Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Full Spectrum Dominance

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 400pp £20 order from our bookshop

THE SCOPE OF contemporary US dominance is unparalleled in human history. America has 752 military facilities in 130 countries, some of them until recently part of the Soviet empire. What the American military calls ‘a-spectrum dominance’ includes 9,000 Abrahams tanks, nine ‘supercarrier’ battle groups, and various kinds of stealth aircraft with ‘smart’ munitions. Pilotless drones provide food for rival buzzards in the airspace above the @es and the gdty in Af&anistan. ‘Scramjet’ technology, unveiled in March, promises a future ability to bomb anyone, anywhere, a few hours fiom take-off. All of this is relatively cheap: the defence budget is about 3.5 per cent of GDP rather than the 7 per cent expended during the Cold War. America’s corporations also span the globe, whether Coca-Cola, General Motors, Microsoft or Time Warner, while its major research universities, to one of which Niall Ferguson has repaired, have cornered the market in global excellence. Its labour force is incredibly hard-working and its capacity to absorb waves of immigrants remarkable.

Despite the evidence of our eyes, there seems to be unanimity, that the United States is not an empire: a Hegemon, yes; an hyperpuissance, maybe; but an empire, never.

Delivering his premature victory speech on 1 May 2003, George W Bush averred: ‘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.’ Donald Rumsfeld agrees: ‘We’ve never been a colonial power.. ..That’s just not what the United States does.’ And so does Colin Powell: ‘The United States does not seek a territorial empire. We have never been imperialists. We seek a world in which liberty, prosperity and peace can become the heritage of all peoples, and not just the exclusive ~rivi1eg.eo f the few.’ Such attitudes are pervasive among the US elite. In contrast to their Oxbridge forerunners, America’s best and brightest want to be ‘CEOs rather than CBEs7, running MTV rather than Mosul. The US military doesn’t care much for overseas, which explains why most of its personnel potter about in bases at Fort Bragg or, faute de mieux, home from home in Kaiserslautern. Even those arch-villains of the Benno-Pinterite imagination, the CIA, tend to prefer life in suburban McLean to operations in places where diarrhoea is common, alcohol unobtainable, and women invisible and untouchable.

The point of Ferguson’s supremely intelligent, vivid and impressively researched book is that these men, and most of the American population, are in denial about the role that events have thrust upon them. When they think of empire, Americans imagine something outside themselves, run by cruel Romans, vicious Redcoats, obscene Nazis, or Darth Vader, these last almost interchangeable, ignoring the considerable benefits that, by any unsentimental calculation, liberal empire once brought to much of humanity. An officer in Vietnam reflected Ferguson’s argument well when he said: ‘Maybe it was the effect of my grammar school civics lessons, but I felt uneasy [searching a Vietnamese village], like a burglar or one of those bullying Redcoats who used to barge into American homes during our Revolution.’

Americans are also, as Ferguson shows, far too worried about the threats that such pundits as Paul Kennedy once detected on the horizon, be it Japan, the European Union, or China, while being oblivious to the mother of all impending crises, which involves profligate borrowing from lean and thrifty Asians to pay for the USA’s own elderly and obese population. America’s self-image may be The Terminator but the reality is the couch-potato, who can hardly get up, never mind ‘be back’. Domestic fiscal overstretch on Medicare or Social Security, rather than any conceivable threat from Al-Qa’eda, is likely to send the USA the way of Nineveh, Tyre, and (latterly) Moscow.

Compared with those of Europe and Russia, America’s initial imperial forays were hesitant and modest, stretching the Republic westwards towards the Hawaiian archipelago and the Philippines, and eastwards into the Caribbean and Central America, the latter venture involving progressively messier interventions on behalf of squalid regimes.

Denial of empire first became clearly evident when, in the wake of the two world wars, America’s reach became truly global. Yet at precisely that moment the USA hit upon the happy formula of imperial anti-imperialism, or containment, ‘to reconcile republican virtue with global responsibilities’. This, rather than any penchant for democratic ‘nation-building’, explained why the US abandoned its initial intent to weaken rather than strengthen the economies of Japan and West Germany. When current commentators allude to these undoubted democratic success stories, in their search for spurious analogies with Iraq today, they glide over the anti-empire’s spectacular imperial failures. The Korean War ended in a tie, leaving half the country under a repulsive regime whose people the US still has to feed, while Vietnam demoralised the armed forces and established domestic public opinion as the arbiter of all such future overseas commitments.

In Ferguson’s view 11/9 (1989) was more of a turning point than 9/11 (2001) in that the collapse of the Soviet empire dramatically changed the context of American power. Almost immediately, the US deposed Noriega in Panama, and expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the first Gulf War. September 11 and the events that have flowed from it merely represent the culmination of pre-existing problems, including the US’S perceived bias in the Middle East conflict, Western (and Japanese) dependence on Persian Gulf oil, and several decades of Arab terrorism, which, through the medium of Al- Qa’eda, has subsumed every ‘Islamo-Bolshevik’ maniac from Chechnya to Malaysia. Simultaneous failures of the so-called international community, whether the United Nations or the European Union, to stop state terror and genocide in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda impressed upon the US the value of ad hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’, with or without United Nations authorisation, as the only credible military force on the planet.

In what might be regarded as the most controversial parts of the book, Ferguson makes a powerful case for liberal empire. Sub-Saharan Africa has been ruined not by colonialism, but by independent rulers who routinely misappropriate up to 80 cents in each loaned dollar. The legal and socio-economic infrastructure that colonialism left to, for example, Botswana has immeasurably benefited its people; independent statehood for the sake of it has beggared the people of, among other countries, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia, when they have not been slaughtered by children armed with Kalashnikovs. As Ferguson says in one of his many pithy phrases: ‘self-determination has turned out in practice to mean self-destruction’.

In his conclusion, Ferguson contrasts Britain’s preparedness for the long haul in most of its former colonies with America’s present-day attention deficit disorder. The US dreams not of a thousand-year Reich, but of a thousand days and counting, or what Ferguson calls ‘not so much empire lite as disposable’. This is not just a product of the culture of ’57 channels and nothing on’, but of a political system that focuses minds on re-election two years into each political cycle. A fly-by-night figure such as Paul Bremer inspires little confidence, when compared with the sort of person whose obituary you can read any day in the Daily Telegraph, since, despite the tan desert boots, proconsul Bremer manifestly hasn’t made the slightest attempt to communicate in Arabic. He needs to take his eye off the Beltway, and refocus on the slow, unglamorous work that characterised the British Empire at its best. Back home, the Americans should accustom themselves to the fact that their long-term security depends upon such long-term commitments, although Ferguson is not optimistic that these will distract them from inward-looking consumption and sensation, or the view that an overturned truck on Route 66 is more important than a new Iraqi constitution. The role of liberal empire will not even be conceivable without the profound domestic reforms that might make it possible. The cost of toppling every rogue regime is as nothing compared to the cost of state-subsidised Prozac and electric Zimmer frames. This is one of the timeliest and most topical books to have appeared in recent years, by a major scholar who has been lost to the new empire.



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