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The Sunday Telegraph

Colossus: The Rise And Fall Of The American Empire

Just Don't Mention The 'I' Word Noel Malcolm Considers The Argument That The United States Should Stop Running Shy Of The Charge Of Imperialism And Embrace It


May 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004
Telegraph Group Limited, London. All rights reserved.

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson Allen Lane/Penguin Press, pounds 20, 384 pp pounds 18 ( pounds 2.25 p&p) 0870 155 7222

OF ALL THE slogans used against the Americans, "Yankee imperialists" is in some ways the unkindest. It strikes at one of the most precious and deeply held elements of American self-esteem - the conviction that the United States has not been, and could never be, an "imperial" power. The traditional view of the War of Independence was that it was a story of people heroically liberating themselves from imperial rule; and ever since that war, the United States has stood (in theory, at least) for the principles of liberty and self-determination.

True, the US did have its occasional episodes of overseas expansion. A few Pacific islands were acquired, as coaling stations, naval bases, or sources of guano. But only three major overseas acquisitions were seriously attempted: Hawaii, which eventually became a state of the Union; Puerto Rico, which did not; and the Philippines, which the US spent decades trying to swallow and finally spat out again.

Compared with the "fit of absence of mind" whereby Britain acquired its empire, these few cases represent only the tiniest lapses of attention. Even while those lapses were occurring, the official doctrine remained extremely strong. Unlike some would-be colonial powers - Germany, for example - the US never tried to join in the scramble for Africa. (Its establishment of Liberia, as a home for freed slaves, is the exception that proves this rule.) And at two crucial moments in 20th-century history, the ends of the two World Wars, American Presidents strongly defended the principles of national self-determination and decolonisation, pushing for the break-up first of Austria-Hungary's European empire, and then of Britain's overseas one.

So why the charge of "Yankee imperialism"? This arose partly from political history, and partly from a bastardised form of political theory. The history was the story of frequent American interventions and regime changes in Latin America and the Caribbean. And the theory was an extended version of Lenin's doctrine of "imperialism", in which capitalism, in its final phase, depended on the exploitation of far-off peoples and their resources. Lenin himself thought this involved actual imperial rule; but in later and vaguer usage, "imperialism" was a brush with which all forms of global capitalism could be tarred. Of course, neither of those things justified the use of the "I"-word in its strict sense.

When American multinationals moved into Third World countries, they may have suborned local politicians, but those countries did not come under formal American rule. When the US removed dictators in Central American states (and/or installed new ones), it did not stay there to govern those states directly. And this is indeed a point with tremendous topical relevance.

For it was only a year ago that President Bush's speech on board the Abraham Lincoln included the ringing declaration: "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." Anti-American Europeans may have scoffed when they heard those words.

The historian Niall Ferguson also found them hard to accept, but for rather different reasons. Although he is neither anti-American nor left-wing, he does firmly believe that the US is (and has long been) an imperial power. What makes his new book, Colossus, so challenging is that he regards American empire as a good thing, and wishes there were more of it. Above all, he wants the Americans to shoulder the long-term responsibilities of their imperialism; nothing irritates him more than that promise to "return home" as soon as possible. Some readers might accept this as an immediate response to the situation in Baghdad and Kabul, while rejecting it as a broader recommendation. Ferguson's book does indeed engage closely with the problems of the present (some of its chapters started life as articles in current affairs journals).

But at the heart of the book is a much larger historical argument about the positive features - both economic and political - of imperial rule, based on a wide-ranging study of the last great Anglophone empire. The economic argument is clear: territories that were brought into the British Empire benefited from much greater capital investment than they would otherwise have enjoyed. The political argument is also clear in principle: a country's need for reliable institutions (above all, the rule of law) is more fundamental than its need for the institutions of democracy, though the latter should certainly follow. (That they did not, in so many African ex-colonies, casts something of a shadow over this political argument in practice.)

Ferguson calls his proposal "liberal imperialism", and he has the right to do so: every step of the way, his argument is framed primarily in terms of the benefit to the subject peoples. But of course he also sees advantages for the imperial power, since a more prosperous Third World would benefit the entire world economy. And, in addition, there may well be security concerns which oblige the imperial power to conquer rogue (or failed) states in order to rebuild them. Currently, it is only that last category that accounts for America's quasi-imperial activities, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea that this sort of imperialism could form part of a much broader spectrum, leading to benign American rule across swathes of Third World countries simply for the purpose of enhancing economic and social progress there, seems a rather pious hope.

Even if such a liberal empire were established, it is hard to imagine that it could last for the several decades which Ferguson thinks would be required. And the reasons for doubting this arise not merely from the American short-termism which he so passionately deplores. Quite simply, attitudes have changed since the days of the old British Empire. They were changing even then: in its final phase, it was indeed a liberal empire, teaching its subjects the political and moral value of taking responsibility for their own affairs. Those liberal values cannot be unlearned in theory, however much their application has failed in practice.

Any state placed under imperial rule today will immediately become a magnet for radical "liberation" movements, no matter how beneficial that rule might be to the lives of the ordinary inhabitants. And an American policy which, currently, is prepared to go down the imperial path only so far as its most pressing security concerns will take it, is unlikely to go the extra mile merely to create new security problems of that sort.

Nevertheless, this book is not nearly as quixotic as it may sound. There are thought-provoking analyses on almost every page; the sections on the UN and the EU are particularly bracing, and the work ends with a grim warning of the likely reasons for America's eventual collapse as a world power. It confirms Niall Ferguson's standing as one of the most incisive writers on history, politics and economics today. Noel Malcolm's books include `Bosnia: A Short History' and `Kosovo: A Short History' (Pan).

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