Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire
by Niall Ferguson
Penguin. 384 pp. $25.95

Since decamping from Oxford a few years ago for prestigious posts at NYU and Harvard, the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson has occupied a curious position in the public arena. In the pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, he has blithely urged the U.S. to follow in Britain’s imperial footsteps, knowing perfectly well that many of his readers will instinctively recoil at the idea. While not quite endorsing Kipling’s notion of the “white man’s burden,” Ferguson employs the “E” word with gleeful abandon, trying to browbeat Americans into admitting that they, too, sit atop an empire.

Ferguson bills his new book, Colossus, as “primarily a work of history.” But it is also, he adds, a study in “contemporary political economy,” an attempt to predict the future prospects of “America’s empire.” At some points it reads like an economics lecture, at others like an advice book for American policymakers. Ferguson would not be Ferguson, however, without slipping frequently into the tone of cantankerous polemic. His sweeping indictments of America’s “surprisingly inept” foreign policy will offend patriots and America-haters alike. The problem, in his view, is not that the United States behaves too unilaterally but rather that now, as ever, America is simply not imperial enough.

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This proposition will no doubt seem counterintuitive to critics of the Iraq war. But Ferguson is not expecting the U.S. to stay very long in Mesopotamia. America’s overseas interventions, he declares, have historically followed a predictable template: “impressive initial military success,” followed by a “flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment” and “premature democratization,” which lead in turn to a “gradual escalation of forces,” creeping domestic disillusionment, and, ultimately, withdrawal.

From President McKinley in the Philippines to George W. Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative, American politicians have promised to install democracy on foreign soil while professing no desire to plant a flag and rule. To Ferguson, this represents not selfless virtue but the behavior of an “empire in denial,” one that refuses to take responsibility for governing. The policy of “dictating democracy” has nearly always failed, he claims, not only in Southeast Asia but also closer to home in Mexico, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

Advocates of democratization often point to postwar Japan and Germany as examples of American success. But Ferguson thinks they are the exceptions that prove the rule of imperial “attention deficit disorder.” Only the demands of the cold war convinced U.S. policymakers to garrison those two countries indefinitely, in defiance of “the usual incoherent and halfhearted pattern of American intervention.” More typical, Ferguson suggests, were America’s cold-war failures in strategically less important places like Cuba and Vietnam.

In Ferguson’s view, a kind of all-pervasive “imperial denial” runs through America’s political class, precluding effective foreign policy. This flaw has proved most fatal in the Middle East, where the U.S. has vacillated between imperial ventures carried out in secrecy (like the Iranian coup of 1953) and a public policy of anti-imperialism (as in the Suez crisis of 1956) for which America has gotten “no credit” from the Arabs. Only lately has the United States realized that terrorism sponsored by Iran, Iraq, or Syria “could be stopped only by intervention in these countries’ internal affairs.”

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Does this mean the U.S. should openly proclaim imperial intentions in the Middle East? On this question, Ferguson is a bit slippery. Americans must learn, he suggests, the virtues of “organizing hypocrisy.” Citing the example of Britain’s lengthy occupation of Egypt before World War II, which produced a standard of living far superior to that following Egyptian independence, Ferguson advises that there is “a great deal to be said for promising to leave—provided you do not actually mean it or do it.”

What the world needs, Ferguson believes, is a true “liberal empire,” on the British model. Since 1945, the U.S. has assumed many of the required functions, like providing a currency for world trade, keeping the sea lanes open, securing oil supplies, and deposing dangerous tyrants. What America still lacks, in Ferguson’s view, is the will to spread liberal values. Unlike Oxford and Cambridge in Britain’s glory days, America’s leading universities do not produce enthusiastic settlers willing to staff an imperial bureaucracy. “There are simply not enough Americans out there,” he writes, “to make nation-building work.”

