which reflected the Soviet elite's great ignorance about Russian history, sort of gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Republic knowing, of course, that in those days, that really meant very little.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed, and when what had been the borders of the republics became the borders of sovereign states, of course, that was a very different issue. And Crimea, therefore, was lost to Russia, which they hugely resented for all sorts of reasons, partly because of the Naval base in Sevastopol.
Crimea is very important to Russia's geopolitical position in the black sea and in the south. Probably even more because Crimea has tremendous resonance in Russian historical memory, partly because of its nature and Russian literature about Crimea.
But above all, because of the two sieges of the Crimean war and the Second World War, which still resonate enormously in Russian popular memory, partly again, because Tolstoy wrote, of course, about the seizure of Sevastopol in the Crimean war.
So all of these things really impinge on Russian consciousness. And I deeply regret the attempt to seize back these areas by force, but I'm not enormously surprised that it's happened.
Guy Kawasaki:
If you are Zelenskyy, or if Zelenskyy calls you up and asks for advice, what do you say?
But is there a line of reasoning that, okay, here's Donbas and here's Crimea, back to Russia. But now you leave us alone as Ukraine.
Dominic Lieven:
If one could get that, yes. I think intelligent Ukrainians know that Crimea is lost. And I suspect, although I'm sure, and quite understandably, they deeply resent both its loss and the way it's been lost.
And of course, if you are a Crimean tarter, it's even worse, this is your ancestral homeland, and you do better under Ukraine than you do under Russia.
Nevertheless, I suspect most of them do understand it's loss, but they're determined to use it as a bargaining chip.
It's one of these things though, which is very difficult to say openly. I think if and when some kind of possibility of peace does emerge, if at all possible, a Ukrainian leader should reshape the question so as to make it less a question of seeding territories to Russia, than of getting rid of a population which will always be disloyal and which will be a real burden on independent Ukraine.
That's how I would try and do it. But it's very difficult to do that particularly after what's happened in the last three months.
Donbas? Yeah, certainly the Eastern Donbas. The ideal, frankly, in my view, would be to go end up with a peace treaty which reflected the territorial status quo before the current invasion. But that is going to be virtually impossible to get out of anyone.
The Russians are going to be very disinclined to give up the land bridge between Donbas and Crimea even if they were prepared to give up Kherson and other areas and give up any ideas of turning Ukraine into a satellite state.
I could just imagine a Ukrainian government after much more suffering and fighting saying, "All right, we'll accept certainly much of the Donbas going and Crimea." But can you imagine any Ukrainian government, except with a gun to its head and temporally, accepting the loss of Mariupol?
Mariupol is going to be, in Ukrainian memory, what Sevastopol and Stalingrad are in Russia, and rightly so. How can they give that up? How could they accept that whole area which has been conquered in the present war, and quite a bit has been conquered in the south and east, must be given up?
Quite apart for anything else, they would be entirely justified in saying that, actually, if you had a fair referendum among the population in those areas at the beginning of the war, Russia would certainly lose that referendum.
And the irony of this war is that Russia is killing the people who traditionally were pro-Russian. These are the Russian speakers, Russian Orthodox believers of the eastern provinces. They're the people who are being killed and whose villages and towns are being destroyed.
A few of them may retain their loyalty to Russia. And I'm sure many of those who fled the place eastwards would do so. But can you imagine a fair referendum among the former population of Mariupol or Kherson voting to go to Russia after what Russia has done to them, their families and their towns?
No, you can't. Of course, you can't. And I find it very difficult to imagine that any Ukrainian government would dare suggest that or survive if it did.
Guy Kawasaki:
Pick one. So what do you tell Putin, Zelenskyy or the secretary general of the United Nations?
Dominic Lieven:
Well, the poor secretary general of the United Nations has no leverage.
Guy Kawasaki:
Then Putin or Zelenskyy?
Dominic Lieven:
I have, to some extent, said what I would say to poor president Zelenskyy. But even if he was prepared to accept half of what I've said, he would probably feel, certainly, as long as the war is going on and Putin is in power, that he would have no chance of persuading a majority of Ukrainians to accept that.
As to Putin, I don't know. But the optimistic view is that once he's bitten off the land bridge and more of the Donetsk basin, he's going to stop. Let's see. Let's see.
