Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (2004)

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It invaded Iraq in March 2003 in response to the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

These acts prompted an unprecedented flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, TV documentaries, conferences, seminars, papers and hundreds of books speculating whether America was now, finally, at last revealed to be an ’empire’ with nakedly ‘imperial’ ambitions.

British economic historian Niall Ferguson entered the debate with a Channel 4 TV series and book on the subject – which also neatly complemented the C4 TV series and book he had published in 2003 about the British Empire.

When I bought it I thought, from its subtitle (‘The rise and fall of the American empire’), that it would be a history, maybe a chronological account of the growth of American power.

But it isn’t. Even more so than the British Empire book, this book is really an extended argument with historical examples. It is a polemical interpretation of history, written with a very strong point of view, which starts in the present day – the Preface, written in 2005 is full of references to contemporary events in Iraq, to ongoing debates in the media, policy statements by the Administration, learned articles etc – and, no matter what incidents from the past it describes, Ferguson is always emphasising their relevance to the present situation.

However, time has a way of advancing at a steady pace: it is now 12 years since the book (11 years since the preface) were published, and we have the usual benefit of hindsight, both on America’s strategic decisions, and on Ferguson’s interpretation of them.

The book can therefore be read and enjoyed on at least three levels:

  1. As a snapshot of contemporary thinking about US policy in Afghanistan/Iraq in 2003/4
  2. As an extended argument about the role of the US in global affairs, with which to agree or disagree
  3. For the illustrations of that argument which include a succession of fascinating accounts of episodes from US history which shed light on the empire thesis (and other things too)

An empire in denial

Ferguson’s thesis can be stated very simply: the US is an empire; despite all protests to the contrary, it always has been an empire; in fact it would be a good thing for the world as a whole if the leaders of America just accepted the fact and began to act more like an empire; instead of which America’s rulers have a long tradition of intervening for short periods in foreign countries, then withdrawing in a hurry and letting them revert to chaos/civil war/instability. Ferguson’s thesis is that Americans should stay in the countries they invade, and be prepared to pay the cost.

The way he puts it is that America is an ’empire in denial’. In reach and power, in its conviction of being a torch bearer of civilised values – freedom, democracy, free market capitalism etc – in the sheer fact that its armed forces outnumber the next ten or so nations’ armies put together, and that it has military bases in half the nations of the earth – America is an Empire in everything but name.

The book is – maybe intentionally – comic in the way it lines up quotes from US presidents and senators and commentators from the late 19th century onwards, all saying the US is not an empire and carrying on vowing it does not have imperial ambitions etc, through the Second World War – notably the fiercely anti-imperial Franklin Roosevelt, who played a large role in undermining the British Empire – and right up to the present day, asserting, ‘No empire, no way!’

Then follows all these denials with an account of

a) how America was created ie by killing Indians, seizing territory, fighting neighbouring countries, buying land
b) once the continental boundaries were settled, reaching out to acquire colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean, by sometimes pretty underhand dealing
c) the growing chorus of commentators who, especially after WW2, simply recognise US behaviour for what it’s been – stepping in to fill the power vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the British Empire and feeling free to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world to influence them in the ‘right’ direction. The American direction. Korea, Suez, Iran, Vietnam, Iraq.

Not new

That America is an empire is not a new thought, in fact it is a cliché of our times. You only have to Google ‘American empire’ to be appalled at the amount of learned ink and journalistic hype which has been spilt debating the point back and forth for the past 15 years. Ferguson claims that what makes him stand out from this vast sea of discourse is that he thinks an American Empire would be a good thing, and that the Americans, alas, don’t go far enough. For Ferguson the Americans have, like it or not, become the world’s main guarantor of peace, liberty, democracy, capitalism and free trade – but are continually shooting themselves in the foot by not doing it properly.

For my money what makes Ferguson stand out from the scrum of people in this arena is that 1. very few of the political commentators have the breadth and depth of knowledge he brings to bear as a professional economic historian – and 2. not many of his fellow historians have a taste for writing such partisan and polemical pieces with such verve and confidence.

