Blogs > HNN > Richard B. Speed: Review of Niall Ferguson's, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (Penguin, 2004)

Feb 21, 2005 12:27 am

Richard B. Speed: Review of Niall Ferguson's, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (Penguin, 2004)

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

Just over a century ago in 1899, as the American people debated what to do with the newly acquired Philippine Islands, the British poet Rudyard Kipling urged them to “Take up the White Man’s burden,” and shoulder the responsibilities of imperial power. Now another British subject, Niall Ferguson urges Americans to embrace the imperial role as Britain once did. Although Ferguson believes that the world would benefit from the forthright exercise of an American imperium, as he explains in Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, he doubts that Americans will rise to the task.

Unlike so many critics who, schooled in the works of Lenin and Hobson, denounce what they regard as an American empire, Ferguson thinks that’s just what the world needs. He explains that the nation-state, with its emphasis on ethnic self-determination, is a relatively recent development whereas, empire has been commonplace throughout human history. Not only have most human beings lived under the sway of empire, but the latter has often advanced human society. Given the threat to civilization posed by rogue states armed with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, and the wreckage of states which failed during the half century since the demise of Europe’s imperial power, Ferguson argues that the establishment of a “liberal empire,” not unlike that of Britain in the nineteenth century, would benefit mankind. Such an empire he says would produce substantial “public goods,” many of which are in critically short supply in various parts of the “third world.” These range from the establishment and honest administration of law and order to the provision of capital and the construction of infrastructure. Such goods, which were once produced by the British Empire, are of greater value to the “new-caught, sullen peoples” than to the citizens of the imperial state itself, but nevertheless, all stand to benefit when order is imposed on the tribal chaos so prevalent throughout much of the world. The sort of economic development that has bypassed much of the “third world” in the decades since de-colonization, can only take place within the context of an orderly society governed by the rule of law. The United Nations is clearly not capable of providing such order. Accordingly, Ferguson believes that the United States is the only state capable of serving this historic function, but he fears that Americans will shirk their responsibility.

The United States today is an empire. Of this neither Ferguson nor most European and other foreign observers have any doubt. Indeed, many angrily denounce American imperialism. The very words imperialism and empire have become epithets, weapons hurled in an ideological battle that continues fifteen years after the war was won. Yet most Americans deny that they have any imperial ambitions or that their power makes the United States an empire. In short, Americans do not even recognize that they have an empire. The United States says Ferguson, is “an empire in denial.” This is not new. Even as Americans were vigorously expanding across a broad expanse of the North American continent and proclaiming that it was their “Manifest Destiny” to do so, they announced that they were bringing not dominion but liberty to a thinly inhabited land which God had prepared for them. In 1898 when they went to war against Spain, it was not in order to seize territory—the Teller Amendment specifically renounced any intention to annex Cuba—but to liberate the Cuban people from the clutches of the brutal Spaniards. It had been a war against Spanish imperialism. It had been an anti-imperial war. Yet the great irony was that the war presented imperial opportunities which Americans seized under the leadership of a reluctant William McKinley and an enthusiastic Theodore Roosevelt. It is this imperial denial that Ferguson believes Americans must reject once and for all before they can take up the burden Kipling commended to them a century ago.

Defeating the Spanish armed forces in 1898 was easy, much like defeating the army of Iraq was easy in 2003, but in the aftermath of victory Americans in the Philippines faced an insurgency in some respects like that which they face in Iraq today. The Philippine insurrection then, like the Iraqi resistance today, intensified the domestic debate precipitated by the conflict, and undermined the willingness of Americans to wage “the savage wars of peace.” It was in the context of the debate about the fate of the Philippines that an anti-imperial faction, represented by such luminaries as William Jennings Bryan and Mark Twain, made its appearance. While the anti-imperialists did not win the battle of the Philippines, it may be argued that they won the war. By 1906, even such a confident imperialist as Theodore Roosevelt had been so chastened by the Philippine resistance that he no longer believed that the United States could run “thickly peopled tropical regions” like Cuba. As early as 1916 Congress passed the Jones Act which confirmed that the United States would grant independence to the Philippines “as soon as stable government can be established.” When TR was presented with the opportunity to take the Dominican Republic, Ferguson quotes him as saying, “I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa-constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.” Most Americans today probably feel the same way about annexing Iraq as that boa-constrictor felt about the porcupine.