I find it hard to believe, but I may be wrong, I'm not a soldier, I'm not au fait with all the details, I find it hard to believe under any circumstances short of the disintegration of the Russian regime and state that Ukraine would ever be able to succeed in reconquering, certainly not Crimea, the land bridge, Mariupol, Donbas, I doubt it.
It would be not the worst solution if the conflict was frozen on some ceasefire line, rather than going on with sort of high intensity warfare, killing endless more people, and obviously escalating into some even more horrendous conflict of the use of weapons of mass destruction.
But personally, I think that there is a very strong possibility we're just going to get something like the Indian, Pakistani conflict over Kashmir.
So it'll still be with us in a hundred years time. Of course, it won't be continuous war. It'll be frozen for long periods, but it'll burst out into war sometimes and might escalate nastily. The only thing you could add to that is that, in fifty years time, it's so difficult to predict where we'll be by then. The climate change may make all these kind of issues irrelevant anyway, or only semi-relevant.
Guy Kawasaki:
So my understanding of Finland is that, for a while, it kind of had a don't ask, don't tell relationship with Russia. And now, is Finland preparing to join NATO. If that's true, is that a huge deal? Is that just Earth-
Dominic Lieven:
I'm not best equipped to say just how big a difference this is going to make in strict military terms. So Finland has been collaborating with NATO anyway. NATO, if it mobilizes resources, is always going to have more powerful members than Finland.
A much more important issue is whether Germany is going to return to the scene as a genuine great power again. But it'll certainly be a symbolic shock to Russia. And it will certainly increase Russian paranoia about being surrounded by enemies. But of course, Putin is his own worst enemy.
The Fins are responding to a situation in which the Russians have brazenly broken international law, invaded their sovereign state neighbor and are seeking to change state boundaries by force, all of which are likely to terrify every one of Russia's neighbors.
It is true and it is worth putting the other side of it because it's not usually said in the west, and this is not an excuse, but it is a certain explanation. Frankly, when great empires collapse, and the Soviet Union was a sort of modern variant of empire, you expect there to be border wars, you expect there to be even regional and world wars.
That, we had with the collapse of the Austrian and Ottoman empires. It's what we have usually with the collapse of empires in history.
So in a way, what was surprising is, I think I said before, was that this didn't happen in 1991. Even the British Empire, which was collapsed over thirty, forty years, and the collapse was relatively well managed, by imperial standards.
But we're still living with the India Pakistan conflict, which has now reached the level of nuclear confrontation, and is one of the most dangerous potential flashpoints in the world. We're living with the Palestine problem. We're living with a whole range of issues all the way out from Ireland, to Fiji, to Iraq.
Yes, one can say that Ukraine was a German protector created in the first world war to sustain German interests and German potential domination of Europe. That's not the whole truth. But you could argue against that, that Iraq was a completely artificial British creation at the end of the first war, a British protector with no, or very little historical or ethno-linguistic validity in order that the British could control Mesopotamian oil, for geopolitical reasons as well.
And it's certainly the case that Ukraine was a much more viable potential nation state than Iraq is. Digging back always complicates present circumstances. But it is actually quite useful because if you read the mass media and certainly listen to the television, you can sometimes get the exaggerated black and white picture without any historical context and explanation.
And it is worth putting what's happening now and putting the collapse of the Soviet Union into the context of collapse of empire.
Well, I hope it is because I wrote a 600-page book on the subject. I obviously wasted my lot of time if it isn't.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you see a likely scenario where Putin uses nuclear weapons?
Dominic Lieven:
You mustn't ask me that, Guy, because I won't sleep tonight.
Yes, look, I can certainly imagine circumstances in which he might. And I certainly know of leaders in history who would've done so.
In that sense, of course, sadly the time when he might be most inclined to do that was if he was really at risk of losing or got frustrated. This present war began partly because Putin and, to some extent, the Russian sort of elite around him had got frustrated by the fact that they were no further forward than they were in 2014, no one had recognized Crimea or the Donbass as Russian.
And there was a sort of growling, lingering war. The idea was that they were going to sort things out once and for all.
But they're greatly overstretched. There seems no doubt that Putin miscalculated and thought that he could infiltrate some kind of Quisling, Uncle Tom in Kiev who would be pro-Russian and would have some legitimacy if he completely, A, it was wrong.
And secondly, that was a false assumption or a false space for making policy. But also, they completely messed up the execution.
