on May 19, 2004
I find this whole book to be more than a little disturbing. But while it is mostly a forward-looking effort from the sadly puzzling historian and author Niall Ferguson, I find it most frightening when it looks to the past. It's in those parts of his thesis that Mr. Ferguson argues, for example, that the U.S. should have dropped as many as 50 atom bombs on China in order to end the Korean War quickly and neatly, and where he opines that the Vietnam War should have been fought even more ruthlessly starting back in the mid-1960s, as a way to snap the North's resolve.
It was all enough to compel me to temporarily close Colossus with a scowl and a wrinkled brow to reach for the comfort of a dusty old volume containing he works of Tacitus, the first and second century Roman historian who Mr. Ferguson no doubt knows far better than I do. Tacitus, best known for his opinions about the throne's power to corrupt and the scandals and ruined lives its corruption produced, famously wrote about Domitian's reign of terror: "They made a desert and called it victory."
Evidently, if Mr. Ferguson had his way, the desert would stretch far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. He backed the controversial U.S. war effort in Iraq from its first rumblings, criticizing it only where it has paused to reassess or deny its imperial designs when that time could have been used to forcefully to indiscriminately crush resistance (or anything that appears to be resistance ... or that might evolve into resistance). He argues for a U.S. foreign policy along the lines of that employed by imperial Britain, endeavoring to win the Middle East's hearts and minds by ruling their pocketbooks and politics.
If these dangerous points had been made by almost anyone else, I would have stopped reading after 30 or 40 pages and dismissed the writer as a crackpot. But I grew to know Mr. Ferguson through the Pity of War and The House of Rothschild -- not books that swayed me with every argument, but which were full of worthwhile, uncommon, meaty, and complex theories that forced me more than once to dramatically reconsider what I believed. And while last year's troubling effort Empire now seems like a kind of uncomfortable preface to Colossus, it had been easy for me until now to dismiss that book as an aberration. So I returned to Colossus after a short break and finished its 400 pages, sadly shaking my head almost the whole time.
Without a doubt, Mr. Ferguson is a talented writer with a stunning command of information and historical context. He writes compellingly and with great enthusiasm, more so in Colossus than in his earlier work. But it appears to me to be sorely misdirected here: he fails to convince that the U.S. has the power to develop the kind of empire he describes and, more importantly, he fails to explain why it should even try to do so. I get the idea that without many decades of time to provide context to what he writes about, Mr. Ferguson loses almost all of the edge that previously made him stand out among his contemporaries.
Sigh. I don't know what sparked this apparent evolution in Mr. Ferguson's interests, but I can only hope that it doesn't get around.
Ferguson presents the idea that empires and the process of colonization that goes with it are fundamental to an effective understanding of how the world turns. While this thesis has surfaced in other of his books like "Empire" and "Cash Nexus", what makes it especially poignant this time is his focus on the American version of empire building. While modern world slouches towards embracing concepts such as democracy and nation-building, there is still a serious need for someone to lead the way in terms of promoting liberalized trade, encouraging responsible and responsive government, and settling international disputes. In otherwords, somebody has to lead the way Such a role naturally falls to the United States by default in this era of globalization and post-Cold War re-alignment. While the prize of wealth and influence for such leadership might look great initially, it comes with a steep price of being heavily criticized, strongly resisted, and seriously doubted by one's opponents who, too, would like to be leading the charge. When investigating America's capacity to be that empire by accident, Ferguson counsels his readers to be careful about viewing America's geopolitical efforts in the traditional context of imperial orders. For one, while America's presence pervades the world, it does not exercise the same territorial control that the Romans, Greeks, or Persians did in their day. The United States is more an empire of economic influence, political persuasion, and cultural tolerance than autocratic control. I recommend this book on the basis of its clearly defined and effectively supported arguments. The writer's credentials speak for themselves.
on June 5, 2004
Unlike some reviewers here, I did not come to this book instinctively distrusting its thesis. I was willing to consider that the United States was an empire in denial, and that the unfortunate part for the world was not that the U.S. was an empire, but that it did not embrace its role. Perhaps Ferguson is right that the world needs another liberal empire in the British mold; perhaps he is right that there are many troubled spots around the globe that require an outside agent to set them straight; finally, perhaps he is right that only the U.S. can now fill that position.
