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Kirk H Sowell
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Ferguson's thesis is basically as follows: the world is a very dangerous place because it contains menacing terrorist and criminal organizations along with numerous states which are either (a) unstable or failed states and thus breeding grounds for the aforementioned (e.g. Afghanistan), or (b) all-too-stable states which give support to the same. Given that (1) the UN's membership is made up of tyrants (e.g. Zimbabwe), dysfunctional governments (e.g. Congo) and states which are simply irresponsible (e.g. Russia), and that (2) Europe is too weak both militarily and morally to keep order, the United States has to do it. Yet the U.S. itself may be unable to fill this role due to its financial imbalances and the unwillingness of individual Americans to serve abroad or even pay attention to what is happening.
Overall evaluation: The fact that I give this book a "five star" rating should not imply that agree with it entirely. Ferguson sets forth several main theses, with which I agree entirely, and along the way makes numerous judgments on ancillary issues, several with which I disagree. I am a specialist in Middle East affairs, and I think Ferguson's understanding of the region is basically sound and much better than most who write about these things. I disagree with a few factual evaluations, but I only noticed one blatant factual error: the Abu Nidal Organization (formed in 1973) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (formed in 1967) did not arise in the 1980s with Hizbullah and Hamas, and furthermore they were (the ANO doesn't exist now) and are not Islamist or identified with Islam in any significant way (as misstated on pages 123-124).
This book is valuable and worth reading for two reasons. First, Ferguson lays out why it is that some global hegemon is necessary and beneficial to the world, and why the U.S. can and should fill that role. He notes that regions of the world where U.S. military hegemony is lacking tend to be violent, poor and unstable. Not merely Europe but the other more developed regions of the world have benefited from this military umbrella. He also discusses how the British empire, despite the brutality and exploitation which often came with it, also held many economic and security benefits for nations under British rule. Ferguson's argument is not that the U.S. should try to copy what the British did, but that they should learn from their predecessors in hegemony, keep the good, get rid of the bad, and do better for themselves and the world today.
Second, Ferguson argues that despite the ability of the United States to be a force for good in the world, its foreign policy, or "empire," as he puts it, has serious weaknesses due to its three "deficits" - its financial deficit, its manpower deficit, and its attention deficit. The financial deficit comes not from military spending, but from the estimated $45 trillion in unfunded liabilities from Medicare/Medicaid and, to a lesser extent, Social Security. The manpower deficit comes not from a lack of population, but from an unwillingness of Americans to serve abroad, either in the military or in civilian positions. The attention deficit comes from the paucity of interest most Americans have in the details of what goes on in the world. These are the deficits which could cripple U.S. foreign policy in the future.
My primary question about Ferguson's approach is more semantic than substantive. Although empires of the past have often done good as well as bad, the term has been so demagogued that it is difficult to have a rational discussion once you use the word "empire." Moreover, because the U.S. has no settlers, only expats and professionals who do relatively short overseas tours and then come home, America today is really quite different from Britain in its imperial heyday. I would use the word "hegemon" because, while still offensive to some of the illiterati, it is fully accurate, and it describes the kind of role that the United States needs to play to fulfill the role set out for it by this Scottish historian.
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David A. Baer
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This troubling book by a prolific scholar of empire dissects the American version of that phenomenon in eight well-researched chapters and a conclusion. Ominously, his first four chapters are grouped under the title 'Rise' and the last four under 'Fall?'. Ferguson's personal interest in empire and his unusually positive appreciation of its role in human history is best understood by first reading EMPIRE: THE RISE AND DEMISE OF THE BRITISH WORLD ORDER AND THE LESSONS FOR GLOBAL POWER.
Ferguson is convinced that empires can only be understood comparatively-by comparing one with another-and against the alternative of anarchy. This brings a welcome realism to the discussion of how empires should and shouldn't behave. His interest in empire is not merely academic. He confesses in his epilogue what his book theorizes throughout: 'I believe the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the United States is the best candidate for the job'.
The author believes that America has always been an empire but is afflicted with the peculiar need to deny this fact. Popular criticism considers empire a bad thing, but because Ferguson insists that we take seriously what has happened in the absence of empire, he stands apart from those whose reflex is to equate empire with oppression and the unjust imposition of alien structures. Ferguson wishes that America would get over its denial complex and get on with being a productive empire in a world that, more often than not, simply needs that.
In 'The Limits of the American Empire' (ch. 1, pp. 33-60), Ferguson shows that Americans thought, spoke, and wrote in imperial terms from the moment of their secession from the British Empire. Often this was articulated in stark contrast to their self-identity as the anti-empire. Still, in all their attempts at empire and colonization there was a chronic failure to execute well. By comparison with America's imperial antecedents, its hegemonic achievements up to World War I were unimpressive.
American exceptionalism-to my knowledge a term that Ferguson does not employ in this book-manifested itself in the pre-WWII insistence that America could be an empire unlike all previous empires ('The Imperialism of Anti-Imperialism', pp. 61-104). The author trenchantly observes that '(f)or an empire in denial, there is really only one way to act imperially with a clear conscience, and that is to combat someone else's imperialism.' The rhetoric of anti-imperialism pervaded the post-War growth of America's influence, in spite of the obvious ironies. Ferguson analyzes the remarkable fate of Japan and West Germany under American stewardship, all of which begs the question of why this extraordinary achievement-or accident-has not occurred with more frequency elsewhere.