The thing is that his generals, some of them, have been telling him. And in the purely military rail politics, that's right, that he missed his chance in 2014 when Ukraine barely had an army. The Russian army was far more formidable than the Ukrainian. And they could have driven along the south coast all the way to Odesa without much difficulty.
And because there was a sort of relatively small-scale massacre of Russians in Odesa, there was this awful fire and bombing. And I think it was the theater, I've forgotten, of Russians. They would've had some kind of excuse.
But he was told subsequently, certainly by some members of the elite, including, I think some of his senior generals that he had missed the boat then. Eight years later, he decided to have another go.
Guy Kawasaki:
From a historian's perspective, one of the things that I've noticed is that whenever other countries have military action, you can always find a retired marine general, army general, air force general, secretary of state, secretary of defense, anybody.
And all those people will tell you, this is what's wrong with Russia, lack of middle management, lack of training, rusted tanks. They always have this advice why Russia is doing something wrong. But when that country where these experts are from are in their own military confrontations, they also lose.
So who do you believe?
Dominic Lieven:
I mean, frankly, when a war's going on, you've got to take what almost anyone says with a certain degree of skepticism, some people more than others. Some people you listen to have a justified reputation, firstly, if we're attempting to be objective, secondly, to having very good information and the ability to make shrewd analysis.
And also, some sort of personal and national self-awareness does sometimes seem strange to hear some of the American comments, knowing that, after all, American drones have killed endless civilians, American air strikes have killed endless civilians in the Middle East and indeed elsewhere.
Guy Kawasaki:
Not exactly thirty and zero either in terms of our record here.
Dominic Lieven:
No. And it's also the case that it's a bit strange to hear the Chinese denounced for violating the law of the sea in the South China Sea when, after all, the United States, as I understand, has never ratified that anyway, nor has the United States ever joined the international criminal court.
And indeed, at one point, under Trump, they were trying to sanction people, judges in the international criminal court. Now you can understand some of the conservative American perspective on that. If you are the international policeman, of course, it's not much fun doing a dirty job, but then finding the soldiers end up before some foreign court.
So like all these things, it's not entirely black and white. But there is an element of hypocrisy involved.
That said, I think there is a difference if you look at the pounding of Vietnamese cities and if you look at the use of Agent Orange, you might think differently. But the American intervention or Anglo-American intervention in Iraq was, I think, very dubiously legal, was certainly based on false intelligence.
Did contain, certainly on the American side, I think quite a strong element of just trying to show everybody in the Middle East and the world who was boss. Backfired horribly. The cost of, I think, scores of thousands of civilians in Iraq, and a huge additional amount of regional insecurity. Someone can point the finger.
But on the other hand, Saddam Hussein had attacked his neighbors. He had used chemical weapons against his own people. He had, seemingly, and I think President Bush and Blair in London, Prime Minister Blair, they did believe he was developing weapons of mass destruction.
They were wrong, but they did believe it. Independent Ukraine was a threat to Russian pride and to Russia's great past status. And it was certainly true that there were many Russian speakers in, particularly, Eastern Ukraine and in Crimea, who genuinely did very much oppose Ukrainian nationalism and the rule of Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev.
Nevertheless, I mean Ukraine was not a threat to the neighborhood in the way that Saddam Hussein, to some extent, was.
So it's tedious black and white, not black and white.
Guy Kawasaki:
One more military question. So maybe this is totally mislabeled. But it seems to me that missiles have been democratized.
It used to be only big, rich companies had missiles. But now anybody with a shoulder can have tanks and big-
Dominic Lieven:
Tanks which cost billions of pounds, billions of pounds knocked out by a little character with a missile over his shoulder, which costs a hundred times less. Yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
Are tanks, at this point, obsolete and useless?
Dominic Lieven:
Look, I don't know. You're talking to an ignoramus on such subjects. But it's pretty clear that, in many circumstances, they can be white elephants, enormously expensive, very vulnerable, and rather lumbering, clumsy, everybody's always known that in urban warfare.
Putting tanks, as the Russians seem to have done, down streets of towns before you've sent infantry in to clear the enemy out. That is always, and everybody's always known that was not a sensible thing to do because these tanks could be cut off, hit from the rear, etcetera, et cetera.