Structure

In the introduction Ferguson outlines the structure of the book in eight chapters:

  1. The imperial origins of the USA ie the way the Founding Fathers themselves (surprisingly) used the term ’empire’, and the way the young nation bought, fought and conquered its way across the continent and beyond.
  2. A fascinating account of America’s successes (Hawaii and Puerto Rico) and failures (the rest of central America and the Caribbean): drawing the conclusion that it has been most successful where it directly and permanently intervenes and governs, and repeatedly failed when it intervenes to overthrow a dictator and quickly withdraws (Panama, Nicaragua), leaving the fundamental problems of poor governance unchanged.
  3. Showing how 9/11 represented a culmination of decades of mismanagement of the Middle East and of growing Islamic terrorist organisations which the US did little to tackle.
  4. How the failure of the UN in the Yugoslav civil wars and the Rwanda genocide showed the US it could and should go it alone, proving that all decisive action in the post-Cold War world requires is a ‘coalition of the willing’; and how the disasters of small-scale US intervention in Somalia and Lebanon suggested that the US should only intervene in situations with a clear end-goal and then only with overwhelming force.
  5. Assesses the costs and benefits of America establishing a true empire, ie permanently occupying failed states.
  6. This is a detailed essay which could easily stand alone, assessing whether the US has the capacity, know-how or staying power to remain in Iraq long enough to build a viable nation state, cheekily comparing its quick-fix approach to the history of Britain’s long stay in Egypt. The British officially stated no fewer than 66 times that they would clear out of Egypt, starting within weeks of their unofficial ‘conquest’ in 1882; whereas they ended up staying for 72 years, Ferguson controversially argues, much to Egypt’s economic and legal benefit. Another element in America’s weakness is the reluctance of Americans to serve abroad. Most get postings to the Middle East for a year and are soon back home among the hamburgers and soccer moms. This makes you appreciate rather more the selflessness of lots of British administrators who devoted their entire lives to ‘serving’ in often very remote parts of the world, with little thanks at home or from the native peoples, stiffened by the ethos of service and self-sacrifice which had been drummed into them in Britain’s public schools. There is simply no equivalent in American culture.
  7. This chapter also feels like a stand-alone essay on the simple question: Is the European Union a viable new ’empire’ capable of asserting western values through unified force in a way which can challenge the United States? Well, No. Ferguson very thoroughly demolishes the idea and confirms one’s sense that the EU is a ramshackle bureaucracy dedicated to guaranteeing its employees a fabulous lifestyle and protecting French farmers, while completely failing to act decisively in any kind of emergency, from the Yugoslav civil wars to the the current Refugee Crisis via its wise and fair treatment of the defaulting Greeks.
  8. Many critics and commentators predict the American Empire will be brought low by what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’ and go bankrupt like the great empires before it. Ferguson brings his grasp of historical economics to bear to argue that the real threats to the US economy are in fact internal. The largest elements in the US budget are not military but the vast obligations of Social Security (pensions) and Medicare. Politically, the threat is not of over-stretch but of over-hasty withdrawal of forces form trouble zones, under pressure from domestic public opinion and ever-recurrent US isolationism. Once again, leaving the job half-done.

And this concern does seem to have been justified. As the Wikipedia article on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq makes clear, President Bush held out against a Congress and public opinion calling for the troops to come home from 2007 onwards, signing an agreement that the last ones would leave in December 2011. Since that time the main development in the region has of course been the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, which led to a civil war, which, along with a power vacuum in northern Iraq, led to the swift emergence of a new force, Islamic State.

Whether the rise of ISIL could have been prevented by maintaining US forces in Iraq is something historians will debate forever. How many forces, exactly? And for how long?

Insights and stories

As with Empire, a lot of the basic story is familiar, especially the recaps of the disasters of the 1990s (Yugoslavia, Rwanda) and the detailed account of the diplomatic pussy-footing to get the UN resolutions and allies needed to invade Iraq. I feel like I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

By contrast, his chapters on the early history of the American republic, and then its interventions in Latin America, the Philippines, Hawaii etc, were mostly new to me. Certainly the way they are interpreted in light of Ferguson’s thesis – ie from its earliest days the US has been imperial in ambition, and that its best interventions have been the most complete and overt ones – were new and thought-provoking.

  • The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
  • War of 1812 I hadn’t quite realised the States started this war simply to grab land, nor that the small British forces fought back so effectively that they pushed the Yanks back to Washington where – in the war’s most famous incident – they burned down the White House. Nor that the war helped create a sense of Canadian nationhood among the people that pushed back the Americans.
  • Mexican-American War (1846-48) resulting from the US annexation of Texas and leading to the acquisition of more land ie southern California and New Mexico.
  • Overthrow of Hawaii’s rulers I didn’t know how completely imperial the seizure of Hawaii was, with the overthrow of the native royal family by a small group of white businessmen. The reluctance of the authorities back in Washington to back the obvious greed and illegality of the men on the spot is like many episodes in the British Empire, where the central government was in fact more protective of native rights than the self-interested businessmen who behaved so high-handedly.
  • Spanish-American War (1898) On a trumped-up pretext the US invaded and annexed Cuba from Spain.
  • Philippine–American War (1899-1902) As part of the Spanish-American war, the US seized the Philippine Islands from Spain, on the other side of the world. Military victory was straightforward but followed by a prolonged counter-insurgency which the Americans tried to solve by driving the general population into concentration camps and shooting everyone found outside the camps without identification. Guerrilla war phase
  • Panama In the early 1900s the US supported Panama independence from Colombia so that it could instantly sign a treaty with the new ‘country’ to build, own and run the Panama Canal in perpetuity.
  • Puerto Rico is currently ‘an unincorporated US territory’. Reading the Wikipedia article about its ‘acquisition’ by the USA gives powerful evidence of the imperialist mind-set and language used by American leaders at the turn of the century.