This book, however, does not prove his case. Ferguson writes very well and marshals an amazing array of facts to support some of his points, but he still fails to support the general task he assigns to "Colossus". For all the power of his prose and the flash of his facts, they merely gloss over crucial points in his analysis. This is true from the start, where Ferguson does not so much define "empire", as he does un-define it by giving the widely-used term so broad a meaning as to basically stand for any great power. He complains that some would use the word so narrowly that the U.S. would be excluded from the category, but he does not appreciate the opposite possibility: that the term can be defined so widely as to catch some ridiculous examples under its rubric, along with the U.S. By Ferguson's vague notion of the word, present-day Germany could be considered an empire along with the present-day United States.
But the weakest section of the book is its holding up of Imperial Britain as a model for the United States in the twenty-first century. Ferguson seems lost in a time warp here (and I speak both as a supporter of a strong U.S. foreign policy and an admirer of the British Empire). Perhaps the strangest argument in support of this section is his showcasing of Britain's seventy-four year stewardship of Egypt as a shining example of the benefits of liberal empire. But even Ferguson's presentation doesn't disguise that Egypt's long tenure under the British seemed to leave little of substance for the average Egyptian. Is this the best he could do for his argument? Give us Nasser and Egypt, circa 1956, as what Americans could look forward to in Iraq if we just stay the course there for the next seven decades, as the British did in Cairo? Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take the quick exit instead.
I still had a difficult time deciding what to rate this book. Ferguson's talents are obvious. He writes very well; his books are brimming with information and interesting narratives; there's no denying that some of his observations are brilliant. But the core message in this book is just so off that I couldn't bring myself to rate it higher, even as much as I sometimes enjoyed reading it. Like a delicious sweet, the taste of this book is hard to resist, but it's also impossible to deny the lack of anything nutritious inside it.
on June 2, 2004
I was very disappointed. I didn't expect to agree, but I expected a cogent, objective discussion. Instead, it's an incoherent collection of half-formed thoughts. For instance:
He refers to imperialism and "nation-building" interchangeably. He discusses at some length how Britain took over the government of Egypt for some time, for the purposes of controlling the Suez canal and protecting the value of very substantial British loans to the Egyptian government. (with no benefit, as it turned out, to the average Egyptian) Then he goes on to suggest that the US should follow this example, and take over Liberia, a country disintegrating into violent chaos. He wants us to occupy, impose order and rebuild the country, over a period of many years. (He wants us to do the same for Haiti, and presumably many other countries.)
This might be a good thing to do, but it would be completely unrelated to what the British did in Egypt or anywhere else. The British were always essentially self-interested, Americans in Liberia would be essentially altruistic. That's why we aren't there in a big way. Ferguson never clarifies this important distinction. At times it almost seems that he thinks that the British Empire was itself an altruistic project: he's not that stupid, but I expect some readers will go away with the impression.
Back in the glory days of Imperialism, the various empires were pretty popular with their home populations. Queen Victoria was proud and happy to rule India. But by the time the British took over Egypt, in the episode Ferguson relates in detail, they had to pretend to be always on the point of leaving and turning power back over to the Egyptians. Something had changed, Empire was no longer as popular. Ferguson approves of the lying, and recommends it to the US (I don't think we need him to teach us about lying), but he never discusses why opinion changed so dramatically. It seems he finds dislike of imperialism so baffling that he assumes that we all really like it, and we are just "in denial,"and basically avoids the subject. I find it a fascinating subject, and I was hoping he would offer some insight, but he offers nothing.
(Nor does he discuss the effects in a democracy of having the government lie systematically to the general population about how it is conducting foreign policy. In the days of the British Empire, British soldiers knew pretty well why they were in India. It is arguable that the Bush administration invaded Iraq for reasons Ferguson would approve of, simply to impose American military control in a crucial region. But they do not feel able to talk openly about this, they have had to concoct the stories of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist connections, in order to gain popular support ofr their war. Probably this falsehood at the root is responsible for the ineffectiveness of the occupation. One might think this would be an interesting topic, being a major difference between British and American imperial ventures, but Ferguson has apparently not given it any thought.)
I'll stop at this point, although there are quite a few more problems with the book. It leaves me with a strange feeling, because I have enjoyed a couple of Ferguson's earlier books, on the Rothschilds, for instance, but now I suppose I have to ask myself if they are as bad as this one, and I just didn't notice because I was unfamiliar with the topics.
on July 17, 2004
"Colossus" is a typical Niall Ferguson book. It is provocative and contains fresh insights; it navigates with considerable ease between history, politics, and economics; and it is extremely well written, illuminating succinctly the author's thoughts and engaging the reader's interest.