But I think you could say the same thing probably about building huge aircraft carriers by nowadays, you strongly suspect that if there ever is, which God forbid, but any kind of military conflict with China, some of those lumbering great aircraft carriers, they will be a hell of a liability.
One thing which struck me, and of course it's relevant in Britain because Britain has put so much of its defense budget into building two large aircraft carriers. If the Ukrainians can knock off the Moskva, the black sea fleet with a homemade missile, it seems to be their own missiles.
Well, God help the fate of the two British aircraft carriers if they go anywhere near China. I think there are all sorts of questions. But there will be many people much better equipped to answer those sensibly than I am.
Guy Kawasaki:
Believe it or not, I'm interviewing Stanley McChrystal soon. So I will definitely ask.
Dominic Lieven:
Oh, yes. Yeah. Ask him about aircraft carriers. You might get us pretty stout response because I cannot believe that the British generals much enjoyed seeing so much of the defense budget go down the gullets of the Navy in terms of aircraft carriers.
And actually, Britain's caught short. The British army is smaller than it's been at any time since 1815. And now suddenly a big threat has reemerged in Europe. And on top of that, you can well argue that the biggest single threat to Europe probably in the longer run may remain the threat from the south, climate change, ecological crisis, demographic growth and mass migration from above all Africa.
Guy Kawasaki:
If you are sitting in Taiwan today, if you're Taiwanese and you're looking at what happened in Ukraine, are you optimistic? Are you saying, "Wow, what Ukraine is doing to Russia, we can do to China?"
Or are you saying, "Oh my God, this could happen to us. And the world is going to sanction China, and they're going to send us equipment, but they're not exactly going to send their boys and girls over here to fight." So what do you think if you're Taiwan?
Dominic Lieven:
Depends whether you're a pessimist like me or et cetera. But I mean, I think you'd be pretty nervous, pretty nervous. The taboo on using force has been broken, the taboo on using force on that scale to change boundaries has been broken by Russia.
And after all, China has a much better case vis-a-vis Taiwan, which most of the world has never recognized as an independent state. Indeed, most of the world, including the United States and all the people who are standing up for Taiwan now in theory, but have for years been recognizing China's sovereignty over Taiwan.
I think it runs both ways. You'd reckon that the Chinese armed forces would make a better go of it than the Russian. On the other hand, you might think that the Chinese would be more patient in the sense that, whereas Russia is in decline, and this is in a sort of sense, the revenge of a declining part, China feels that tomorrow will belong to it, or at least many Chinese leaders do, and therefore are less inclined to be in a hurry perhaps.
So again, I'm not in Xi Jinping's brain. I don't know quite how impatient he is to do this. Taiwan would not be easy to invade. The west coast of Taiwan is, and amphibious landings are always a challenge. But of course, if we do get to that, it's going to be a very terrifying question whether to what extent the United States will commit its full military power to the struggle in it.
And of course, that's an enormous issue for the Japanese because very many of the American troops and ships and airplanes which would be immediately involved in the struggle operate from Japan and would therefore bring down China's wrath on Japan's head. You probably know better than me, those are the beginnings of a tremendous debate beginning in Japan about all this, isn't it? To what extent do we commit ourselves to Taiwan?
Guy Kawasaki:
If this perception is accurate, it appears to me that Republicans and evangelicals are somewhat embracing Putin and Russia. Certainly, they're not dying on their sword about Russia and Putin, but what are these Republicans and evangelicals getting into when they embrace?
Dominic Lieven:
Well, I mean, look, in one sense, you can understand exactly why certainly the Evangelicals and the more traditional Christians would embrace him. To what extent this reflects actually Putin's own views, it may do.
But there's no question that he does have a considerable constituency of people who thoroughly disliked the modern, liberal, liberated, if you like, culturally, sexually, you name it, west. And they like it just as much as Bible readers in the American south and Evangelicals, many traditional Catholics.
In a sense, it's perfectly natural that there should be an alliance of these people or a certain common sense of sympathy across national borders among these people because they share a dislike for the world as represented by particularly the younger generation and the big cities and modern individualism and let it all hang out. It doesn't altogether surprise that there is that sense of solidarity.