To Ferguson, this is the heart of the problem. When Americans say that they intend to stay in Iraq only as long as necessary to restore order “and not a day more,” they mean it. But Ferguson believes that centuries of “heathen folly” as Kipling put it, cannot be reversed in a few months or even years. Americans are not needed for weeks or months, they are needed for decades. When the British arrived in India or Mesopotamia, they intended to stay. Young British graduates of Oxford and Cambridge left England a century ago for the colonies imbued with an imperial ethos that prepared them to spend decades in the sun-baked outlands of Africa and India to “Fill full the mouth of Famine, And bid the sickness cease.” They wanted no more reward than to add the letters CBE (Companion of the British Empire) to their names. Their American counterparts today, Ferguson laments, seek only the letters CEO. They do not have the imperial cast of mind.

In 1987 Paul Kennedy argued in his popular work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that expenditures for American military commitments abroad had brought the U.S. to the point of “imperial overstretch,” a condition which had led to the collapse of previous empires. Under the circumstances Kennedy contended that the United States could not maintain its position as the world’s leading superpower. But Ferguson demolishes that argument, demonstrating persuasively that “Like Britain’s liberal empire a century ago, America’s nascent liberal empire is surprisingly inexpensive to run.” He explains that American gross domestic product has grown from 10 percent of the world’s output in 1980 to over 30 percent today. Meanwhile, American defense expenditures have declined from roughly 10 percent of GDP in the 1950s to less than 4 percent today. In other words, the United States can easily afford the military expenditures necessary to police an American empire. Imperial overstretch caused by military spending is simply not a problem.

Ferguson does however see one overwhelming financial problem that afflicts the empire. That problem is debt, in particular the vast current accounts deficit that the nation runs with its trading partners. As of September 2003, foreign investors held approximately 46 percent of U.S. Treasury obligations. “These are,” as Ferguson writes, “extraordinary levels of external indebtedness, more commonly associated with emerging markets than empires.” So what kind of an empire depends for its solvency upon the Chinese central bank? The answer he says, is an empire of debt.

This is a balanced and nuanced work in which Ferguson compares the American empire with the last great Anglophone empire, and assesses its prospects. His comparisons are thoughtful and illuminating, his judgments reasonable if not always persuasive. The fundamental contradiction at the heart of his analysis is this. He insists that the United States is an empire, but then demonstrates that it has produced few if any imperialists. This leads one to wonder how there can be an empire without imperialists. But this of course is his lament. The United States needs to produce more imperialists lest it becomes “the most ephemeral empire in history.”

Ferguson’s thorough familiarity with matters of macroeconomics and international finance lend a dimension to the comparative analysis of international and imperial affairs which is often missing in lesser works. Indeed, Ferguson’s comparative review of the economic elements of empire constitutes the most stimulating part of this important book. Those who are familiar with his other work would expect nothing less.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

It may well be that the British empire was, on balance, a net positive influence on civilization and human progress. But it had many downsides, and acted as a stimulus for many competing empires that were often not as "liberal" as it. Moreover, as the reviewer intimates, it is perceptions throughout the strata of the hegemonic "mother country" that are most decisive for the "course of empire". Along the way, from the opium wars to the Boer War, from the genocide in the Congo to Gallipoli to Dien Bien Phu, what once was the glory of empire has since died a thousand deaths. No glory, no sacrifice, and (taking the argument above to its logical conclusion) no sacrifice, no viable empire. Finally, even if Americans were willing to make the sorts of long-term commitments that late 19th century Britons were, this would probably not suffice for the maintenance of a lasting empire in the more crowded, more technologically open, and more interdependent 21st century. A more complicated and multilateral approach to the promotion of global peace, security, and sustainability will be required in the years ahead, and it is a pity that the administration of Junior Bush has so squandered the best opportunity for such an approach since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Good article, Robert. Thorough, informed, and straightforward, in contrast to the typical fare served up here. The only thing I would add is the dependence of foreign policy on domestic issues (hinted at towards the end but not developed). America's excessive reliance and inefficient use of fossil fuels has been a major ultimate source of the fortunes of the Bin Ladens, for one example. The irresponsible overreliance on debt in the U.S.A., especially by the feds, weakens the dollar making it more expensive, for another example, to send Americans abroad. Most crucially, the ignorance and apathy of many voters in America all but guarantees a confused, uninformed and inconsistent set of foreign policy goals. The 19th century British empire was not dependent on political support of people who could not find their country on a map of the world. I do not advocate less democracy now in America, but we are long overdue for a national recognition of the necessary concomitant: public education.