And so on…

Is it or isn’t it?

So is America an empire? The obvious answer is, Who cares?

Well, who does care is the thousands of analysts, pundits, professors and think tank geeks, military experts and geopolitical strategists, who are paid to write and debate this kind of question ad nauseam. For them it means publication, reputation, careers to be made debating the finer points of the matter, creating subtler and subtler definitions of empire, making more and more ornate comparisons with previous empires, publishing sophisticated and thought-provoking prognostications, most of which turn out to be wildly wrong (eg Paul Kennedy’s predictions that the American Empire would soon collapse in his popular best-seller The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers of 1987).

A slightly more engaged answer would be: Since I have just read the views on the matter of some 50 people, from various Founding Fathers, through politicians and commentators in the 19th century, the Great War, the Second World War and right up to the present day, who themselves disagree wildly as to what an empire is and whether America is or isn’t one – how can I reasonably be expected to decide?

From the evidence in this book, the United States both is and isn’t an empire: it is by virtue of its military power and reach and it has a track record of annexing land (in the 19th century) and military intervention in other countries (in the 20th). BUT, as Ferguson points out, it rarely stays. It is obviously NOT in the business of seizing new colonies and permanently inhabiting them, as the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British, Germans, Belgians or Russians did with their empires. Hence: the US is and isn’t an ’empire’.

Whether any of this ocean of interpretation makes a blind bit of difference to the actual course of events, to the working out of US geopolitical strategy, seems unlikely. American politicians are trapped in the tight cycle of elections to the Senate, Congress and Presidency, which tend to prevent any long-term thinking and favour melodramatic gestures and simple-minded sound-bites (eg Donald Trump). From one point of view it was a triumph that President George W Bush managed to keep US troops in Iraq for so long, before giving in to domestic pressure, bringing them home, and letting the country collapse into fragments and then fall prey to a murderous new movement, ISIS.

Thirty years ago I attended a seminar which featured Ian Jack of the Observer and other foreign correspondents and experts debating whether Imperialism should be revived, whether the West should intervene – mainly in Africa – to overthrow brutal dictators or help collapsing states, and run them properly. Everyone there – white, middle-class intellectuals all – agreed it was obviously the best solution for a number of pitifully poor countries. But also agreed it was impossible in practice – because of the fierce opposition there’d be from the populations of the recolonised countries, from the UN and international community, from the surrounding nations and related bodies like the Organisation of African Unity, and from the Western countries’ own populations. Faced with opposition on all fronts, the idea of recolonisation was a non-starter: the West would have to resign itself to working through the various UN agencies, the IMF or World Bank, and its armies of NGOs and aid charities to make the best of a bad job. Direct intervention to ‘save’ collapsing or dictator-led countries could never again be a long-term possibility. Failed and chaotic states are on their own and can never again expect to be taken over and helped to rebuild.

Nothing I read in Ferguson’s book contradicts those conclusions.

Criticism

The most obvious criticism of this book, as of its predecessor, Empire, is that it gives little or no place for human experience, for the psychology of colonisation and oppression. An imperial colony’s legal system may be updated, its tax regime overhauled and its GDP improved by imperial control – and Ferguson gives plenty of examples of this in a wide range of countries, run by the British or Americans – but he takes hardly any account of people’s feelings, or of the cultural impact of being ruled over – and more or less overtly patronised by – an alien elite. For this absence of feeling, of compassion maybe, Ferguson has been criticised, especially by writers who come from former colonies and who have experienced the humiliations of empire.

My view would be that this high-level, heartless approach is hardly unique to Ferguson: all economists are like that. While Britain’s state industries were shut down, while the mining communities were thrown on the scrapheap during the Thatcher years, generations of culture were trashed, alcoholism and suicide rates soared among unemployed men, the Financial Times and its ilk were full of reports by economists discussing theories of money supply, the finer aspects of ‘Monetarism’, and the balance of payments deficit as if there was no connection between the graphs and pie charts and ruined lives. Or read how the plight of Greece was described in the Financial Times.

Economics isn’t called ‘the dismal science’ for nothing. Its fundamental strategy is to drain the humanity and life out of any situation and to reduce it to bone-dry, bloodless and – quite often, it turns out, laughably unreliable – numbers.

At least, unlike most other economic historians’, Ferguson’s books are thought-provoking, crisply written and hugely entertaining.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

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