Irresponsible Hyperpower

Book cover
Colossusby By Niall FergusonThe Penguin Press. 384p $25.95

This book takes its title from an observation made by Thomas Jefferson in 1816: “Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders, and to hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings, as she can. What a colossus shall we be.”

Niall Ferguson, professor of financial history at New York University, who is on his way to a joint appointment at the Harvard Business School and Harvard’s department of history, is a 40-year-old native of Scotland, who came to N.Y.U. from Oxford just a year or two ago. He is a scholar of American and British imperial history who argues “not merely that the United States is an empire, but that it always has been an empire.”


Nation-states, he writes, are a novelty compared with empires, which have been around “since the beginning of written records.” He understands empire as “the extension of one’s civilization, usually by military force, to rule over other people.” Empires are “ambitious states that seek to exert power beyond their own borders.”

Empires, of course, rise and fall. And there have been periods of history when there was no dominant empire. We were close to that, he says, in the 1990’s when “the choice after the collapse of the Soviet Empire was between a world of independent nation-states, some but not all of them democracies, and an American imperium.”

Understandably, the American reader grows uncomfortable with the notion of an American empire. Dismissal of that notion is facilitated by the introduction of the word “emperor” and the inability to locate any real or would-be Caesar in our midst. But Ferguson’s aim in writing Colossus “is simply to encourage Americans to relate their country’s current predicament to the experience of empires past.” The current predicament, of course, has to do with Iraq, in the wake of Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Our presence in these trouble spots, our leaders explain, is a temporary, even humanitarian expedient. We are not engaged in nation building. We want, in the case of Iraq, to see the establishment of democracy followed by a prompt American withdrawal. But history, in the opinion of this very able historian, suggests that it will not be all that simple.

Ferguson argues for the viability and practical utility of “liberal imperialism,” understood as the British approach from the 1850’s until the 1930’s where free trade, free capital movements and free migration were fostered.

Colonial governments balanced their budgets, kept tariffs low and maintained stable currencies. The rule of law was institutionalized. Administration was relatively free of corruption, especially at the top. Power was granted to representative assemblies only gradually once economic and social development had reached a level judged to be propitious. This policy ‘mix’ encouraged British investors to put a substantial portion of their capital in poor countries and to demand relatively low-risk premiums in return. New technologies like railways and steam power were introduced to poor countries sooner and at a lower cost than if these countries had been politically independent.

In many cases of economic “backwardness,” argues Ferguson, a liberal empire can do better than a nation-state. He acknowledges, however, that a liberal empire may not succeed in conferring prosperity evenly on all the territories it administers as he makes his “altruistic argument” that the United States should give liberal imperialism a try rather than count on a hasty exit from Iraq once a democratic government is in place.

The United States is assuming that foreign investment will not be necessary because oil wealth (the oil that we insist we are not fighting for in Iraq) is already there. However good and honorable our intentions, we find ourselves in the middle of a culture we do not understand and unable to establish any time soon the institutions that, along with the rule of law, are necessary to support the democracy we want to see there. The point Ferguson wants to make is that both empire and independence have their price, and that the price of an independent Iraq at this point in history might be far higher than we think.

Ferguson sees the United States at this moment in history as an “empire in denial.” The trouble, he says, with empires in denial, when they intervene in the affairs of lesser states, is that they make two mistakes. The first is that they “allocate insufficient resources to the non-military aspects of the project.” The second and more serious mistake is that they “attempt economic and political transformation in an unrealistically short time frame.”

Little comfort here for those who expect to see the United States withdraw from Iraq any time soon. There is, however, welcome encouragement in these pages for statesmen to learn from the past in order to think clearly about this nation’s place in an unknown future.

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