David Macleod - 2/28/2005

Whatever the merits of Paul Kennedy's theory that the U.S. risks imperial overstretch, one cannot refute the suggestion by saying that U.S. GDP has gone from 10 percent of the world's output in 1980 to more than 30 percent today. One suspects a typo. The 10 % figure is clearly too low for 1980, and I wonder about the more than 30 percent for today, at least as measured by a declining dollar. If the reviewer or Ferguson intended a much earlier date for the 10 percent (say, 1880?) one might question whether the inclusion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is fair to Kennedy's argument. At any rate, it is clear that the U.S. has not more than tripled its share of the world's total economic output in the last 25 years.

Leonard Gordon - 2/25/2005

By Leonard A. Gordon
Colossus. The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
By Niall Ferguson. Allen Lane, 385pp, £20.00
ISBN 0-7139-9770-2
Published 20th May 2004
The torch of empire has been passed, but the Americans need to learn some lessons from the most skilled imperialists of the past two centuries: their British brethren. Niall Ferguson, one of the brightest, most opinionated, and prolific younger historians from the United Kingdom has emigrated to the United States to help educate us in every way. He will teach our classes, fill our television screens, provide popular history for the masses, and teach us how to run a liberal empire the old-fashioned way.
In the opening pages of Empire, a skewed and sloppy work on the history of the British Empire produced to accompany a television series, Ferguson told of the successes his Scot family had as it spread throughout the empire. He argued, inter alia, that the Scots and the Irish were particularly helpful in building this empire upon which the sun was never to set, so the yen for imperial pedagogy was instilled within him.
But the sun did set. The Americans came to the fore with the Second World War, though edging towards empire throughout their history. The rise of the American empire into the 1980s is scanned in the first two chapters and then two more chapters deal with the difficult days for this empire in the 1980s and 1990s even as the Soviet star of empire was descending.
However, much to Ferguson’s chagrin, the rise which he would like to see continue and help straighten out some of the world’s difficulties was followed by a fall. Instead of up and up, we are witnessing at the moment the fall due to America’s “…economic deficit, its manpower deficit and—the most serious of the three—its attention deficit.” (p.290)
His skillful focus on the decline in the second half makes this a much more interesting and useful book than all the nostalgia for liberal empire. Ferguson has a way of using parts of previous books or restating these parts in a new work and here he treats us to lengthy accounts of the British in Iraq and in Egypt and even some pages on the British Raj in India. He believes that comparisons of past situations and present ones are exceptionally informative for present readers and policy makers.
This belief, I think, though certainly arguable, is not borne out in the text at hand. The British Empire flourished in a different historical era when, as Ferguson does note, technology was much less developed. Today’s anti-imperialists have automatic weapons, hand-held rockets, possibly weapons-of-mass-destruction in the making, and the internet. So even without many of the means of mass destruction that the American empire has, they can and are making the world hell for Americans and their friends. Mere firepower will not quell them and make the world safe for liberal empire.
This relates to one of the major drawbacks of this work (and of Empire): Ferguson (like Karl Marx) discounts and dismisses the power of nationalism. And further, to a great extent, he ignores the worlds of the Others, those upon whom empire has been imposed, first by Europeans and then by Americans.
Consider his brief and lopsided view of the Vietnam War (pp. 94-102). First, he has not a clue about the importance of this conflict over a quarter century of American history and its impact on millions of Americans—way beyond the 57,000 who died—and on the Vietnamese. Second, he seems to think from his selective reading of a few and not the best military historians that if only a little more fire power was used, or a somewhat different strategy employed, then America would have won instead of lost. He hardly considers that the Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap were a formidable foe for both the French and the Americans and that they had legitimacy for many Vietnamese, whereas the puppet governments constructed by the French and Americans never did have and never could have had legitimacy.
Although World War II certainly weakened the French, they lost on the battlefield in the decades after the war using their best resources. The Americans were not weakened by World War II nor the Cold War and used extensive resources to win. Short of obliterating Vietnam with atomic bombs they could not have defeated the Vietnamese nationalists. Lyndon Johnson, like George W. Bush in Iraq, insisted that Americans were in Vietnam for the long haul and would win in the end. What the Americans got was an embarrassing defeat, hundreds of thousands of American casualties, millions of Vietnamese casualties, and hardly a good idea of what went wrong. Ferguson should consult Phillip Davidson, Vietnam at War (1988), a better military history than the ones he has used.
Now President George W. Bush and his ideologues have mistakenly picked another target, not out of necessity, but by willful choice. They distorted the evidence, abandoned the U.N. when it did not bend to their will, and have shortly had their come-uppance as they have faced the difficulties of nation-building, the anger of the Iraqis, and continued resistance of Saddam Hussein backers. I believe that even their quick military “victory” will look differently once we have some historical perspective. Withdrawal is in the cards, though American and British forces will stay for some time and absorb casualties. Here is where Ferguson’s three deficits come into play and where his book is so useful in understanding the Iraq situation. But what must be added is that no American created government can have any legitimacy in Iraqi eyes. Many may have loathed Saddam Hussein, but they do not want Americans in his place. Iraqi nationalism dictates that they find their own way to their own political system and leadership, hopefully more just and democratic than what went before.
Readers need not seek out this book for its account of the rise of American imperialism. There are much more serious and interesting works like Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire (2002) and Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2004). These works were not written to accompany a television series, but they are stimulating history. The first half of Ferguson’s book is a fairly pedestrian re-telling of the American imperial adventure, but he is sharp enough and skilled enough in economics to have written a second half that makes one better understand the failure of this American international enterprise. Having dismissed the efficacy in world politics of the U.N. and of the European Union, and then finding the Americans failing, Ferguson has no hero to turn to. But we will surely hear from him once he has found one.

