Deciphering American Empire: #2


A map of the world in 1886, by Walter Crane. Areas under British control are highlighted in red. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Niall Ferguson, born and raised in Scotland, is a conservative British historian and Harvard University professor, who is leaving this year to join the faculty of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. His writing about war, economics, imperialism, and civilization are provocative, well publicized, and politically engaged.

Ferguson advocates, and wishes to rehabilitate, US imperialism by getting Americans to acknowledge and embrace it. The problem, he argues, is that the US suffers from imperial denial.Ferguson’s books include, among others, a reinterpretation of British Empire, an examination of the American imperial Colossus, an investigation of how Western Civilization arose to dominance through imperialism beginning in the 16th century, and studies of how British imperial blundering and decaying empire contributed to The Pity of War and The War of the World. His writing has been featured on British public service television, Channel 4. He has been a contributing editor to the Bloomberg Television business news channel and the Financial Times, and a columnist for Newsweek magazine.

Ferguson-the-political-pundit is a critic of President Barack Obama and was a supporter of the Republican Presidential bids of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. He endorses the Iraq war and other incursions, arguing they are the necessary and beneficial work of liberal imperialism. His criticism of the Iraq war (and President G. W. Bush) is that the US wasn’t sufficiently aggressive or determined enough to stay the course of nation building.

Militarism and war are not reasons to disdain liberal imperialism, in Ferguson’s view. His argument in The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, for instance, is not to decry war as the cost of imperialism. Ann Talbot, writing for the World Socialist Web Site, argues that one’s first impression of the book is that its treatment of the war is scholarly and sensitive, but closer inspection reveals it to be “a carefully camouflaged glorification of war.” It creates the impression “that war is good and death, whether inflicted, observed, or experienced, exhilarating.”

The US has long been an empire, a liberal empire, but reluctant to admit it. That is the biggest obstacle to its ability to reverse its decline in the present day, Ferguson maintains. Its military forces are based all over the globe. Its economic and cultural reach is global. Indeed, “the United States has acquired an empire, but Americans themselves lack the imperial cast of mind” (Colossus, p. 29).


“Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey,” oil on canvas by Francis Hayman, 1757. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Ferguson is in favor of empire, liberal empire, American liberal empire, which is what he believes the world needs today. The characteristics of liberal empire include a reign of “free international exchange of commodities, labor and capital” along with a maintenance of “peace and order, the rule of law, noncorrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies” and the provision of “public goods, such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools” (Colossus, p. 2). It privileges private property, personal liberty, rights of contract, and stable, honest, moderate, efficient, and responsive government that keeps taxes low and avoids excessive government expenditures. Democracy, as a rather thin entailment of liberal empire, means universal suffrage and representative assemblies (Colossus, p. 179).

A failure of the US to recognize and act upon its imperial status risks “an anarchic new Dark Age.” A twenty-first century power vacuum, should the US succumb to imperial decline, would unleash dangerous, illiberal forces of world disorder (Colossus, p. xxiii, xxvii-xxviii).

Once the empire that does not speak its name comes to grips with the reality of its power and responsibilities, what does Ferguson think it should do to succeed? Besides committing itself to global rule and to staying the course, both in protracted warfare and in rebuilding broken countries, it must fix the debilitating condition of being a debtor (instead of creditor) empire. The problem isn’t the expense of military budgets and warfare. Those costs don’t overstretch US empire. It is domestic spending that stretches the budget too far. Fighting terrorism and battling evil are mandatory. Investing in other countries is crucial to development and a healthy world economy. But Social Security and Medicare are the fatal preoccupation of a bloated, aging, couch-potato people lacking true grit. The Welfare State must be radically reformed (that is, downsized) if liberal empire is to thrive (Colossus, pp. 262-74).

Usually, critics who characterize the US as an empire do so as a warning because imperialism is considered counterproductive and contrary to the national ethos. Ferguson’s warning, however, aims to reflect upon the implications of doing empire well.

Deciphering American imperialism this way is useful if for no other reason than we stand forewarned to expect more for the military and less for the commons, consistent with the logic of a literalized metaphor made candid.



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