Mr. Ferguson, formerly of Oxford and now a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, writes to sketch out the reality of America's global position-to argue that, for all intents and purposes, America is an empire. Mr. Ferguson is not fundamentally opposed to empires-not because he likes foreign control but because he recognizes a benign type of liberal empire that can afford both the metropolis and periphery with benefits that independence cannot.
"Colossus" surveys various themes, beginning on whether America constitutes an empire (yes), then surveying America's ascent to its role as a global power, and finally gauging America's relation to multilateralism and its allies (American unilateralism, he argues, has more to do with the United Nations' overall failure to achieve certain objectives than with American instincts.)
But the real question is, what is the impact of this empire? Mr. Ferguson is enthusiastic about the prospect of a liberal empire, a position he bases on the record of decolonization; decolonization, he writes, was "an experiment to test the hypothesis that it was imperialism that caused both poverty and wars and that self-determination would ultimately pave the way to prosperity and peace. That hypothesis has been largely proven false."
For all his eagerness for America to play its role and underwrite the current wave of globalization, Mr. Ferguson is skeptical about America's ability to be an effective liberal empire. Empires, he argues, need to go places, learn their histories, and expend the money, manpower, and attention to get the job done. America's celebrated examples of nation-building-Germany and Japan-took years to complete; and both countries still retain American troop presences. All this is in contrast with America's appetite for an exit strategy from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In other words, America should be a global leader, but is unlikely to be an effective one, unless it undergoes a profound metamorphosis of the way it views its imperial role. America's looming economic liabilities are also going to alter America's budgetary orientation, possibly affecting its position as a superpower. Whether Mr. Ferguson is right in his predictions remains to be seen; but "Colossus" will surely stand out as one of the most authoritative and comprehensive reviews of America's role as an imperial power.
on July 8, 2004
This book is one of those precious works that goes in and re-arranges the brain cells, causing your perceptions of the world at large to be made sharper and clearer than they were before reading it. The author provides such a thoughtful and creative array of views on the subject of Empire, and America's role as an Empire, that my own perceptions of American influence in the world has undergone a complete overhaul. Even if you disagree with the author's points, as I did on many occasions, your own thinking on the subject will be made more structured and coherent as a result of being exposed to the author's revealing discussion.
It should be mentioned that Ferguson does not knee-jerkingly cast Empire in a negative light, as I believe its title mistakenly suggests he is going to do. He asserts that the kind of empire that America could be would be a good thing for the world, if America would but live up to that potential. His conclusions as to why and what will keep America from living up to that potential are both sobering and "hit the nail on the head" on target.
All of the simplistic criticisms of American power that litter the New Arrivals tables these days makes this book stand out as doubly worthwhile. Niall Ferguson's book provides a provocative education on a topic, American power and empire, that grows more important with every day.
on July 7, 2004
You will correctly surmise from purusing other reviews of this work that Niall Ferguson's books attract very well informed and thoughtful readers who are not at all reluctant to let him have it if in their view he strays too far into the counterfactual world he helped revive and refine with his works such as "Virtual History." My own take on the rather strong negative reactions engendered by "Colossus" here and elsewhere is that they are generated--like many counterfactuals--by Ferguson's message being taken too seriously on the one hand and not seriously enough on the other. "Colossus" is an essay on possibilities, not a prescription for world domination. It asks--an attempts to answer--the question of why the United States is such a reluctant world leader (in terms of active intervention in its affairs) and explores the possible implications of its shedding its historical aversion to international activism.
What I find lacking in negative reviews is an appreciation, however reluctant, of the value of this inquiry whatever the likelihood of its practical application. And this failure to "get" the message I attribute latently to our historic isolationism and explicitly to the same cause Ferguson highlights as one of the principal reasons why we are unlikely to change our minds: our national attention deficit disorder.
Irag provides the perfect illustration of one of Ferguson's most telling points: we were hardly there before we said we were leaving and then reinforced our apparent disenchantment with the enterprise by becoming politically irrational and transfixed by prisoner abuse and the failure to find WMD's. No reasonable person can argue that if we leave Iraq prematurely, we will have wholly failed to achieve our stated goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East, which conclusion raises the even more compelling public policy question of if we could have foreseen that home front and/or international political pressures were going to prompt us to cut and run, then why did we undertake the enterprise in the first place?
You can't go by me: I am an unabashed and unrepentent Ferguson fan. Every time I pick up one of his books, I feel like I am taking a walk on a pleasant Summer evening with an old friend who happens to be unassailably erudite and enviably eloquent and I am listening to him expound his well-informed views. Neither in these fanciful strolls nor in my critical reading of his works do I feel compelled to agree with his views, but I am inexorably forced to think about what he is saying and consider the wonderfully diverse and provocative implications of his musings.