As with manpower, so with money. Victorian Britain exported both people and capital; the United States is now a huge importer of both. Low saving rates, high consumption, and generous entitlements have produced colossal fiscal and trade deficits that may soon “go critical.” The real threat to American hegemony, Ferguson argues, does not come from international terrorism. It stems, rather, from the “$45-trillion budget black hole” in Social Security and Medicare obligations coming due when the baby-boomers retire. Only the willingness of Asian central banks to prop up the dollar and swallow U.S. government securities at unfavorable rates of return, he argues, has allowed America to run its “empire” at all.

Does this mean that the U.S. will lose out to another global hegemon? Not likely. China may be on the rise, but a run on the dollar might be more harmful to Asia than to the U.S., causing widespread failure in China’s banking system. Nor is a moribund Europe, in Ferguson’s view, likely to rule over more than its own shrinking population. The most probable scenario, he avers, is less dramatic: the erosion of American power, followed by a descent into an anarchic, “apolar” world, and a new dark age.

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Colossus is a bracing, original book, and Ferguson lays out his argument with flair and great erudition. He makes a strong case that America is in danger of suffering “imperial decline” from within. Far from desiring such an outcome, Ferguson thinks American hegemony is vital to the health of the world economy. But he does not think it will last unless Americans stop their spendthrift ways and commit themselves to running a real empire.

Few Americans would disagree with Ferguson about the possibility of long-term fiscal problems in the U.S. But Ferguson severely over-eggs the pudding when, like Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), he invokes the financial meltdown of old-regime France as a plausible analogy. The Bourbon monarchs had been paying a high-risk premium for decades before 1789, upward of 10 percent for even long-term loans. There must be some reason Asian banks have remained willing to lend the U.S. money at some 4 percent even as America’s deficits have grown. It may be simply to ensure that America’s borders remain open to imports. But it may also be that the global security Washington provides is a public good for which Asian governments are willing to pay.

Ferguson’s snobbery also leads him to overestimate the United States’ manpower deficit. He makes snide cracks about fat, lazy Americans and materialistic Ivy League graduates, entirely missing the post-9/11 rise in military enlistments. No less exaggerated is Ferguson’s assessment of American overseas staying power. He passes off the occupations of Germany and Japan as exceptional, but what about NATO, or the U.S. commitment to beleaguered states like Taiwan and Israel? These relationships have endured nearly as long as Ferguson’s vaunted British occupation of Egypt. Moreover, the countries invited under the American security umbrella during the cold war, from South Korea to Turkey, have emerged as prosperous market democracies—all without direct rule by Washington.

Iraq may prove a tougher nut to crack. But it is by no means clear that the problems there are best addressed by means of British-style imperialism. Ferguson makes much of the difference between the imperial wanderlust of the Oxbridge Orientalists of old and the desire of today’s Americans to “give the Iraqi people democracy and go home.” It is “improbable,” Ferguson declares, that Americans will remain in Iraq for 40 years as the British did. Yet what exactly did the British accomplish in those 40 years, aside from securing themselves oil, periodically suppressing rebellions in brutal fashion, and having, in Ferguson’s unfortunate phrase, “very good fun”? On this subject, alas, he has nothing to say. More to the point perhaps, in writing off the venture in Iraq after little more than a year, Ferguson ignores his own advice about imperial “attention deficit disorder.”

No one knows exactly how to create a self-sustaining democracy with the rule of law in an Arab state where the ethos of tribe still holds sway. It is a project, as Ferguson might have conceded, of breathtaking ambition. But he cannot seem to wrap his mind around the idea that the American “empire,” such as it is, operates according to principles of its own. He professes astonishment that “when the Americans say they come as liberators, not conquerors, they seem to mean it.” To Ferguson, this is yet further evidence that the U.S., in its failure to be British enough, wants to “dispose” prematurely of its responsibilities. To more disinterested eyes, it might be seen as an expression of the principles declared by Americans more than two centuries ago in their revolt against an overweening metropole, principles to which they have faithfully adhered and which, in a supreme act of responsibility, they have tried to share with others.

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