Colossus - Niall Ferguson

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Times reviewed Niall Ferguson as “the most brilliant historian of his generation.” An equally brilliant writer and historian, Ferguson tackles some challenging and ever-relevant questions in this novel. He explains how the United States, a nation born in the fires of an anti-imperialist war, became and continues to be an empire, whether this empire is beneficial for the rest of the world, and whether it will falter as Rome once did.

A walking contradiction, an empire in denial

Ask any American today, and few if any would admit or acknowledge that the US is an empire. When one enlarges the grey area that surrounds the frequently misused, and admittedly ambiguous, term ‘empire’, then yes, the US could be considered to not be an empire; a narrow definition easily excludes the US. 

However, it is Anatol Lieven’s definition that is preferred by the author: “[An empire is] a very great power that has left its mark on the international relations of an era… a polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples.” With this definition, whether the US is an empire or not is no longer a question. With personnel in over 900 military bases in 148 countries around the world, a permanent seat on the powerful United Nations Security Council, and 18% of votes in the International Monetary Fund (more than the combined sum of the next three largest members: Japan, Germany, and France), the US is not just any nation. It’s an empire. 

In fact, the author explains how this was not a recent development. Between 1803 and 1898, in seven separate deals, some forceful, the US acquired nearly 17 billion acres of land.  It also constantly intervened, all forcefully, in Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Whether or not the US formally administrated a certain region turns out to be a moot point: the Dominican Republic was placed in a situation just short of outright conquest: the US was empowered to retain up to 55 percent of customs receipts for debt servicing. Why? “I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa-constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.” declared Roosevelt – domestic lobbies were certainly at the heart of this. 

This story repeated itself in Haiti. In the span of 13 years, 1900-1913, the US dispatched military contingents sixteen times, and when a new president was installed in September 1915, after six had been cycled through in the span of three years, he was made to accept a treaty that placed his nation’s finances, police, press, and public works under American supervision. Thus, on closer inspection, it seems that the US can even be considered an empire in the more typical, conquest-related, sense of the word.

Shining city upon a hill

Taken from Matthew’s Gospel and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when he tells his listeners that they are the “light to the world”, the phrase “shining city upon a hill” appears often in American political rhetoric, and this is no coincidence. Appealing directly to voters, candidates for the White House have always had to share more than just economic plans, they have had to give grand visions for the nation, to establish its purpose. Seemingly grandiloquent, this belief that America is good for the world, an exemplar possessing moral superiority, is commonly-held, and is what Ferguson tackles next.

He gives the contradictory impression that the U.S.’s empire-related considerations mainly depend on economic viability (a canal was built through Nicaragua, and the Panama canal built in 1914 remained under American control until 1979), and this contrasts strongly with the British Empire whose sanctimonious, religious and educational overtones promised to leave its colonies in a better shape than when they were colonized. The stereotypically American paradox of using guns to install democracy – unsuccessfully, it must be said -- is a consistent theme throughout this section of the book, and the irony that a nation, and an empire, preaching the importance of the rule of law was founded on territory forcefully acquired, without the consent of the indigenous peoples of North America, is not lost on the author. 

Despite these shortcomings, the consensus today, one Ferguson agrees with, is that the US plays a much-needed role of “global constabulary”, the underwriter of the global, liberal, commercial and financial system, one it took up ever since the conclusion of World War Two. Ferguson argues that without a hegemon, the world could slip into apolarity -- a lack of (a) definitive leading power(s) – instead of the trumpeted Utopian multipolarity that political scientists dream of. He notes that apolarity, akin to the Dark Ages, is far more dangerous than the stable, current world system.

While common criticisms of the US scream of its unwillingness to work multilaterally, its abuse of its hegemonic status, Ferguson quickly counters this and flips the traditionally perceived US-UN relationship on its head. Just as much, if not more, as the US needs the UN for legitimacy in the international political arena, the UN needs the US, because nobody else simply has the power to intervene in and conclude international crises. When the UN failed to defuse the Serbian situation in 1993 which would lead to the Bosnian Genocide, the US took only seventy-eight days to bomb Milosevic into submission. Multilateral attempts to reverse the situations in Rwanda and Iraq in the 90’s also failed, and crises were only averted thanks to ultimately American interventions. 

