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.
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.
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.
From the archives:"How to Kill a Country"
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.