Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire

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by Niall Ferguson

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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 every corner of the world," George W. Bush maintains


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 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Every page of Colossus is provocative." —Ernest May

"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

John Lewis Gaddis
At 384 pages, Colossus is one of Ferguson's smaller books; but it is his most ambitious effort yet to connect historical analysis with what is happening in the world today. His thesis is simply stated: the United States is an empire, however much Americans might deny that fact; its record of accomplishment in this capacity is not very good; and it should learn from the experiences of earlier empires, notably that of Britain.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
Like his earlier books, Colossus shows off Mr. Ferguson's narrative élan and his ease in using political, economic and literary references to shore up his arguments about history.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Criticism of the U.S. government's imperialist tendencies has become nearly ubiquitous since the invasion of Iraq began nearly a year ago, but Ferguson would like America to embrace its imperial character. Just as in his previous book, Empire, he argued that the British Empire had done much good, he now suggests that "many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule," as stability and a lack of corruption that could be brought by liberal imperial government would result in capital investment and growth. Similarly, he says, the British Empire acted as "an engine for the integration of international capital markets." The problems nations like India faced after the British left, he continues, could have been ameliorated if the colonization had been more comprehensive, more securely establishing the types of institutions that foster long-term prosperity. The primary shortcoming of America's approach to empire, Ferguson believes, is that it prefers in-and-out military flourishes to staying in for the long haul. His criticism of Americans as a people who "like social security more than they like national security" and refuse to confront impending economic disaster are withering, but he also has sharp comments for those who imagine a unified Europe rising up to confront America and for the way France tried to block the Iraqi invasion. The erudite and often statistical argument has occasional flashes of wit and may compel liberals to rethink their opposition to intervention, even as it castigates conservatives for their lackluster commitment to nation building. (Apr. 26) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Is America ready to rule the world? Probably not. But, argues the author, it had better gear up to the task. Prolific British historian Ferguson (History/New York Univ.), who has been building an empire of his own with books such as Empire (2003), The House of Rothschild (1999), and The Pity of War (1999), argues that the US is an empire in fact, with client states scattered around the world. Americans are reluctant to accept this fact for many reasons, although in the post-September 11 climate many more are warming up to the prospect; we're made uncomfortable by being likened to Rome, Britain, and perhaps even the Soviet Union, by the thought that our financial, military, and cultural might casts a Green Giant-like shadow across the planet. Not that realpolitikers have been unprepared for the eventuality; Ferguson quotes a Bush administration State Department official who, before Dubya even took office, was urging Americans "to re-conceive their global role from one of traditional nation-state to an imperial power." Well, there are empires and there are empires, and Ferguson suggests that the best of them is a liberal one, one dedicated to the free international exchange of capital, labor, and goods and to upholding the "conditions without which markets cannot function-peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies." Ideologically, at least, Americans should be well-equipped to administer such an empire, but we remain an empire in denial of the sort that "tends to make two mistakes when it chooses to intervene in the affairs of lesser states. The first may be to allocate insufficient resources to the non-military aspects of the project.The second, and the more serious, is to attempt economic and political transformation in an unrealistically short timeframe." Prepare, then, for failure-and for agonizing years of involvement in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia. Discomfiting, highly provocative reading, with ammunition for pro and con alike.

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Read an Excerpt

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.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Every page of Colossus is provocative." —Ernest May

"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

Max Boot
If the Guinness Book of World Records ever added a category for 'most productive historian,' Niall Ferguson would have to be a leading candidate for the honor. But he is more than simply prolific: he is also smart, witty and thought provoking. Year after year, he writes books that are the envy of his colleagues, using his deep knowledge of history, especially economic history, to illuminate current events. In Colossus he turns his formidable powers of analysis toward the 'American Empire,' offering a brief history as well as a provocative argument. Ferguson believes that it would be a good thing if the United States were to take over the imperial role once played by Great Britain-but he doubts that Americans have what it takes to be effective imperialists. "Colossus" is sure to shake the assumptions of both fans and critics of the American Empire-including those who deny that such a thing even exists.
— (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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Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is part Overthrown and part The World is Flat. Ferguson spends the first chapter trying to convince us that the US is an empire in the traditional sense, but that it won't admit it for some reason. While he never quite convinced me (Maybe I can't admit it either!) his comparisons with Britain at the height of its power were striking. This book works better as a sort of short history of Britain and the US which was exceptional. Most intriguing though, were the chapters on the threats to American power and it's change from a creditor nation to a debtor nation. The point is well taken....Rome was destroyed from within. Ferguson's points concerning the US fiscal policy are laid out very well and it may have been the best explanation of the future financial crisis the US faces I've had the chance to read. The book is worth reading if just for that alone. It's also worth noting that Ferguson is British and doesn't seem to sway his argument to the 'Right' or 'left' in case anyone thinks this is some sort political diatribe.
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Skitch41 More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book with wonderful conclusions that is ill-served by a rather poor historical argument in the first half. Ferguson, swimming against the political currents, argues that not only has the U.S. always been an "empire in denial," but a Liberal American empire focused on ending genocide, introducing democratic values, and lowering poverty levels would be the best thing for the world. He makes the rather unique argument that, contrary to popular belief, the British Empire of old brought with it free market practices, notions of the rule of law, and democratic values to many of the nations it ruled over (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and India to name a few). While he doesn't turn a blind eye to atrocities done by both the British and America, he ultimately takes the view that, all things considered, a liberal empire, under America today or Britain before, is a good thing. The second half of the book is very good. Ferguson makes a compelling case for liberal empire, debunks the idea of the European Union as a potential rival, and warns his American readers of the greatest threats to their imperium: growing Social Security and Medicare costs, a short attention span, and little dedication on the parts of its citizens to maintaining its empire (i.e. small numbers of recruits for the government organizations and NGOs). Ferguson falters greatly though in the first half of the book where he charts America's rise to hegemony from the Revolution to the present. His retelling of American history only seems to hurt rather than help his argument. And his chapter on U.S. goals in Iraq glosses over the fact that the Bush administration made WMDs and not humanitarian concerns the main reason for invading Iraq. If Ferguson were to revise these sections in an updated text, I might be far more willing to give him a higher rating.
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