Painting the world red
New York Sun
April 29 2004
"What the world needs today, is not just any kind of empire," historian Niall Ferguson argues in his new book, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire.  "What is required is a liberal empire." The emphasis is his. What he means will sound attractive to many of his readers. A liberal empire would provide much of the world with peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies, public goods such as transport infrastructures, hospitals and schools. It would also underwrite the free international exchange of commodities, labour and capital. For those who suspect the author is conjuring up an impossible dream, he argues the British Empire managed to accomplish much of this for the many lands and peoples it ruled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Ferguson is one of a growing number of authors who have argued in the past twelve months that the United States should recognise the responsibility that comes with its unprecedented power and adopt an international role of benign imperialism. If the President takes their advice, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq will be but the first of numerous foreign interventions to overthrow rogue states and replace them with American democracy and liberalism. After the US has transformed the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa is their next most-favoured site of action.
Ferguson's book joins the call already made by editor of the New Republic, Peter Beinart, who thinks Africa suffers not from too much US imperialism but too little. Both Ferguson and Beinart think the United States owes a special obligation to Liberia, founded in the nineteenth century as a colony for former slaves returned from America's southern plantations. They want the Bush administration's half-hearted efforts to oust dictator Charles Taylor to be followed by direct American rule. Since most of sub-Saharan Africa is plagued by exactly the same problems of corrupt dictatorship and economic collapse, the logic of their position is that Liberia would be but the beginning of an American empire in Africa that would match Britain's former domain from the Cape to Cairo.
The call for an American empire is the most dramatic conceptual turnaround in recent times. Imperialism was a term once confined to the vocabulary of the radical left who used it as a dirty word to imply European racism and exploitation of the rest of the world. But a new range of commentators, from liberal to neoconservative, is now advocating it not merely as a positive concept but as the fulfilment of America's destiny as the world's sole remaining superpower.
The Bush administration has so far eschewed the concept. The President told military veterans at the White House last November that America had no territorial ambitions. "We don't seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others." Circumstances, however, seem to be conspiring against these ideals. The need to guarantee American security from terrorism and to protect its international interests appears to be applying pressures that are hard to resist. Already, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans look like becoming long-term dependencies.
Indeed, Ferguson argues that American policy in Iraq should emulate that of Britain in Egypt after it took power in 1882. The Gladstone government had just come to office pledging not to behave in an imperialistic way. Under the slogan, "Egypt for the Egyptians" Gladstone's generals smashed the army of the nationalist Arab commander in even less time that it took Bush to conquer Iraq. Having occupied Egypt, the British promised to leave almost immediately. But the country was too strategically and economically important to British interests, so they kept on promising the same decade after decade. Egypt remained effectively a colony until the British were eventually forced out in 1956 by the Nasser coup and direct American pressure.
Ferguson should have known that, while this account is historically accurate, it is not an attractive model for an American liberal empire. Despite 74 years of occupation, Britain did not bring democracy and liberalism to Egypt, nor did it eradicate its violent and reactionary Islamist subculture. Indeed, the chief terrorist on September 11 2001 was Mohammed Atta, a native-born Egyptian.
Ferguson's book provides other reasons why a liberal imperial mantle ill fits American democracy. The American electorate seems averse to the kind of long-term commitment needed. At independence in 1947, Britain left India a legacy of economic development and political liberalism, but it had ruled that country for 170 years. Fifty years of British rule in Africa and the Middle East was not long enough. Plainly, no American administration today can plan in timescales so great. As Ferguson himself notes, the illusion of permanence is a crucial part of imperial rule, but is unlikely to be imparted by a regime that publicly discusses its exit strategy as soon as it arrives.
Moreover, there is no younger generation of Americans willing to take up the burdens of empire on its far-flung borders the way young English and Scottish empire builders in the nineteenth century sought to do. The British could produce agents clever enough to disguise themselves to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. America has trouble recruiting enough Arabic speakers to translate its electronic intercepts. Ferguson himself gives the example of Yale University's 2003 student intake. Only 335, fewer than one per cent, took a course in Near Eastern languages or civilization. There was just one who actually majored in the subject, compared to 17 doing film studies.
In theory, a world dominated by a benign, liberal American empire is a very attractive idea. Many countries whose people now wallow in misery would benefit. Civilization itself could be brought to places where it is sorely lacking. Imperialism, however, has always posed hazards for the imperial power itself. For a thousand years after the fall of Rome, the causes of its collapse occupied an important place in the Western mind. The main lesson was that the imperial process itself ultimately generated a malignancy that ate away at the capital itself. Imperial administration eventually became unmanageable, military forces became spread too thin and the metropolis lost its original character and virtue. Given the limited benefits to the United States itself, such a price is too high to pay.
1. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, Penguin Press, New York, 2004