Colossus (The Price of America’s Empire) by Niall Ferguson (The Penguin Press, 2004)

Most Americans would balk at the idea of the USA as an empire. After all, wasn’t the War of Independence about shaking off the shackles of colonialism? And wasn’t it Roosevelt who demanded that the British Empire be dismantled at the close of World War II? Niall Ferguson, a young British historian recently appointed to the faculty at Harvard, made the unfashionable argument in Empire (2003) that the British Empire was overall a Good Thing, and now he has turned his attention to the imperial status of the USA. His quest in Colossus is to determine whether this country has the guts and fortitude to do what it takes to be a successful ‘liberal empire’ – a role he certainly approves of.

His thesis is as follows: the United States has always been an empire. From the day the draft Articles of Confederation were written, the country has had expansionist visions, the notion of empire being encouraged by such as Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton. The term ‘manifest destiny’, as a guideline for territorial increase, dominated political thought after 1845. However, after mainland consolidation was completed, American annexations were small in size (e.g. Guam, Hawaii), and the experience of the Philippines put a damper on further imperial thought, while critics of British overstretch became more vocal. In recent decades, American imperialism has been of a ‘softer’ variety, trying to export US culture and democracy, and encouraging its interpretation of freedom overseas. And in the early twenty-first century, many countries that are effectively economic and political basket-cases (Ferguson uses Liberia as an example) could, in the author’s mind, “benefit immeasurably from an American colonial administration”. However, Ferguson doubts whether the USA has the patience and determination to undertake this role. He criticizes the administration’s poor planning, refusal to allocate enough resources, and unrealistic time-frame for the democratization of Iraq, and concludes: “…for all its colossal economic, military and cultural power, the United States still looks unlikely to be an effective liberal empire without some profound changes in its economic structure, its social makeup and its political culture.”

The trouble with this argument is that an overriding fact (the open, multifarious, consumer-oriented culture of US life, with its short-term focus) is used as an afterthought to question the chances of success for American imperialism, rather than as a nail to hammer home the unsuitability of the notion itself. Things have changed. If the USA were to be successful in bringing security swiftly to Iraq, it would have to act like a traditional colonialist, stamping down harshly on insurrectionists and anarchists. There is no way that the US government could have gotten away with it. Moreover, successful imperialists like the Romans and the Britons did not have to deal with the following (or their equivalents): The United Nations Security Council, the Web, Al Jazeera, Michael Moore, the ACLU, Messrs. Chirac and de Villepin, mid-term elections, and the massed bands of the columnists, letter-writers and editorialists of the Empire State Times – I mean the New York Times. Under such circumstances, their legions would have turned for home in a heartbeat.

I also think Ferguson could have spent some more time on the United Nations. He excoriates the organization, but does not develop fully the point that the UN has as many pretensions to soft imperialism as the USA. It tries to set rules for a chaotic planet, but lacks the muscle and unanimity to enforce them. For example, it makes imperious but unenforceable declarations about ‘human rights’, and specious distinctions between genocide and slaughter, but then leaves a vacuum for a true power such as the USA to do its work for it, while the weak-willed run to shelter under its coattails.

Despite his confusion over the dilemmas of the USA’s role this decade, Ferguson has written an absorbing book. Overall, he marshals facts supremely well; he is an expert in economic analysis, and appears to have read everything related to the topic. Like many of the authors I review, he could have done with a tougher editor: his repetitive verbal tics of “to say nothing of”, ”not to mention”, and the evasive “in the foreseeable future” should have been tidied up. Yes, by not indicating how he thinks the USA might change, and thus overcome the “attention deficit syndrome” it brings to nation-building, he leaves his readers with a sense of ambiguity and abandonment, but Colossus is nevertheless a refreshing and stimulating volume.

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