One man, Douglas Macarthur, appeared to have the inclination and gumption to become America's emperor. However, his ambition was decisively rejected and, like all good soldiers, in the end he faded away. Ferguson wonders whether Macarthur was right about 'winning Korea'. He might have ended hostilities two years ahead of time. Harry Truman's self-restraint, if that's what it was, rang out its echo in the growing 'bad conscience' about Vietnam two decades later. Americans, it would seem, did not have the heart to exert its influence in foreign lands with the attention span that fulfillment of its intentions would require.
Ferguson is a master of turning the tables on comfortable assumptions, a skill he engages with relish in 'The Civilization of Clashes' (ch. 3, pp. 105-131). He argues that the United States is a late arrival in the Middle East and that it has been far more interested in containing Soviet advances in the region than in hijacking its oil wealth.
Nevertheless, a robust American response to the events of September 11 was made inevitable by what Ferguson calls '11/9', the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Israel having assumed for so many years that it had carte blanque from the US to impose a military solution to its own territorial woes, the disappearance of a Soviet checkmate in the Middle East, and the growing western dependence on oil from the region, American military action was inevitable. What the terrorists achieved on September 11, 2001, was the inadvertent psychological shock that would allow Americans to support a full-scale incursion into the region.
The provocatively titled 'Splendid Multilateralism' (ch. 4, pp. 132-166) wraps up Ferguson's first section on the `rise' of the American Colossus. The term is a play on the Victorian reference to 'splendid isolation', not a good thing for the long-lived monarch's diplomatic advisers. Ferguson is at paints to show that multilateralism is not a always the splendid treasure that popular discussion of the diplomatic run-up to George Bush, Jr.'s invasion of Iraq often assumed it to be.
If I am reading Ferguson correctly, he can barely conceal his contempt for Bill Clinton's aversion to military casualties and the UN's oft-stated but seldom-executed desire to intervene in trouble spots on behalf of the international community. Indeed, he uses the A-word ('appeasement') to describe the UN's (i.e. the Europeans') response to the Bosnian crisis.
With regard to Iraq, the author believes that George W. Bush's appeal to multilateralism-hardly his crass unilateralism!-created more trouble than either America or Britain needed. There were solid reasons for intervening without tying oneself in knots at the UN. Still, Bush was incapable of making the kind of long-term commitment to a nation-building task that Candidate Bush had specifically derided to accomplish a goal worthy of an empire's good name.
Ferguson begins his part two ('Fall?') with 'The Case for Liberal Empire' (ch. 5, pp. 169-199) by making the audacious observation that empires have been around much longer than nation-states and thus are the more permanent fixture in history. However, the imperial phenomenon reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, then began its decline in the twentieth, 'impelled forward by a combination of European exhaustion, non-European nationalism and American idealism.' Empire was blamed for poverty, an accusation that Ferguson believes to have been refuted by post-imperial history.
The author then develops his argument that institutions and the free flow of capital are missing in post-colonial countries that remain poor. Importantly, these are two factors that empires seem relatively well prepared to establish and maintain. In a line of thinking that hearkens back to his Empire, Ferguson indicates that Britain's empire was fairly good at the kind of global integration-he calls it 'Anglobalization'-that safeguard liberal institutionalism. He then builds a bridge to the concern with American empire that is indicated by the book's title. Some countries, Ferguson provocatively urges, would indisputably benefit from American colonial administration. But is the United States capable of such 'long-term engagement'? If not, failure is predestined.
'Going Home or Organizing Hypocrisy' (ch 6, pp. 200-226) is a frightening comparison of the bland ambitions fostered by elite U.S. university graduates when compared with those of Oxbridge during Britain's imperium. I do not often find a book personally depressing, but this chapter is an exception. With devastating effect, Ferguson shines a light on American culture's short attention span with regard to the role its citizens are prepared to play in the wider world. An American reader does not have to agree to Ferguson's thesis about the appropriateness of empire in our day in order to lament this collective loss of will to think and act largely. It is futile to speak of nation building when the comforts of home have achieved canonical status, undermining the very plausibility of difficult work for an extended time in another place. The 'hypocrisy' of the chapter is actually a virtue that Ferguson urges upon America in its occupation of Iraq. Promise to go home soon, but don't even think about doing so.
Ferguson's seventh chapter ('"Impire": Europe between Brussels and Byzantium', pp. 227-257) examines the possibility of a European alternative to America's unipolar empire. He finds the American specter of an EU rival plausible in its potentiality, but then judges it too distant for worry.
Penultimately, Ferguson turns in his final full chapter (Ch. 8, 'The Closing Door', pp. 258-285) to the appalling financial balance sheet of the American economy. America is indeed suffering from 'overstretch', but not of the variety usually bewailed by the critics of its military engagements. Rather, domestic overstretch of the financially irresponsible variety threatens to bring the American lion to its knees. Given that Asian-including Chinese-central bankers have until now underwritten America's passion for indebting itself, Ferguson urges us to consider the risks to China's tentative door-opening strategies should a cocktail of financial events that is not hard to imagine for the US to default on the global financial commitments it has assumed.
In his epilogue ('Conclusion: Looking Homeward', pp. 286-303), Ferguson manages both searing criticism and touching concern. Summarizing his book, he argues that for all its unrivaled prominence America suffers three deficits: economic, manpower, and attention. Though he hopes so, he is not sure the third can be overcome.
Thus, the American Colossus may fall before time. Ferguson's peculiar contribution is to force us to imagine the consequences in something other than banal truisms. The decline of empires can just as well prove the occasion for tears as for jubilation.