"Colossus" by Niall Ferguson

A brilliant British scholar argues that America should embrace its destiny as a global power and create a new, more enlightened kind of empire.

By Ted Widmer

Published May 20, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

The word "empire" has assumed a remarkable forward presence lately, to borrow from the war planners' vocabulary. It's everywhere one looks -- in bookstores, where tables groan under the weight of new foreign policy titles; on Op-Ed pages, where we struggle every day to define who we are vis-à-vis the world; and even in Major League Baseball, where the Yankees are now universally known as the "evil empire," after a quip last season by Red Sox executive Larry Lucchino. Whether he was thinking about Ronald Reagan or "Star Wars," it's funny either way. Early this season, a demented Red Sox fan -- but I repeat myself -- dressed up as Darth Vader and taunted Alex Rodriguez with a placard that read: "Alex, I am your father."

Moments of linguistic and political confusion are always clarified by the historical record, and few historians have taken better advantage of the current mess than Niall Ferguson, whose latest offering is "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire." The peripatetic Ferguson is a little hard to classify. He's an economist, but with a political bent and a flair for the well-turned phrase. He's a shrewd observer of current events, but deeply informed by the past. Armed with impressive credentials -- professor at NYU, research fellow at Oxford -- but conveniently young and photogenic, he is emerging as the Nigella Lawson of international affairs.

After a couple of well-regarded works on financial history for the wonk crowd, Ferguson broke through in 2002 with "Empire," a highly readable and daringly un-p.c. history of the British colonial realm. The moment was ripe for such a book, and he seized it with panache, filling his volume with lavish illustrations, covering an enormous amount of territory with grace and dispatch and teasing the American audience with wry similitudes between England's overseas adventures and our own. His conclusion called on the United States to embrace "a new imperialism," and used a few teary-eyed Rudyard Kipling quotations to goad Americans into claiming their global destiny. That message is not exactly popular on American campuses and flew in the face of other recent works on the British Empire (such as David Cannadine's "Ornamentalism," which penetratingly examined the darker side of imperialism). But Ferguson's energy was impressive and went down well in the dizzy exuberance that followed the effortless victory America achieved in Afghanistan, the fabled graveyard of empires. Anything seemed possible in 2002, and for Americans leafing through J. Peterman catalogs, it was nice to know that we at last had some justification for walking around with jodhpurs and riding crops.

"Colossus" continues the conversation Ferguson started in the final pages of "Empire," switching the foreground actor (Britain) to the giant understudy lurking in the background. And so this book signals the arrival of Ferguson the Americanist. Living in New York, he is well placed to join the growing British cadre of Yank watchers, including Tina Brown, Harold Evans, Tony Judt and Andrew Sullivan, who have washed up on the shores of the colonies with notebooks full of anthropological observations about the natives, which publishers are more than happy to distribute. Some of the ground Ferguson covers is familiar to newspaper readers (many of his arguments entered the world as Op-Ed pieces). In a nutshell, his argument is that the United States commands a vast empire, whether it wants to admit it or not (not, usually). But Americans lack the courage of their convictions and will probably abort the current thrust at imperial greatness because they lack the toughness of mind that ought to accompany the nation's military and economic supremacy. Specifically, the United States cannot handle the long-term responsibility of global administration; it's paradoxically good at the difficult parts, like crushing enemies on the battlefield, but bad at the paper pushing that empires thrive on.

It's a perfect argument for a British imperial apologist -- for who thrived on the niceties of administration more than the efficient, stiff-upper-lipped Brit of yesteryear? The unstated implication is that if the United States could only marry its might to some good old-fashioned British common sense, the result would be an intoxicating new concoction, suitable for warm climates and equal to the task of managing all the truculent dark-skinned peoples of the Earth. Exactly like the gin and tonic.

