Colossus: The Price of America's Empire
by Niall Ferguson
The Lighter Side of Imperialism
A review by Ted Widmer
The word "empire" has assumed a remarkable forward presence lately, to borrow
from the war planners' vocabulary. It's everywhere one looks in bookstores,
where tables groan under the weight of new foreign policy titles; on Op-Ed pages,
where we struggle every day to define who we are vis-à-vis the world; and
even in Major League Baseball, where the Yankees are now universally known as
the "evil empire," after a quip last season by Red Sox executive Larry Lucchino.
Whether he was thinking about Ronald Reagan or Star Wars, it's funny either
way. Early this season, a demented Red Sox fan but I repeat myself dressed
up as Darth Vader and taunted Alex Rodriguez with a placard that read: "Alex,
I am your father."
Moments of linguistic and political confusion are always clarified by the historical
record, and few historians have taken better advantage of the current mess than
Niall Ferguson, whose latest offering is Colossus: The Price of America's
Empire. The peripatetic Ferguson is a little hard to classify. He's an economist,
but with a political bent and a flair for the well-turned phrase. He's a shrewd
observer of current events, but deeply informed by the past. Armed with impressive
credentials professor at NYU, research fellow at Oxford but conveniently
young and photogenic, he is emerging as the Nigella Lawson of international
After a couple of well-regarded works on financial history for the wonk crowd,
Ferguson broke through in 2002 with Empire,
a highly readable and daringly un-p.c. history of the British colonial realm.
The moment was ripe for such a book, and he seized it with panache, filling
his volume with lavish illustrations, covering an enormous amount of territory
with grace and dispatch and teasing the American audience with wry similitudes
between England's overseas adventures and our own. His conclusion called on
the United States to embrace "a new imperialism," and used a few teary-eyed
Rudyard Kipling quotations to goad Americans into claiming their global destiny.
That message is not exactly popular on American campuses and flew in the face
of other recent works on the British Empire (such as David Cannadine's Ornamentalism,
which penetratingly examined the darker side of imperialism). But Ferguson's
energy was impressive and went down well in the dizzy exuberance that followed
the effortless victory America achieved in Afghanistan, the fabled graveyard
of empires. Anything seemed possible in 2002, and for Americans leafing through
J. Peterman catalogs, it was nice to know that we at last had some justification
for walking around with jodhpurs and riding crops.
Colossus continues the conversation Ferguson started in the final pages
of Empire, switching the foreground actor (Britain) to the giant understudy
lurking in the background. And so this book signals the arrival of Ferguson
the Americanist. Living in New York, he is well placed to join the growing British
cadre of Yank watchers, including Tina
Judt and Andrew
Sullivan, who have washed up on the shores of the colonies with notebooks
full of anthropological observations about the natives, which publishers are
more than happy to distribute. Some of the ground Ferguson covers is familiar
to newspaper readers (many of his arguments entered the world as Op-Ed pieces).
In a nutshell, his argument is that the United States commands a vast empire,
whether it wants to admit it or not (not, usually). But Americans lack the courage
of their convictions and will probably abort the current thrust at imperial
greatness because they lack the toughness of mind that ought to accompany the
nation's military and economic supremacy. Specifically, the United States cannot
handle the long-term responsibility of global administration; it's paradoxically
good at the difficult parts, like crushing enemies on the battlefield, but bad
at the paper pushing that empires thrive on.
It's a perfect argument for a British imperial apologist for who thrived
on the niceties of administration more than the efficient, stiff-upper-lipped
Brit of yesteryear? The unstated implication is that if the United States could
only marry its might to some good old-fashioned British common sense, the result
would be an intoxicating new concoction, suitable for warm climates and equal
to the task of managing all the truculent dark-skinned peoples of the Earth.
Exactly like the gin and tonic.
