How an inattentive hero slipped into imperial decline

July 30, 2004

The torch of empire has been passed, but the Americans need to learn some lessons from the most skilled imperialists of the past two centuries: their British brethren. Niall Ferguson, one of the brightest, most opinionated and prolific younger historians from the UK, has emigrated to the US to help educate us in every way. He will teach our classes, fill our television screens, provide popular history for the masses and teach us how to run a liberal empire the old-fashioned way.

In the opening pages of his earlier Empire , a skewed and sloppy work on the history of the British Empire produced to accompany a television series, Ferguson told of the successes his Scottish family had as it spread throughout the empire. He argued, inter alia , that the Scots and the Irish were particularly helpful in building this empire, upon which the sun was never to set, so the yen for imperial pedagogy was instilled within him.

But the sun did set. The Americans came to the fore with the Second World War, though they had been edging towards empire throughout their history. In Colossus , the rise of the American empire into the 1980s is scanned in the first two chapters, and then two more chapters deal with the difficult days for this empire in the 1980s and 1990s even as the Soviet star of empire was descending.

However, much to Ferguson's chagrin, the rise that he would like to see continue and help straighten out some of the world's difficulties was followed by a fall. Instead of up and up, we are witnessing, at the moment, a descent due to America's economic deficit, its manpower deficit and - the most serious of the three - its attention deficit.

His skilful focus on decline in the second half of Colossus makes this a much more interesting and useful book than all the nostalgia for liberal empire. Ferguson has a way of using parts of previous books, or restating these parts in a new work, and here he treats us to lengthy accounts of the British in Iraq and in Egypt, and even some pages on the British Raj in India. He believes that comparisons of past situations and present ones are exceptionally informative for present readers and policy-makers.

This belief, though certainly arguable, is not borne out in the text at hand. The British Empire flourished in a different historical era when, as Ferguson notes, technology was much less developed. Today's anti-imperialists have automatic weapons, hand-held rockets, possibly weapons of mass destruction in the making, and the internet. So even without many of the means of mass destruction that the American Empire has, they can and are making the world hell for Americans and their friends. Mere fire power will not quell them and make the world safe for liberal empire.

This relates to one of the major drawbacks of this work (and of Empire ): Ferguson (like Karl Marx) discounts and dismisses the power of nationalism. And further, to a great extent, he ignores the worlds of the Others, those on whom empire has been imposed, first by Europeans and then by Americans.

Consider his brief and lopsided view of the Vietnam War. First, he has not a clue about the importance of this conflict over a quarter century of American history, its impact on millions of Americans way beyond the 57,000 who died, and its impact on the Vietnamese. Second, he seems to think from his selective reading of a few - and not the best - military historians that if only a little more fire power had been used, or a somewhat different strategy employed, America would have won instead of lost. He hardly considers that the Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap were a formidable foe for both the French and the Americans and that they had legitimacy for many Vietnamese, whereas the puppet governments constructed by the French and Americans never did have and never could have had legitimacy.

Although the Second World War certainly weakened the French, they lost on the battlefield in the decades after the war despite using their best resources. The Americans were not weakened by the Second World War or the Cold War and used extensive resources. Short of obliterating Vietnam with atomic bombs, they could not have defeated the Vietnamese nationalists.

Lyndon Johnson, like George W. Bush with Iraq, insisted that Americans were in Vietnam for the long haul and would win in the end. What the Americans got was an embarrassing defeat, hundreds of thousands of American casualties, millions of Vietnamese casualties and hardly a good idea of what went wrong. Ferguson should have consulted Phillip Davidson's Vietnam at War (1988), a better military history than the ones he has used.

Now Bush and his ideologues have mistakenly picked another target, not out of necessity, but by wilful choice. They distorted the evidence, abandoned the United Nations when it did not bend to their will, and soon had their comeuppance as they faced the difficulties of nation-building, the anger of the Iraqis and continued resistance of Saddam Hussein backers. I believe that even their quick military victory will look different once we have some historical perspective.

Withdrawal is on the cards, though American and British forces will stay for some time and absorb casualties. Here is where Ferguson's three deficits come into play, and where his book is so useful in understanding the Iraq situation. But what must be added is that no American-created government can have any legitimacy in Iraqi eyes. Many may have loathed Saddam, but they do not want Americans in his place. Iraqi nationalism dictates that they find their own way to their own political system and leadership, which, one hopes, would be more just and democratic than what went before.

Colossus is not a book to read for its account of the rise of American imperialism. There are much more serious and interesting works including Andrew Bacevich's American Empire (2002) and Mahmood Mamdani's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2004).

The first half of Ferguson's book is a fairly pedestrian retelling of the American imperial adventure, but he is sharp enough and skilled enough in economics to have written a second half that makes one better understand the failure of this American international enterprise.

Having dismissed the efficacy in world politics of the UN and of the European Union, and then finding the Americans failing, Ferguson has no hero to turn to. But we will surely hear from him once he has found one.

Leonard A. Gordon is emeritus professor of history, Brooklyn College, City University, New York, US.

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire

Author - Niall Ferguson
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 385
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9770 2

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