Our Imperial Imperative

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

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Colossus: The Price of America's Empire
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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?

I think the truth of the matter is, not much. One of the problems with America's Central American adventures, along with its Caribbean adventures, was precisely that they failed to establish very obvious collaborative frameworks, other than with military elites. Those frameworks that they did establish quickly morphed into dictatorships when the Americans held a traditional election and went home. And I think that does help explain the very, very dismal showing of America's Central American policy. The irony that the country that has performed best in the region is the one where the Americans never went—Costa Rica—speaks for itself. I mean, the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary turned out to be a recipe for chronic instability in Central America. You have to feel that the British would have done it better. But the United states from a very early stage staked out a monopoly position south of the Rio Grande—with wholeheartedly dismal results, I'm afraid. I think that reflects the fact that the model of empire that the United States has followed has been defective. It was almost as defective in the days of Theodore Roosevelt as it is today.

So what if the goal, then, is first and foremost to just get rid of the governments that are unfriendly, and there's not much thought given to what happens after that?

Well, I think that became the model when the Cold War set in. Indeed, it had been the model even before the Cold War, in the days of Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt—the "Our Son of a Bitch" model. And when you look at what happened in countries from Chile to Iran, I think it's obvious that the cost of that approach probably outweighed the benefits. The legitimacy of American foreign policy suffered serious long-term damage because support was given rather uncritically to some pretty lousy regimes. Indirect rule through petty dictators has the defect that you really have a problem controlling the bastards that you are notionally sponsoring.

In the book you break down the typical pattern of U.S. intervention into a series of stages. So far in Iraq we have gone through the first and second phases—the "impressive initial military success," followed by "a flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment." Now we're heading into phase three, "a strategy of limited war and gradual escalation." (The subsequent stages you identify are, "domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict," "premature democratization," "the ascendancy of domestic economic considerations," and finally, "ultimate withdrawal.")

I'm afraid most Americans tend to think of Vietnam as the parallel to Iraq, but the pattern goes back a lot further than that—at least to the Philippines in 1899. These sorts of overseas undertakings do have a tendency to go wrong. I think the book has an important contribution to make there, by pointing out that this pattern is, in a sense, a function of America's political culture. It's almost a consequence of being both a republic and an empire, that your staying power isn't very good. And I do think it helps answer the question: Why is this fantastically rich, economically sophisticated country relatively unsuccessful at overseas intervention? When you actually make a list of all the interventions, you find that only about two or three of them are unqualified successes. I don't think anybody I've read has come up with an entirely clear explanation of why the failures outnumber the successes by maybe three to one. It's a little dispiriting to be vindicated on this point, but from a selfish point of view, it beats being wrong.

I was especially interested in the second phase, the "flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment." In your book, you point out that a third of Americans thought the Contras were fighting in Norway, and you discuss the lack of Arabic speakers in the CIA. And, of course, the invasion of Iraq was pushed by a President who had only been out of the country three times before taking office.

It's obviously a phenomenon that isn't peculiar to George W. Bush. A very large proportion of Americans don't have passports. But even more striking to me is the fact that the kind of people you might expect to be well-equipped to engage in what we rather euphemistically call nation-building—that's to say, the graduates of the elite universities—disproportionately avoid overseas engagements. The ambitions of the educational elite in this country are quite domestically focused. They really would rather be running a Wall Street law firm than governing Baghdad. And I think that's a fundamental social-cultural reason why the United States is bad at empire.

Right now in Iraq, the reliance on the military is almost complete. The British operation a hundred years ago was much more evenly divided between military and civilian administration. And indeed the civilians predominated. There aren't that many Jerry Bremers. This country doesn't produce people like him in large numbers. And you need to have hundreds of them to make a success of something like this. What's interesting is that in 1945 through to the early 1950s, when Germany and Japan were the targets of American quasi-imperial nation-building, the talent was there. And the reason the talent was there was the draft. By 1945, the American armed services were full of all kinds of diverse talents because of the sheer scale of World War Two. That meant you could turn to the army in Germany in 1945 and find economists and lawyers and people who had an understanding of business. In today's volunteer professional army you don't have those skills at all. You have people who are tremendously good at being soldiers and Marines. But they're not really trained to do the sorts of thing that you have to do once you've won a war. And they're the first to admit it. They're quite candid that they are practitioners of offensive military operations—killing bad guys is what they're trained to do. The business of constructing the rule of law and a functioning market economy is about as far removed from their expertise as you could get.

So do you think this cultural ignorance, or this insularity, is the Achilles heel of the American empire?

It's one of a couple weaknesses that are manifesting themselves more clearly with every passing day. I'm always careful how I phrase this, because it's all too easy to sound like a condescending European, or, worse, a condescending Brit. I don't mean to, because in fact I'm an Americanophile, and I want the American empire to succeed. I almost would avoid a term like ignorance, because it implies a certain smugness on the part of the person using it. But there clearly is an ignorance of history. There clearly isn't enough expertise with respect to the Arab world. That's undeniable. And there are other problems too—structural economic problems. The funds available for this operation are not limitless, because this is an empire based on borrowing. And the economic vulnerability is almost as serious a threat to the operation as the cultural limits of American empire. Part of the point of Colossus is to join up the story of American fiscal policy with the story of American foreign policy—two stories that are usually dealt with pretty separately.

You say the clay feet of the American colossus are Medicare and Social Security—along with the predicted $45 trillion shortfall in the next few decades or so.