And after all, if one thinks back a generation or two, certainly, in terms of many of the issues, women's issues, sexual liberation, abortion. I was brought up as a traditional Catholic. I remember endless and, in their own way, very good and decent and honorable and moral and unselfish people who literally regarded abortion as murder, would never have had anything to do with it and would be horrified by much of what we see in liberal circles and the contemporary west, and would thoroughly sympathize with conservative Supreme Court justices.
I, myself, I'm not the person I was brought up to be. I long since abandoned much of this, without abandoning necessarily considerable degree of understanding and personal respect for the honesty of those who had these views.
And there were a lot of people in Russia who are Orthodox Christians, believers. They don't like the modern west. And this isn't just jingoism. And it's that too very often. And it isn't just insulted national pride. It is genuinely rooted in national values, religious values, frankly, there are an awful lot of things thoroughly, in my view, some of them, extremes of free market capitalism.
And the Russians experienced this in the sort of rawest and most spectacular sense in the 1990s, and the resources which used to sustain a superpower and an inadequate and inefficient welfare system, but something of a welfare system and quite a good primary and secondary educational system.
Much of those resources got privatized into the hands of basically thieves. To call them thieves is, in a sense, unfair because since there was no law as regards private property, they were takers, seizers, rather than thieves.
But you could very much understand that if you had some suspicions about capitalism anyway rooted in your Soviet era education and upbringing, all those feelings would be improved or increased to the power of a hundred by what you saw in the 1990s.
And I think the problem is, and the sadness is, that Russia has actually, since the 1990s, evolved towards a situation in which every businessman is not a thief. And there have been many people who have actually made considerable strides in terms of developing.
One thing which is not mentioned is that Soviet Union was always, in terms of agriculture, an absolute disaster. The fact that the war is now causing real food crises across the Middle East and beyond is a measure of the fact or measure of the success of post-Soviet Russian and Ukrainian agriculture, which has returned to where it was.
Traditionally, in 1930, the Russian empire competed with the United States to be the first agricultural producer and exporter in the world. Ukraine are now really important. So that is a sign of success. But of course, again, it risks now all being ruined.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow. Okay. This may seem like a silly question, but let's establish that you are an expert in empires. If you were going to build an empire today, how would you do it?
Dominic Lieven:
I think you wouldn't is the quick answer. At least you'd have to build a sort of neo empire. I mean, the basic point about the empire, certainly which this book, and I must mention my book, and it goes back over five millennia and studies the rulers of empire.
Well, some of the methods they used are relevant to a contemporary empire builder or ruler of a great power. Others are not. It is one thing building empire in an era where the bulk of the population are illiterate peasants, where the nation in its modern sense and national feeling barely exists, where power is seen to come from heaven, all these kind of things. We're in a different world now.
And that's why a basic idea that Putin is going to make Russia more powerful by trying to rule lots of people who don't want to be ruled by Russia, that's nonsense. The costs of empire become enormous. That is, I fear, one reason now that having seen that his initial hope of turning the whole of Ukraine into a Russian satellite have failed.
I think he probably has understood that, though he may still hope that he's going to bully Ukraine into accepting a position as a sort of semi-Russian satellite. The next thing you do is actually try and extend the borders of the nation as far as you can, the Russian nation, in other words.
And that means ethnic, that is the traditional second response of the successes to empire. They simply try and push alien populations out of territory.
And once you've cut the population out, you can have a lovely referendum among the two Russians and five rabbits left. And of course, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So that's a real fear.
You know, one has to be selective and careful in drawing lessons from history. History does have its lessons. It has very important lessons. Human beings, and human organizations and international relations and power, all these things, but they're not unchanging.
So you have to be subtle about understanding the past, understanding the ways in which the lessons have to be learned, and understanding also the ways in which things have changed. And you've got to act differently.
You can't rule a contemporary, educated urban population with access to the internet, and with deeply rooted sense of its own identity in a way that you could traditionally rule a variety of largely peasant populations in the pre-modern era.
Apart from anything else, government nowadays puts its roots much more down in society. It's expected to do much more. The people I studied for my book, Emperors, this is very much the point.
Empires were always devils to govern because they were enormous and, of course, very various. And trying to control and govern them, given pre-modern communications, was a nightmare. But most empires, most of the time, the emperor and his ministers or counselors really only had to worry about the top 2 percent of the population.
Most of the population was controlled by local elites, systems of patronage and corruption. That's not true nowadays in the era of urbanization, mass literacy, mass politics, God help us, democratization. You just simply can't govern in them.
