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Niall Ferguson


Subtitle: The Price of America's Empire - Penguin Press, NYC., 2004, 384 pgs., index, bibliography, endnotes, graphs


Reviewer Comment - Obviously so much has changed in the world and in America since 2004 to render the book out of date in many ways. Nevertheless it provides much of value. The drastic shifts - in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in American politics, in world economic conditions are clear evidence of the impossibility of predicting futures. But Dr. Ferguson was right in calling attention to the coming fiscal and monetary crisis being generated by rising levels of public and private debt. Quite a lot he predicted and much more was beyond prediction. His basis thesis is that the United States has always been an 'empire' - a 'good empire' and it should continue to shoulder the burdens, responsibilities, inherent in its role in the world. But the cost has been and will be high. The American people are reluctant to bear this cost.


Dr. Ferguson states that his argument is that not only is the United States an empire but also that it has always been one. Moreover, he considers that to have been and still is good. He very directly writes, "I am fundamentally in favor of empire." Others would benefit from a period of American rule. This is because American rule would be liberal and would promote peace and order. It would bring the rule of law and good fiscal and monetary regulations. However, he proposes to question if the United States is capable of accomplishing this. He notes that Americans are reluctant to take on the burden. He writes that the United States has been indeed exceptional - something 'unique' in world history. He rejects the liberal contention that American policy has been imperialist in the Marxist sense. While he intends to look at history, his theme is very much focused on contemporary events, particularly since the terrorist attack in 2001. In this introduction he references many current commentators. He addresses the definition of 'empire' and describes the characteristics of the British Empire. He wants to stress that there is a difference between hegemony and empire. He provides a table that distinguishes the different characteristics of Tyranny, Aristocracy, Oligarchy and Democracy. He also disagrees with the liberal contention that American empire benefits only wealthy Americans at the expense of the rest of the world. He then shifts to compare this American empire with some of the many others that have gone before, especially the British Empire.
Dr. Ferguson provides here his outline for the book's structure. Chapter I considers the origins of American empire. Chapter 2 asks why America has had difficulty imposing its will on others. Chapter 3 is focused on events since November 2001. Chapter 4 is focused on American policy in Iraq (very much contemporary in 2004 and much changed since then). Chapter 5 supports the concept that now more than ever American empire is necessary. Chapter 6 evaluates American occupation of Iraq in a cost-benefit analysis. (Again much has changed since 2004). Chapter 7 compares American and European versions of empire. Chapter 8 disagrees with the argument of others that the costs of an American empire will bankrupt the country. On the contrary, Ferguson argues, it is the huge costs of internal welfare programs such as Social Security and Medicare that are responsible for expanding costs. But the result of this is that American power rests on much weaker foundations than it appears. The American public is not interested in empire nor is it willing to accept the costs. And it is this lack of willingness rather than external competitors that creates the serious problem for the world.


Chapter 1 - The Limits of the American Empire:
In this chapter the author traces in outline the expansion of the United States across the continent and then into the Pacific and Caribbean up to World War I.


Chapter 2 - Imperialism of Anti-Imperialism:
The events that led to American intervention into World War One and Two, Ferguson remarks, are what turned the United States from its limited focus on the Western Hemisphere and a few islands in the Pacific toward 'globalism'. Both were attacks on American property and people. But American interest had been world-wide to some extent long before. The point is that America no longer could debate between a global and isolationist policy, the former was now demanded. He focuses on American foreign policy since World War II and contrasts it with previous Euroean examples. He titles one section "The Imperialism of Anti-Imperialism". He means that the United States was being 'imperial' while eliminating the former 'imperial' remnants of the European allies. He provides much interesting detail about internal US government conflicts over policy.
But I disagree with his evaluation of the MacArthur - Truman conflict. He asserts that there was a serious possibility of a coup by MacArthur, with the possibility he would have backing by senior American generals. As a military person and also student of military history during that episode I simply cannot believe it. The total subordination of American professional military officers and men to civilian authority is simply too great. Otherwise the chapter provides a good look at American internal and external policy.


Chapter 3 - The Civilization of Clashes:
The title is a play on words versus 'a clash of civilizations'. It is about the initial events that shifted United States' policy and actions in the Middle East and its reaction to the expansion of terror war against the U.S. Ferguson's narrative and assessments are valid.


Chapter 4 - Splendid Multilalteralism:
Much of this chapter is devoted to American relationships with international actors. Ferguson notes that a major one, the United Nations, is itself a 'creation of the United States." He describes and evaluates the Gulf War I. He contrasts the policy agenda of General Colin Powell with that of President Clinton. Powell enunciated a 'doctrine' that the United States should never engage in warfare except from a position of great strength and with limited goals that could be achieved quickly with popular support. Clinton, without a similar public statement, established his policy that the US should not engage in any military action that might endanger American lives. However, Clinton's intervention in Somalia resulted in 18 American dead. And this resulted from Somali strategy of exploiting the very American reluctance to engage in casualty producing combat to ambush the American forces. The author continues with discussion and commentary on Presidents Clinton and Bush I policies up to 2003.


Chapter 5 - The Case for Liberal Empire:
The author notes correctly to start that nation-states are a novelty compared with empires. He then discusses the empires of the 19th century and the process of 'decolonization', which he claims failed. He correctly notes that this process brought the expected prosperity and peace to only a small fraction of the territories that gained independence. In a table he lists many former colonies and shows their pre- and post 'liberation' per capita gross domestic product as if 1913 and 1998. Singapore is the only one with a significant increase. Even Canada shows a small decrease. in relative rank when the comparisons are to the United States. He noes that only 14 out of 41 former colonies managed to narrow the gap in percapita GDP between themselves and Great Britain. He concludes, "In short, theexperiment with political independence, especially in Africa, has been a disasterfor mostpoor countries."
At the conclusion of the chapter Ferguson writes, "Two conclusions follow from all this. The first is simply that in many cases of economic 'backwardness,' a liberal empire can do better than a nation-state. The second, however, is that even a very capable liberal empire may not succeed in conferring prosperity evenly on all the territories it administers." He continues to argue that the United States should create a 'liberal empire'. But he also notes, "Is the United States capable of the kind of long-term engagement without which the liberal imperial project, by whatever euphemistic name it goes, is bouond to fail?"


Chapter 6 - Going Home or Organizing Hypocrisy


Chapter 7 - "Impire": Europe Between Brussels and Byzantium


Chapter 8 - The Closing Door


Conclusion: Looking Homeward


Statistical Appendix


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