Colossus by Niall Ferguson

An empire in deep denial
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Niall Ferguson is a prolific writer and a talented controversialist. He brings a wealth of historical knowledge to bear on big questions, and does not shrink from definite conclusions. In this age of a single military superpower, no question is bigger than the nature and future direction of the United States' role in the world. Colossus is a wide-ranging, but deeply flawed, exploration of what US dominance means.

There is a central muddle in the book's message, reflected in its subtitle. In the UK edition it is "The Rise and Fall of the American Empire". In the original US edition, it is "The Price of America's Empire". The change to "rise and fall" no doubt reflects a healthy recognition of profound scepticism in the UK about the American imperium, especially in the dreadful psycho-drama being acted out in Iraq. So what is Ferguson arguing: that there is a US empire that requires an honest recognition of the price to be paid for it, or that it is already falling?

Ferguson is right to argue that, ever since its foundation in its anti-colonial rebellion against British rule, the US has been in deep denial about its imperial characteristics. Americans buttress this denial by constructing a crude and simple image of European colonialism as a pure imposition on other countries by the exercise of untrammelled force, and for nothing but economic profit. They then assert that the US does nothing of the sort. Donald Rumsfeld is tellingly quoted as subscribing to this skewed interpretation of history: "We've never been a colonial power. We don't take our force and go around the world and try to take other people's real estate and other people's resources, their oil. That's just not what the United States does. We never have and we never will."

Ferguson's attack on this preposterous American self-image is more from the right than the left. A central argument is that it is better to be honest about US interests overseas than to pretend they don't exist or aren't important. Further, the world needs an empire - and the American is the only one on offer. The trouble is, he concedes, that it is a most peculiar empire. Its main weapons are the dollar, the bomb, entertainment and rhetoric, but not a lot else. It will do anything to avoid calling itself an empire; its citizens don't bother much about foreign languages and cultures, and it is not in the business of long-term administration of distant territories.

Does the world need this unique empire? Ferguson's argument that it does depends crucially on failures that are all too visible in the aftermath of European decolonisation. He lists countless post-colonial countries in which life expectancy is less than 40 years, which have corrupt governments and have undergone seemingly endless internal conflict. "In most cases, their only hope for the future would seem to be intervention by a foreign power capable of constructing the basic institutional foundations that are indispensable for economic development." As he says in the introduction, "Unlike the majority of European writers who have written on this subject, I am fundament- ally in favour of empire. Indeed, I believe that empire is more necessary in the 21st century than ever before."

Can a "liberal empire" as advocated by Ferguson do better than other ways of attempting to reform a poorly-performing nation-state? The proposition that honest institutions can be brought about by such "intervention by a foreign power" is open to question, and not only in Iraq. Foreign control of societies necessarily results in nationalist opposition; it also causes resentment and irresponsibility among the very people (especially political leaders) whose participation in government is most essential.

Ferguson buttresses his argument that the world needs a more positive American role by denigrating or downplaying the alternatives. He has little to say about the efforts of governments, international bodies and NGOs to assist the development of democracy, not least through election supervision - of crucial importance in many states, including Serbia and Georgia.

Colossus, while retaining a distinctive voice, shares some positions with American neo-conservatives. Ferguson is particularly dismissive of the role of the United Nations. There is much to criticise in the UN's performance, but one may as well get some facts right. In presenting a simplified vision of international policy on the war in Bosnia (1991-5) as a story of appeasement versus intervention, he asserts that it was American planes that flew supplies of medicine to Sarajevo. It was the UN High Commission for Refugees (not mentioned here) that organised and ran the longest-running humanitarian air bridge in history, from June 1992 to January 1996. In 1994, I flew on two of the flights: they were Russian planes, with brave Ukrainian crews.

The UN is rightly criticised for its feeble performance over the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Ferguson properly says: "Those who are sentimentally attached to the United Nations... should be forced to study its abject failure to respond to the ghastly events that unfolded in Rwanda." True, but he acknowledges that it was no less a failure of the US. As he says, the Americans dragged their feet throughout the crisis. Which brings one to the key question that this book must raise. What on earth makes Ferguson think that the US is up to the job?

This month has seen two major events with a bearing on the theme of how the spread of good government can be assisted. On 1 May the European Union expanded, bringing in a host of new members through a process that might be called "induction" - meaning both magnetic attraction and the setting of conditions for membership. Like US neo-conservatives, Ferguson has little good to say of Europe, yet it is a truly astounding achievement to have secured the adherence of so many states to fundamental principles of good government. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the project of imposing outside values by intervention - the course approved in general terms by Ferguson - is in danger of falling apart because of a series of scandals regarding the treatment of detainees.

Ferguson's book, though by no means blithely optimistic about the US empire in general or Iraq in particular, does hold out a prospect of success there. He indicates that the vast costs of security and reconstruction will be covered by oil sales. This begs the obvious question: will a supposedly sovereign Iraqi government, after 1 July, really use its huge oil revenues to thank the Americans for their kind help?

This brings us to the final criticism of this book. While not neglecting the subject entirely, it has something of a blind spot about international law. In particular, it fails to note the insidious effects on international opinion of simultaneously having a capacity to wage war from the air with few casualties, failing to prepare for occupation, and mistreating prisoners in con- travention of the most basic norms. There is no mention of the long-running sore of Guantanamo. The book's UK sub-title, with its reference to the "rise and fall" of the US empire, may contain an uncomfortable truth.

Adam Roberts is professor of international relations at Oxford University