In the chapter “The Case for Liberal Empire”, the author analyses the British Empire to frame his argument for the American liberal empire. It is concluded that while growth was not evenly distributed amongst the colonies, that even countries which showed little gains in per capita income, “almost certainly fared better than they would have under alternative regimes”. British imperial rule also allowed free trade and democratic values to flourish, while British protectorate status guaranteed security and consequentially astonishingly low sovereign debt servicing costs, which is by itself already 50% of the recipe to success for developing nations. Considering how these accomplishments were only achieved thanks to occupations spanning centuries, one wonders how much any US administration can accomplish with an impatient electorate breathing down its neck. 

Is this liberal empire beneficial to the world? Being the only nation willing to intervene in conflicts abroad whether or not its interests are threatened, the US will be glad to know that the answer is a yes, albeit a flimsy yes. Without the US, dictators such as Saddam Hussein who know how to play the game (supply developed countries with resources cheaply while keeping domestic affairs under the carpet) would still be around. However, the corrupt and inept governments that US tends to leave behind after its rapid military conquest and equally brief occupation are often only marginally better than the dictators they replace. More usefully, the US can do its bit by maintaining the peace and security that the modern era (and hegemony) has ushered in by continuing to be the lender and army of last resort, not a belligerent conquest-hungry empire.

A Caesar? With a weak stomach perhaps… Gibbon’s Rome?

Ferguson in his first chapter perceptively outlines seven characteristic phases of American engagement:

  1. Impressive initial military success

  2. A flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment

  3. A strategy of limited war and gradual escalation of forces

  4. Domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict

  5. Premature democratization

  6. The ascendancy of domestic economic considerations

  7. Ultimate withdrawal

One will struggle to find examples of recent American intervention which do not fit the above pattern. In fact, Germany and Korea appear to be the only examples where the US did not follow this formula and instead stayed a while to develop the institutions required for eventual successful and stable self-government, a process which spans decades. 

The US’s inability to stomach long occupations and any fatalities is at fault. The following statistics show American fatalities from past conflicts. Even considering the paradigm shift of modern warfare since the 1950’s, the sharp decline in fatalities is illuminating of America’s wilting ability to tolerate losses in foreign conflicts.

In WW1, 116,516 soldiers died, 58,258 per year

In WW2, 405,399 soldiers died, 81,080 per year

Korea 36,574, 12,191 per year

Vietnam 58,209, 2,985 per year

Persian Gulf War, 382 in 10 weeks, 1986 annualized

Iraq War, 4809, 534 annualized 

This inability to make long overseas commitments or stomach fatalities, Ferguson explains, is precisely the weakness in the American Empire model. Unlike the British, who were able to field colonial district officers in the furthest corners of the world, officers who would move with their families, fully integrate themselves with the locals, learn the regional language, and often settle there, providing a steady communication link and chain of command between leaders in Britain and the colonies on the ground, Americans go overseas with only the thought of the end of their overseas deployment in mind.

In 1881, less than a third of Britain’s total armed forces were stationed in the UK itself. By contrast nearly 82% of Americans on active military duty are currently based in the United States. It is worth noting that of the 900 occupied foreign military bases that I mentioned earlier, hundreds are manned by less than 10 men, and of the 73 major overseas bases, more than half are in Western Europe – not exactly a conflict zone or an area that America needs to project its influence over. And this manpower problem is not purely military. The US is now an importer of people, and only 3.8 million Americans currently reside abroad. Furthermore, in a 1998 survey, of the 134,798 registered Yale alumni, only 5% lived outside the US. Scarcely over 50 in Arab countries. Problematically, it seems as though the US is an empire without soldiers, settlers, or administrators. This presents a problem for American military might and imperialism.

Rueul Gerecht, quotes a retired CIA officer: “The CIA probably doesn’t have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ’s sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don’t do that kind of thing.”

Americans it seems just do not live up to the realities of imperial conquest and occupation. The acclaimed historian Edward Gibbon in his tour de force “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” attributes the decline of Western’s civilizations greatest civilization to internal causes. The Romans, he believed, had become effeminate in the later years of the empire, unwilling to live the tough, “manly” military lifestyle, preferring instead to enlist foreigners in the army whilst they pursued a lifestyle of pleasure in the capital. It takes only a little imagination to see the parallel situation occurring in the US.

In brief

While Ferguson warns that the US’ declining economy, especially its exceedingly heavy Social Security and Medicare debts, could also be a cause for this empire’s fall, I think that the recent recovery has shown the resilience of American industry. Colossus was written in 2003, and the US economic machine has chugged along for the past 11 years without so much of as a hiccup (accepting that bubbles are natural instances of market correction). More worryingly is the recent re-invasion of Iraq… just 3 years after the US left… after having invaded and occupied it for 8 years.