--Leonard A. Gordon, Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Robert F. Koehler - 2/23/2005

I agree.

Foreign policy & defense establishment realists are trying to save the day but whether they can pull it off is altogether another matter considering the damage done. That's why George is in Europe on his knees in front of zippers. Tommorrow is the biggee with Putin. is sweating it and can't wait for its "mericiful conclusion." As for myself, I am immensely enjoying the whole sorry spectacle. Its because of the realists that there may be some hope with these negotiations with Sunni insurgents, not George or his neo-con pals. The link leads to an article that provides a broad overview of some of the thinking and options concerning a multi-lateral approach these realists are debating and trying to implement.

Robert F. Koehler - 2/23/2005

There are 3 major problems for America becoming ultimately a bona-fide empire. The architecture and organization of our governance is republican in nature and thereby totally unsuitable and suicidal for imperium. Current cultural, social and economic factors that define daily life among the American people are not the stuffing of an imperial society. And we are ruled by an effeminate civilian/political elite and all their quislings, sycophants and stooges who have never served in harms way and never will. On the field of Waterloo stood a Duke all the way down to the squirerry of England leading the lesser sort into battle. Imperial elites must lead and attend to the ties that bind if empire is to be successful and stay at the top. In America's case ours don't so the masses won't follow.

James Spence - 2/22/2005

I wouldn't say they are doing well. But Latin America has certainly been under the "influence" if you mean by economic, and (about 32) military interventions since the 1800's by the U.S.

And according to the Los Angeles Times report, Latin America is "losing faith in democracy."

43% of Latin Americans are fully supportive of emocracy, while 30.5% express ambivalence and 26.5% hold non-democratic views, according to opinion surveys conducted for the report in 18 countries in the region; more than half of all Latin Americans -- 54.7 percent -- say they would support an "authoritarian" regime over "democratic" government if authoritarianism rule could "resolve" their economic problems.

Regardless, I still believe the solution to Latin America is within democracy itself.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 2/21/2005

Latin America has been under U.S. "influence" since the Monroe Doctrine, and look how well all of Latin America is doing!

James Spence - 2/21/2005

If you are a Ferguson fan (Pity of War, The House of Rothschild) you will praise the book. Mr. Speed is obviously a fan. And depending on your perspective, America certainly is an empire, but the book and the review here doesn’t answer a question for me: does the U.S. really have the power to develop the kind of empire he is talking about. And for me the biggest question is why should America even become an empire?

Is it really necessary as Ferguson says? Judging from the news in the last 4 years the neoconservative version of a democracy is a model that not all states are really interested adopting in these days. And that’s because, in their view, the US hasn’t conducted itself in a manner that always inspires confidence in freedom and liberty, what with the decline of civil liberties in its homeland, torture policies, the thin security net for the basic human dignities of the general welfare when they reach old age etc, quite an undesirable image in the international community. Although the US has done a lot of good things it’s negated by this administration’s style.