Barack Obama and his memoirs, I used them in bits of my book when I was making comparisons. One of my comparisons is precisely the emperor as CEO, the emperor as leader. And some of that is relevant to the present day.
And certainly what Barack Obama said, he said, referring to the United States and India, that in a modern, vast, territorially vast, very multiethnic, and multicultural, especially democracy, it was just very difficult to get anything done.
And he also said, and indeed correctly as well, that in a large, very large, very varied, ethnically, culturally varied society, the political institutions have to mitigate conflict, not encourage it. Many emperors would've nodded sagely at that comment.
And the problem about the American institutions and American federalism at the moment, and certainly the way that it's being manipulated by gerrymandering of districts and all sorts of other things, and just simply by having an out-of-date constitution, is that actually the political institutions are, to some extent, exaggerating and encouraging conflict and divisions rather than trying to mitigate them.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you think that the United States will remain the United States or just break up into separate countries? One country has minorities who are voting, one country has women's rights and the other one doesn't? Can we break it up?
Dominic Lieven:
I don't think it would break up in the way that it threatened to do in 1861. But I could imagine, firstly, increasing conflict and paralysis of government with increasing violence as well.
I could also imagine, as a sort of semi and imperfect, but nevertheless, better than nothing solution, the evolution of more and more authority to the states on the principle that, look, as we may see over this abortion business, a very, very nasty solution if you're a black woman probably, in the south.
Given the diversity, given the very great polarization, in the end, it could turn out to be the less bad alternative to leave more to the states, as I suppose, initially the founders intended.
The trouble is, you'll pay a price for that. And it won't just be minorities in those states who are disadvantaged as black women, certainly will be in the Southern states if the Supreme Court does go back on Roe versus Wade.
And it will, well, it might well make the United States an ever less effective international, an ever less attractive city on a hill for people in the rest of the world.
So, I mean, these are difficult issues. Certainly Xi Jinping and, I think, Putin are probably putting their money on the American politics taking another down downward spiral.
One could imagine a situation, two or six years down the line, where a presidential election will be much more genuinely contestable and narrow than the last one was. And all sorts of men. There are an awful lot of armed people in the United States, many of whom are not actually arming to stop their next door neighbor from burgling them. Their arming was sort of malicious, almost in preparation for some kind of showdown over some kind of domestic crisis like this.
So it is alarming. It is alarming. You probably know better than I. None of us know what's going to happen. Everybody has their own fears, hopes, estimates. But it would not be unrealistic, I think, for Xi Jinping and Putin to believe that the United States will increasingly be, in a sense, a more dangerous, but also less effective, great power because of its domestic problems and the paralysis they impose on government.
But also sometimes more dangerous because of the desperation that may spring from that. So the kinds of things we say about Putin and we even possibly say potentially about a Chinese leadership, turn it around, it could be said about the United States. And it's very important, well, other Western democracies.
But most other Western democracies really don't matter. None of them matter remotely in the way that the United States does, simply because of American power.
And also there is the big joker in the bag, global warming is likely to put enormous pressure on people and governments. And that is going to, itself, cause tremendous conflict, even in the most optimistic scenario.
Here, one of the things that we're talking about now, which is the rise of China and the possible end of something like 300 years of western and, above all, Anglophone hegemony in the world, that fits into a pattern which goes right back into my book and right back into history.
What one's looking at, in many ways, is the industrial revolution catching up outside Europe. Nineteenth century international relations in Europe were increasingly undermined by the shift of the industrial revolution eastwards in Europe so that, firstly, Germany and then Russia becomes Europe's potential hegemony.
Well, even before 1914, you've got lots of intelligent Russians shouting next step is China. There's going to be a real threat when China, as will happen, they said, does what we're doing now, what the Germans did before us, etcetera, et cetera, and English at the beginning, turning themselves into modern industrial economies and mobilizing the human and natural resources they have.
Given their vast size, their numbers, they are going to be a huge superpower. And how are we going to live with that? And this is actually very relevant to what's going on now.
I mean, to do Putin justice, long before it was fashionable to say this in the west, I've heard him say it. He was saying that the next generation is going to be dominated by the American Chinese competition. And if you were a Russian, of course, Putin has his own reasons to take the Chinese side.