I don't mean to sound too glib. There is much to admire in "Colossus": reasoned historical analysis (showing more knowledge of obscure bits of U.S. imperial history than most Americans possess), firm command of economic statistics, pleasing literary cadences. The English, God bless 'em, can still turn out writers along with would-be colonial administrators. Ferguson's central point is important and indisputable -- that the United States resembles a global empire far more than most Americans, still living in L. Frank Baum's prelapsarian Kansas, take the time to understand. Even before Iraq, we had 752 military installations in more than 130 countries. It is absurd to claim, as President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have ad nauseam, that Americans never leave occupying armies in countries after winning victory. Certainly something like the "liberal empire" that Ferguson calls for -- a global order based on shared ideas of human rights, free trade and international responsibility, enforced by U.S. military and economic power -- is a powerful desideratum.

But in spite of that general correctness, there is something mildly off-key about Ferguson's assumptions. Now and then, in his angrier moments, he resembles English actor Terry-Thomas, who hilariously plays Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," endlessly berating the incompetent Americans who foil his pursuit of treasure. In a nutshell, Ferguson recommits the essential blunder of the British Empire: He fails to consider whether the world's peoples want to join this new order, even if it is clear to him that they would benefit from it. Consensus is boring and difficult to achieve, especially with irritating partners -- as the military planners of the Kosovo operation said afterward. It is also essential to long-term stability.

In "Empire" and in "Colossus," Ferguson is at his most impressive when he discusses the ways in which the British empire fostered legal and economic modernity. His argument sounds tinniest when he gets into human rights, not one of the high priorities of the old Raj and the weakest part of the Bush team's inconsistent message to the Middle East. One wonders how anticolonialist Frantz Fanon would respond to Ferguson, or to the new spirit of adventurism evident in the world today -- not just the ubiquity of U.S. military personnel but of the freebooters who follow in their wake, setting up cronies in power and distributing economic perks to their friends. It undoubtedly would not be pretty.

If America lacks some of England's 19th century resolve, it's not merely because we are a nation of weak-willed, SUV-driving, Big Mac-gorging couch potatoes, though that is part of it. It's because, to our credit, we sense that the world's peoples don't really want us bossing them around. The global system the United States devised at the end of World War II was created to allow nations to take more control of their destinies than the European colonizers had ever allowed. We may love wealth and indulgence, but we do not admire rigid caste systems that favor the well-born. That is one of the very few areas of agreement joining the far right and far left in the United States, and the view is close to universally held in this country. FDR's thwarting of Winston Churchill's desire to re-create the empire is the third of his three great legacies (after restoring prosperity and winning the war). God knows the United States has applied its ideals imperfectly to its own people and the world's. But still, to quote Herman Melville (whom Ferguson cites impressively in a different context), "the Declaration makes a difference."

This point feels all the more palpable in the new gloom that has enveloped the Iraq adventure in 2004, and has exposed America's neoimperial assumptions (especially those of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz) to withering ridicule at home and around the world. "Colossus" will find a far more subdued American audience than "Empire" did a mere two years ago. Its examination of U.S. history to date is sound and reasonably asks Americans to look more closely at the complexity of their global role. But the book suffers from its subtle reinforcement of Bush's impulse to reshape the world in the image of Midland, Texas. It is an important effort and demands being read for its powerful analysis of what is wrong with the world, including America's failure to take full responsibility for the messes it keeps creating. We should feel honored by the attentions of a scholar as capable as Ferguson. But his call for a new kind of enlightened American empire fails to consider all of the unpleasant political realities facing a government that is detested by the world's peoples and increasingly distrusted by its own.

Nothing in the past three years more perfectly captured the way the world perceives the imperial impulse, and Bush specifically, than the photograph of a female G.I. holding a naked Iraqi prisoner by a leash. It would be hard to find a worse contradiction of one of Thomas Jefferson's best thoughts, expressed in the final letter he wrote, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: "The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer, chief speechwriter on the National Security Council during President Clinton's second term, directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

MORE FROM Ted Widmer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Nonfiction U.s. Military