"Amid the seemingly endless writings and decisions about ‘America as Empire,’ the most prominent recent voice is that of Niall Ferguson." —Paul Kennedy, New York Review of Books
Colossus: The Price of America's Empireby Niall Ferguson
Is America an empire? Certainly not, according to our government. Despite the conquest of two sovereign states in as many years, despite the presence of more than 750 military installations in two thirds of the world’s countries and despite his stated intention "to extend the benefits of freedom...to every corner of the world," George W. Bush maintains
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Is America an empire? Certainly not, according to our government. Despite the conquest of two sovereign states in as many years, despite the presence of more than 750 military installations in two thirds of the world’s countries and despite his stated intention "to extend the benefits of freedom...to every corner of the world," George W. Bush maintains that "America has never been an empire." "We don’t seek empires," insists Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. "We’re not imperialistic."
Nonsense, says Niall Ferguson. In Colossus he argues that in both military and economic terms America is nothing less than the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Just like the British Empire a century ago, the United States aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law, and representative government. In theory it’s a good project, says Ferguson. Yet Americans shy away from the long-term commitments of manpower and money that are indispensable if rogue regimes and failed states really are to be changed for the better. Ours, he argues, is an empire with an attention deficit disorder, imposing ever more unrealistic timescales on its overseas interventions. Worse, it’s an empire in denial—a hyperpower that simply refuses to admit the scale of its global responsibilities. And the negative consequences will be felt at home as well as abroad. In an alarmingly persuasive final chapter Ferguson warns that this chronic myopia also applies to our domestic responsibilities. When overstretch comes, he warns, it will come from within—and it will reveal that more than just the feet of the American colossus is made of clay.
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It used to be that only foreigners and those on the political fringes referred to the “American Empire.” Invariably, they did so in order to criticize the United States. Since the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, however, there has been a growing volume of more mainstream writing on the subject of an American empire. The striking thing is that not all those who now openly use the “e” word do so pejoratively. On the contrary, a number of commentators seem positively to relish the idea of a U.S. imperium.
There is certainly no question that the United States has the military capability to take on the old British role as underwriter of a globalized, liberalized economic system. Before the deployment of troops for the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military had around 752 military installations located in more than 130 countries, accommodating 247,000 American service personnel deployed abroad. On land, the United States has 9,000 M1 Abrams tanks. The rest of the world has nothing that can compete. At sea, the United States possesses 9 “supercarrier” battle groups. The rest of the world has none. And in the air, the United States has 3 different kinds of undetectable stealth aircraft. The rest of the world has none. The United States is also miles ahead in the production of “smart” missiles and pilotless high-altitude drones. Pentagon insiders call it “full spectrum dominance.”
Nor is there any doubt that the United States has the economic resource to maintain FSD. America’s 31 percent share of the world product is equal to the shares of the next four countries combined (Japan, Germany, Britain and France). So rapidly has its economy grown since the late 1980s that it has been able to achieve a unique “revolution in military affairs” while vastly reducing the share of defense expenditures as a proportion of the gross domestic product. According to the Congressional Budget Office, defense spending in 2003 is likely to amount to 3.6 percent of the GDP—substantially below its cold war average. In the space of less than five years, three of the world’s tyrannies—Milosevic’s in Serbia, the Taliban’s in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq—have been swept from power at negligible cost. If this combination of military and economic dominance is not imperial power, then it is hard to know what is.
Yet the idea that the United States is now an authentic empire remains entirely foreign to the majority of Americans, who uncritically accept what has long been the official line: that the United States just doesn’t “do” empire. In the words of George W. Bush during the 2000 election campaign: “America has never been an empire. We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused, preferring greatness to power, and justice to glory.” Since becoming president, Bush has in fact initiated two invasions of sovereign states, successfully overthrowing their governments in both cases. The Office of the President has produced a document on “National Security Strategy” that states as a goal of U.S. policy “to extend the benefits of freedom…;to every corner of the world.” But Bush himself has continued to deny that the United States has any imperial intentions. Speaking on board the homeward-bound Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on May 1, President Bush declared: “Other nations in history have fought in foreign lands and remained to occupy and exploit. Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home.” A few days previously, Donald Rumsfeld was asked by a journalist from Al-Jazeera if the United States was engaged in “empire building in Iraq.” “We don’t seek empires,” shot back Rumsfeld. “We’re not imperialistic. We never have been.” Few Americans would disagree with that sentiment.
The Victorian historian J. R. Seeley famously joked that the British had “conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” But the Americans have gone one better. The greatest empire of modern times has come into existence without the great majority of the American people even noticing. This is not a fit of absence of mind. This is mass myopia.
It is not hard to explain such attitudes given the anti-imperial origins of the United States. However, just because you were once a colony doesn’t mean you can’t ever become an empire. England was once a Roman colony, after all. Americans also like to point out that they don’t formally rule over that much foreign territory: the formal dependencies of the United States (like Puerto Rico) amount to just over ten thousand square kilometers. But nowadays, thanks to air power, it is possible to control vastly more territory than that with a network of strategically situated military bases. And as for the claim that when Americans invade countries they come not to subjugate but to emancipate, the British said exactly the same when they occupied Baghdad in 1917. “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors, or enemies, but as liberators.” Those were the precise words of General F. S. Maude’s proclamation to the people of Mesopotamia, dated March 19, 1917.
Unfortunately, the American refusal to recognize the reality of their own imperial role in the world is one of the things that make their empire very different from—and significantly less effective than—the last great English-speaking empire. For a start, Americans feel no qualms about sending their servicepeople to fight wars in faraway countries, but they expect those wars to be short and the casualty list to be even shorter.
Moreover, compared with the British Empire, the United States is much less good at sending its businesspeople, its civilian administrators and its money to those same faraway countries once the fighting is over. In short, America may be a “hyperpower”—the most militarily powerful empire in all history—but it is an empire in denial, a colossus with an attention deficit disorder. And that is potentially very dangerous.
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(Olin senior fellow in national security studies, The Council on Foreign Relations, and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power." )
Meet the Author
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The bestselling author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, and Colossus, he also writes regularly for newspapers and magazines all over the world. Since 2003 he has written and presented three highly successful television documentary series for British television: Empire, American Colossus, and, most recently, The War of the World.
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