He fears, and Xi Jinping fears, the threat of democracy, but the threat of democracy within, the threat of democracy as an attractive outside model, et cetera, et cetera.
But there are also geopolitical reasons for the Russians at least not to side against China, they've got a long border. They're the only country, European country, still sitting on large areas of what the Chinese consider territory pinched from China in the 19th century.
And they need to be very wary. And if you're a Russian, you would not want to align yourself with the west and put your faith in the American Congress or the American electorate when it came to the essential interests of Russia.
So there are reasons for at least balancing between China and the United States, and indeed even tilting towards China, which is, as I say, not to deny for a minute that there are also the ideological and selfish interests of Putin and his regime.
It's complicated. But certainly one thing that writing a book about emperors does is teach you about some of the realities of great power politics, imperial politics, and geopolitics, by which I mean the impact of geography on politics and policy. That is a lot of what empire is about and what empires of emperors have traditionally spent a great deal of their time and effort thinking about. In that sense, a contemporary leader is not different, not the leader of a great power anyway.
Guy Kawasaki:
That's a good way to end this podcast. That is a definitive statement. Thank you.
Dominic Lieven:
Guy, is it possible for me to tell your viewers that my book on emperors, In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History has been published just now in the UK and is coming out in the United States next month? Is that a fair thing to tell all your viewers?
Guy Kawasaki:
Not only is it fair, we're timing this release to happen the day after your book is released in America.
Dominic Lieven:
Ah, if I could just say a word about the book. Basic. It is a study of a job, which is ruling an empire, and the people who did that job, in other words, emperors, over the last five millennia. It is a study of supreme power in the context of different political, dynastic, religious, and cultural systems.
It is, in one sense, biography. In another, it is an anatomy of hereditary imperial monarchy as a system of government. Now hereditary imperial monarchy is dead. So I'm talking about the past. But actually hereditary imperial monarchy dominated much of the globe for much of history. And it is a sort of study of leadership.
And as I say, it starts 5,000 years ago, and it does take in most of the most important politics, empires in history and some of the most important and fascinating leaders. It is, well, certainly challenging for me. And I suspect it'll be a bit challenging, but I hope interesting, and at times amusing for people who read it. I think it is relevant to what is happening now.
Guy Kawasaki:
Dominic, of all people in the world, I understand a product or a book. You can accuse me of many things, but not hypocrisy.
Dominic Lieven:
Thank you anyway, Guy, for giving this opportunity. It was nice to talk to you.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, one very tactical question.
Dominic Lieven:
Guy Kawasaki:
How do you properly pronounce your last name?
Dominic Lieven:
Lieven. My family is a strange one. The people who lived in what is now Latvia were initially the Livs. That's why most of, now, Latvia was the province of Livonia, Liefland in German, Livonia, or Liwlandia in Russian.
We were, in principle, and probably part correctly, the sort of tribal chieftains or among the tribal chieftains when the German knights arrived in the twelfth century.
And basically, we went over to the enemy, as often happened. At least make compromises with the invading power and join up. And for the next 800 years or whatever it was, we hopped from monarchy to monarchy and empire to empire accumulating better and better goodies.
But as always, we were Swedish barons and occasionally counts. But Sweden's a small country. The amount of goodies they had to distribute was less. Joining the Russian empire just as it's expanding, of course, was El Dorado.
Our main estates were in what's now Latvia. We had estates in Russia, and we were whatever you call it, big knobs in the Tsarist court.
But among other things, my great granddad and granddad owned the town, which is now called Donetsk, in other words, the heart of the Ukrainian coal mining industry, what used to be the coal mining industry of the Russian empire.
So what I'm trying to say is that empire pays for elites. That's one of the reasons why the empire survives traditionally. I'm afraid I'm a wicked child of imperialism and got an aristocracy, things which America was defined against.
Guy Kawasaki:
I had to leave that section in. A simple question about how to pronounce your last name turned into a one-minute and thirteen-second history lesson.
Only Dominic Lieven could do that.
I hope that this episode fostered a greater understanding of European history, the Ukrainian war, and what's happening in the United States.
I've come to dread the old saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I would like to live in dull times.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. My thanks to Peg Fitzpatrick, Jeff Sieh, Shannon Hernandez, Madisun, the drop-in queen of Santa Cruz, Luis Magana, and Alexis Nishimura.
Until next time, be well, be safe and be vaccinated.