Column

IN PRAISE OF EMPIRES LOST

The trouble with trying to rally Americans to exercise imperial powers

BARBARA AMIEL May 3 2004
Column

IN PRAISE OF EMPIRES LOST

The trouble with trying to rally Americans to exercise imperial powers

BARBARA AMIEL May 3 2004

IN PRAISE OF EMPIRES LOST

Column

The trouble with trying to rally Americans to exercise imperial powers

BARBARA AMIEL

BRITISH HISTORIAN Niall Ferguson writes about serious subjects and makes them fiercely interesting. He is a one-man industry, having churned out six impossibly clever and argumentative books. In person, he is the thinking wench’s delight—dark and handsome with natural modesty and millions from TV and book contracts.

Ferguson’s latest, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, is published this week. One senses it will create an “idea firestorm”—the sort of best-seller every talk show and radio program will debate. The thesis is provocative: a spirited defence of the positive virtues of empire in today’s world and of America’s value as its single empire. Coming just when the U.S. faces condemnation in many parts of the world for her occupation of Iraq, its thrust fits the current fad for counterintuitive thinking.

Ferguson wants America to act as a “liberal empire.” An empire, by definition, governs countries beyond its own shores. A“liberal” empire is one whose nation-building activities include creating the infrastructure of a free market economy and maintaining peace and order, the rule of law and uncorrupted institutions. Unfortunately, America insists she has no interest or ambitions in being an empire. Putting her on the psychiatrist’s couch, Ferguson diagnoses “an empire in denial,” a great power that refuses to face up to her role and duties. She prefers the “irresponsibilities of weakness” to the “responsibilities of power.”

IT IS easier to defeat Germany than the Iraqi insurgents, especially when you have certain inhibitions and can’t act with the ruthlessness of a Saddam

U.S. presidents always make a point of denying their nation’s imperial ambitions, especially when invading some country. “We’re not an imperial power,” George W. Bush has said. “We will not impose any form of government.” With such protestations, it is no accident that the U.S. has a shortage of manpower in both its military and nation-building class. In the days of the British Empire, its colonial office was full of bright young men from Oxford who would emigrate to India or Africa and put civil and public services in place. Today’s Harvard and Yale graduates would much prefer to emigrate to Wall Street or build shopping malls rather than nations. After all, what prestige is there in working for an empire unacknowledged even by its emperor?

Ferguson believes that U.S. power faces a number of crucial challenges. Among them, a fiscal crisis related to its pension obligations and a growing manpower shortage as well as unmanageable deficits that can only be cured by enormous tax hikes. While he believes cures may emerge, he is less confident that America can overcome its aversion to geopolitical duties. This being so, he reckons that the U.S. hegemony/empire/unilateralism—choose your favourite word—is doomed, as were all other great empires when they lacked the will to exercise power.

The book is a roaring read, but I find Ferguson’s analysis only half true. He argues that the successful nation-building by America in West Germany and Japan after the Second World War was a function of long years of occupation. This may be valid, but there are other differences between those countries and America’s less glorious record in South Vietnam, Nicaragua, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq. Germany and Japan were decisively defeated in a way that none of the others have been. In addition, Japan and Germany were internally ready to embrace liberal free enterprise democracy.

Most other countries America has gone to are not so disposed. There is a wonderful novel by Jack London about a native tribe on a tropical island. Whenever its members do something wrong, perhaps eat a British sailor, the Royal Navy sends a gunboat to fire on their village. This being so, when the natives spot the gunboat on the horizon, they go into the interior and wait while a few huts are knocked down. The ship leaves, the natives return to the shores, cook the pigs killed by the ship’s guns and have a feast. The huts are rebuilt in a day and the natives consider the score settled—till the next edible visitor arrives. The story sums up what a sophisticated power lacks when fighting a smaller unsophisticated force. In a way, it is easier to defeat Germany than the Iraqi insurgents, especially when you have certain inhibitions and can’t act with the ruthlessness of a Saddam.

I suppose an openly imperial power with confidence in the virtue of its cause would find it easier to spread its values. Colonial duties would be facilitated by the sort of enthusiastic administrators the British and French empires had—young men and women aching to create municipal services for downtown Fallujahs. But having said that, I can only reply to Ferguson, “Where are those empires now?” Those boy scout qualities ultimately did nothing for the preservation of past empires or for keeping in many countries the institutions the colonial powers put in place.

Ultimately, people seem to prefer self-government to good government. As for the Americans, they came into being struggling against colonialism. Trying to rally them to the cause of empire goes against their grain—it is like trying to make ahorse fashion-conscious. Of course, the United States has the ability to enlarge her army and transform her attitudes towards the task of “civilizing” recalcitrant countries, but I’m not entirely sure that would be desirable. America could gain the world by losing her soul and that has never been much of a bargain. Iffl

Barbara Amiel’s column appears monthly. bamiel@macleans.ca