Interviews May 2004

Our Imperial Imperative

Niall Ferguson, the author of Colossus, laments the emasculation of American imperialism
book cover

Colossus: The Price of America's Empire
[Click the title
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by Niall Ferguson
The Penguin Press
384 pages, $25.95

These days, the U.S. military is on the move, invading countries, occupying nations, patrolling the oceans, even pushing for a takeover of outer space. Watching it all unfold, it's hard not to wonder: Are we an empire?

A new industry has cropped up around this question, as thinkers struggle to explain the nature of the Pax Americana. One of the most controversial of them is Niall Ferguson, a young British historian who is unapologetic in his defense of America's global conquest, a position he spells out at length in his new book, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire.

Lobbing witty salvos at emasculated anti-imperialists (Americans, he says, would rather build shopping malls than nations) Ferguson openly fears that America will retreat from the world the way Europe has. He laments the "ideological embarrassment about being seen to wield power," and the "pusillanimous fear of military casualties." It's not that empires are all good, he says. It's just that the alternatives are worse. Ferguson fears that if the United States can't, or won't, set up proper, functioning governments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, then no one will. The result could be a return to some form of ninth-century chaos, only this time with nuclear weapons.

Since last year, Ferguson has been the Herzog Professor of Financial History at New York University's Stern School of Business. He will be transferring to Harvard this summer. At just forty, he is the author of seven books, including The Pity of War, a reassessment of the causes of World War I, The World's Banker, about the Rothschild family, and Empire, a treatise on the benefits of the British Empire to the rest of the world. I spoke with him at his office and by e-mail.

—Frank Bures

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Niall Ferguson

You say America is an empire, but an empire with no administrators, no settlers, no direct rule, and with no imperialists. What kind of Empire is that?

It's an empire that has all the functions of military empire, if you like. It has the capacity to project itself in terms of force over vast geographical distances. It's an empire that is remarkably adept at spreading its culture globally. In that sense, it's an empire with almost unrivaled military and cultural power. But when it comes to what might be called imperial governance, it is an empire which, precisely because it doesn't recognize its own existence, consistently underperforms.

This term you use, "liberal empire," seems sort of oxymoronic. Can you explain the contradiction?

Well, it certainly didn't seem oxymoronic a hundred years ago when there were self-proclaimed liberal imperialists in Britain, liberals who saw the British Empire as a means of spreading liberal values in terms of free markets, the rule of law, and ultimately representative government. There was an important and influential faction within the Liberal Party who saw empire as an instrument for globalizing the British liberal model.

Globalizing Britain?

To these people, globalizing the British model was synonymous with globalizing liberalism. They looked around and said, Well, not many people have our combination of institutions. What we need to do is plant the seed of this system in as many places as we can and make the world suitably Anglicized. It's only a contradiction in terms if you define "liberal" in a rather early-twenty-first-century American way, meaning that you like to hug trees, or you have a fit if somebody fires a gun in anger. My sense of liberal is the classical sense. Liberalism stands for creating the institutions of political, economic, and social freedom. And it's very obvious that in a dozen or more countries in the world, there is absolutely no chance of those institutions developing autonomously. These countries are either so under tyranny, or so completely anarchic, that it's never going to happen.

Like Somalia?

From the archives:

"How to Kill a Country" (December 2003)
Turning a breadbasket into a basket case in ten easy steps—the Robert Mugabe way.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Life in Mugabe-ville" (December 3, 2003)
Samantha Power, the author of "How to Kill a Country," describes Zimbabwe's descent into chaos.

Right. Zimbabwe would be on the list, too. The list isn't endless, but it would have to include North Korea. There are countries that are not going to reform themselves, and the function of a liberal empire is to deal with that. In that sense, my book is troubling for American liberals today, because I'm saying that if you want to improve the lives of people who live in rogue regimes and failed states, to use the cliché, then you have to do something about it other than just give them World Bank loans and wish them well. So liberal empire has a discrete and distinct function to perform. It has to impose—and I stress impose—the rule of law. That has to happen before you hold elections.

So where did the British do that successfully? What countries?

Well, the list is quite a long one, actually, because by a hundred years ago the British Empire's transition to representative government was really quite far advanced. Obviously, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia were fully established as clones of Britain. South Africa was supposed to become one, but ultimately it didn't. And India by the 1920s was in fact on the path to regional representative government. The objective was always to dissolve British rule when the time was ripe. In terms of their economic model the British achieved relative success in countries like Egypt—and indeed Iraq. But not many of the political institutions they set up endured in those countries. In general, though, I think liberal empire has quite an impressive track record when you come to look at it.

Have you always been in favor of empire, or did your thinking change at some point?

Essentially, as an undergraduate I absorbed the conventional wisdom that empire was always and everywhere exploitative. It was only as I worked on books like The Pity of War and The World's Banker that I started to discern the more positive features of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

You are in favor of empire, but you don't like the loss of life that comes with it—you lament the horrific human costs of the American interventions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, and other places. How can you have it both ways?

The question is one of degree. First, remember that people may kill one another even more in the absence of empire—see sub-Saharan Africa. Second, if we don't extend our civilization, an even worse empire may emerge—see the Cold War. It is the habitual fantasy of many Americans that if the U.S. would just stop intervening abroad everybody in the world would enact the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine." History suggests otherwise.

One of your arguments is that for an empire to be successful, it has to pay dividends to both ruler and ruled. What dividends were paid to countries like Nicaragua under Somoza, or Guatemala under the generals, or Iran under the Shah, or other countries that could be considered colonies of the American Empire?

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Frank Bures is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin. He has lived in Italy, Tanzania, New Zealand, and Thailand and has written for, Mother Jones, and The Atlantic Online. His work will appear in Best American Travel Writing 2004.

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