Finally, what troubles me is not whether this or my fellow readers' reviews will prompt you to buy and read this book. No, the question I ask is whether our policy makers ever choose a book like "Colossus" as their summer reading. Our recent foreign adventures suggest to me at least the exercise would be very much worth their--and our--while.
on June 30, 2004
Eschew your notions of empire for a moment. It's not all Darth Vader and Leonid Brezhnev.
Colossus is a fascinating book that argues America is the lone global superpower and an empire whether we (Americans) like it or not. To ignore that fact is far more dangerous than to embrace it, because of the power vacuum that becomes filled with chaos and misery.
Niall Ferguson doesn't argue for regime change all over the world. He doesn't argue from the much-maligned "neocon(servative)" point of view, although some of the reviewers seem to think so. Ferguson's work is more descriptive than prescriptive; in other words, he attempts to enlighten what has been and what is more than what ought to be, although he certainly gives away his opinion right up front that he wants America to embrace its position in the world.
His only real prescriptive plea to Americans is to fix their social security and medicare systems before they hit the same kind of debilitating levels as Europe.
The book is well-researched, to be sure, and Ferguson's prose is elegant.
It examines some of the notions regarding Europe (EU, to be more specific) and China emerging as counterweights to the United States in the future, but he argues the United States is at a unipolar moment and will likely be so for a while.
I love some of the history included, particularly the brief snippets of America's flirtations with empire over the centuries, going back to Thomas Jefferson's comment about America being an empire of liberty.
But don't get the wrong idea. Niall Ferguson does praise the British empire moderately, saying it was on whole more a force for good than bad, but he still says that traditional imperialism is generally a bad thing. He even ranks well-known empires for their nefariousness, or lack thereof. He argues that, because America was founded through a revolution against an empire, and because Americans are so reluctant to want to set up shop in other countries, American empire is wholly unique--- and mostly good. American empire, for its flaws, is progressive and modern, and it exists in spite of our reluctance.
Essentially, it is a call for American leadership (because who else will lead?) rather than a retreat from the world. I was against the concept empire entirely before reading this book, and I am still against traditional European-style empire, but after reading Colossus, I am left with a sense of the dangers of isolationism and the consequences (good and bad) of finishing the job or failing to finish the job after being compelled to act.
on June 12, 2004
Ferguson explores America's Imperial history from its westward expansion, the Monroe doctrine, two world wars; it's rise as a global economic power, and the war on terrorism.
Ferguson chronicles America's imperial success and failure, attempts to democratize Latin America evidenced by a series of U.S interventions, too often without the sustained attention and high ideals spoken of by the American politicians leading the crusade. Juxtapose that with America's sustained commitment to Western Europe, South Korea, and Japan. Countries which enjoy robust industrial economies, open political systems, and free-market's
When effective, "American Global Leadership", for millions may be the only light in a cruel dark world. When half hearted and unsupported, American efforts abroad lead to the road of unmet objectives and compromised morality.
"Colossus" is a well written, thought provoking, and important text. All the more valuable to the American reader who it seem is in denial of Americas Imperial roots, it's Imperial present and future.
O.K, you don't like the word.... Imperialism......then call it something else. After reading "Colossus", you will find it impossible to deny, that America's global reach, militarily and economically, far surpass anything the Roman's, the British or any other great civilization of the earth could have ever imagined. How can you be against American Imperialism if you are in denial that it exists?
P.S. You may not like (or understand) the message, but don't take cheap shots at the messenger. This book is fascinating, and written with clarity of thought and passion that make an intellectual subject approachable to readers without PhD's.
on June 11, 2004
This book is remarkable for the ethical issues it doesn't address. The author apparently believes he's found a morality-free zone from which to oversee America's role in the world's future. But American domination, the usurping of other peoples' freedom in order to force them to be more like us, even though we may think we're doing the others a big favor, will not prevent China or India or Russia, at some point in the future, from thinking it's about time for them to do us a big favor!
However, if the book can actually convince conservatives that imperialism is a "popular Liberal" cause, in spite of the fact that an archconservative administration is presently wreaking havoc on the world through its benign neglect of traditional morality and international law, then perhaps the book might become a national treasure! Why if democracy is such a great thing in our eyes would tyranny be so wonderful on the international level? I guess because we'd make such a beneficent tyrant: war without end, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment without due process, the torture of prisoners, military trials, so much beneficence!