I don't mean to sound too glib. There is much to admire in Colossus:
reasoned historical analysis (showing more knowledge of obscure bits of U.S.
imperial history than most Americans possess), firm command of economic statistics,
pleasing literary cadences. The English, God bless 'em, can still turn out writers
along with would-be colonial administrators. Ferguson's central point is important
and indisputable that the United States resembles a global empire far more
than most Americans, still living in L. Frank Baum's prelapsarian Kansas, take
the time to understand. Even before Iraq, we had 752 military installations
in more than 130 countries. It is absurd to claim, as President Bush and Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have ad nauseam, that Americans never leave occupying
armies in countries after winning victory. Certainly something like the "liberal
empire" that Ferguson calls for a global order based on shared ideas of human
rights, free trade and international responsibility, enforced by U.S. military
and economic power is a powerful desideratum.
But in spite of that general correctness, there is something mildly off-key
about Ferguson's assumptions. Now and then, in his angrier moments, he resembles
English actor Terry-Thomas, who hilariously plays Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne
in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, endlessly berating the incompetent
Americans who foil his pursuit of treasure. In a nutshell, Ferguson recommits
the essential blunder of the British Empire: He fails to consider whether the
world's peoples want to join this new order, even if it is clear to him that
they would benefit from it. Consensus is boring and difficult to achieve, especially
with irritating partners as the military planners of the Kosovo operation
said afterward. It is also essential to long-term stability.
In Empire and in Colossus, Ferguson is at his most impressive
when he discusses the ways in which the British empire fostered legal and economic
modernity. His argument sounds tinniest when he gets into human rights, not
one of the high priorities of the old Raj and the weakest part of the Bush team's
inconsistent message to the Middle East. One wonders how anticolonialist Frantz
Fanon would respond to Ferguson, or to the new spirit of adventurism evident
in the world today not just the ubiquity of U.S. military personnel but of
the freebooters who follow in their wake, setting up cronies in power and distributing
economic perks to their friends. It undoubtedly would not be pretty.
If America lacks some of England's 19th century resolve, it's not merely because
we are a nation of weak-willed, SUV-driving, Big Mac-gorging couch potatoes,
though that is part of it. It's because, to our credit, we sense that the world's
peoples don't really want us bossing them around. The global system the United
States devised at the end of World War II was created to allow nations to take
more control of their destinies than the European colonizers had ever allowed.
We may love wealth and indulgence, but we do not admire rigid caste systems
that favor the well-born. That is one of the very few areas of agreement joining
the far right and far left in the United States, and the view is close to universally
held in this country. FDR's thwarting of Winston Churchill's desire to re-create
the empire is the third of his three great legacies (after restoring prosperity
and winning the war). God knows the United States has applied its ideals imperfectly
to its own people and the world's. But still, to quote Herman
Melville (whom Ferguson cites impressively in a different context), "the
Declaration makes a difference."
This point feels all the more palpable in the new gloom that has enveloped
the Iraq adventure in 2004, and has exposed America's neoimperial assumptions
(especially those of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz) to withering ridicule
at home and around the world. Colossus will find a far more subdued American
audience than Empire did a mere two years ago. Its examination of U.S.
history to date is sound and reasonably asks Americans to look more closely
at the complexity of their global role. But the book suffers from its subtle
reinforcement of Bush's impulse to reshape the world in the image of Midland,
Texas. It is an important effort and demands being read for its powerful analysis
of what is wrong with the world, including America's failure to take full responsibility
for the messes it keeps creating. We should feel honored by the attentions of
a scholar as capable as Ferguson. But his call for a new kind of enlightened
American empire fails to consider all of the unpleasant political realities
facing a government that is detested by the world's peoples and increasingly
distrusted by its own.
Nothing in the past three years more perfectly captured the way the world perceives
the imperial impulse, and Bush specifically, than the photograph of a female
G.I. holding a naked Iraqi prisoner by a leash. It would be hard to find a worse
contradiction of one of Thomas Jefferson's best thoughts, expressed in the final
letter he wrote, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:
"The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor
a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace
is director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience
at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. He was director of speechwriting at
the National Security Council from 1997 to 2000.