The $45 trillion figure is one that economists calculate projecting into the very distant future. One should therefore be cautious. It's not like a bill is going to fall due in four years' time for $45 trillion. It's more that there is a fundamental long-term mismatch between the government's commitments, particularly on Medicare, and its likely tax revenues, given any remotely realistic projections about growth and interest rates and inflation. I think that is a fascinating problem, because it means American overstretch, to use Paul Kennedy's term, is not about external imperial adventures. It's about domestic programs, Medicare in particular. The operation itself—conquest of Iraq—is cheap. The defense budget is still going to come in comfortably under its Cold War average this year. I think a lot of Americans don't quite see that—they assume this is costing a huge amount of money. In truth, the real financial problems lie at home.

Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, says there's a systematic effort to underfund, or starve, these programs. Do you see that happening?

I certainly think it's possible that in a second Bush term there could be what you might call a default on commitments to Welfare that currently exist. How carefully calculated this has been, I'm not sure. Those in Washington who talk about starving the beast seem to me not to appreciate the potential political fallout when you reveal that you are going to axe programs like Medicare or even Social Security. Can you imagine the political response to that? Whoever does that is politically finished for a generation. That's why I'm slightly doubtful of Paul Krugman's analysis, because it suggests a kind of diabolical intelligence on the part of those in charge. It suggests that there's a sinister conspiracy of a plutocratic elite to bring this about. If that's so, the plutocratic elite is essentially heading for political destruction.

The reality of the Bush Administration's fiscal policy is that it has actually significantly increased expenditure on a number of things that could be thought of as social policy. If you look at the items of federal expenditure that have gone up since 2000, obviously the military and terrorism-related expenditures are number one. But actually expenditure on what might be thought of as domestic programs has gone up too. And that's not starving the beast. It seems to me that there are elements of this administration that are more like the old Nixonian republicanism, which said you spend what you have to spend to make sure you win the election. That, I think, is much more what's driving policy.

In any case, the domestic-spending issue makes it kind of an anemic empire.

I think that's right. And perhaps asthmatic as well. It's short of breath, because no sooner does it embark on an adventure than it has to start fiddling with the numbers, as has happened with the reconstruction expenditures for Iraq and Afghanistan. The money that Kerry famously supported, then didn't support, isn't actually properly incorporated into the current budgetary projections, as far as I can see. And it seems as if it's already going to be overshot. Already we can sense in the bond market a nervousness about what is going to happen in the U.S. economy. And if interest rates go up, as it seems almost certain they will this summer, that has implications not just for mortgage holders—all those millions of people with flexible mortgages—but also for the federal government, which is running a very large deficit right now. The cost of carrying that deficit is pretty low, but it will rise rapidly if interest rates go up. In that sense, we could find the Bush Administration, as November 2 approaches, having to fight on two fronts—not only on the Iraq front, but also on the fiscal front, as the red ink starts to spill in ways that the projections simply didn't foresee.

So how likely is a premature evacuation of Iraq?

I think it's all too likely. The sense I have is that domestic pressure is building rapidly for troop withdrawals. You've got nearly half the electorate, according to Gallup, thinking that some if not all troops should be withdrawn. That's a much more rapid collapse of support than happened during the Vietnam years. And although John Kerry talks about a sustained commitment, and although it's obvious that after June 30 there will be a military presence for some time to come, I don't see either presidential candidate wanting to be in Baghdad come 2008. So my sense is that we're going to get into a Nixonian story where troop withdrawals happen, even though the situation abroad is not under control. And we all know where that will lead.

Nowhere good.

I'm afraid not. It does depress me deeply that these fairly straightforward lessons of what I would call imperial history are apparently lost on people in key decision-making positions. Either they don't know them, or they choose to ignore them for domestic political expediency. I don't know which is worse.

You call 9/11 the turning point at which history failed to turn. Can you explain that?

Everybody in the United States thinks 9/11 is the most important event since the birth of Christ, or thereabouts. In truth, all the trends that manifested themselves in 9/11 were evident years before. It was obvious that the Middle East was the biggest problem area and that having troops inside Saudi Arabia was creating a lever for America's enemies. The only thing that was surprising was the extent of American surprise. It was a spectacular terrorist outrage, but terrorist outrages of varying sizes have been going on for quite some time in the rest of the world. One of the lines I'm most fond of in Colossus is, "the real historic turning point was not 9/11, but 11/9." When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, the United States entered a period of unrivaled global power, and it spent the better part of fifteen years trying to figure out what to do with that power. That was the real turning point of modern times.

Do you disagree with Richard Clarke that the war in Iraq handed al-Qaeda a golden recruiting opportunity?

If order is not swiftly reimposed there, I fear he will be vindicated. But al-Qaeda's real golden recruiting opportunity was 9/11, which demonstrated that it could hurt the Great Satan as no terrorist organization had done before.

You write that "No terrorist movement is immune from schism when confronted by both duress and dialogue." Should we be engaged in dialogue with Osama bin Laden?

Implicitly we already are. Withdrawing U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia answered one of his principal demands. But in practice you don't negotiate with someone like him. Duress is what he needs and deserves.

Not too long ago I was living in southern Thailand, the Muslim part of the country, and we could buy colorful Osama bin Laden t-shirts and magazines with images of George Bush with horns coming out of his head. It seems like the U.S. is losing more credibility every day, especially in the Muslim world. Aren't you worried that the bald-faced wielding of American power will risk delegitimizing the American Empire?

In a way, if you are the imperial power you have to accept that people are going to hate you however you go about spreading your influence. One of the problems Americans have is this desire to be loved. Legitimacy isn't necessarily based on affection. It's based on credibility. And I think what we're seeing in Iraq is just the latest in a series of tests of American resolve and credibility. It's not the hatred one should worry about, it's the contempt. The legitimacy that the United States will achieve if it makes a success of Iraq will outweigh the inevitable resentment. You need to be respected. And the United States has a long way to go before it attains that respect, most obviously in the Middle East.