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Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, by Niall Ferguson

What can Cicero teach Americans? Cal McCrystal on an imperial power that would rather consume than conquer

It may seem a touch premature to report on the collapse of an empire before its fluctuations have ceased. Gibbon conceived the idea of writing his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1764, 1,300 years after the Vandals sacked Rome (he finished his task in 1787). Professor Ferguson allows himself neither distance nor diffidence in making his pronouncement, which is, broadly speaking, that an imperial America is a jolly good thing, but that, alas, the Americans can't handle it properly and are likely to make a mess.

It may seem a touch premature to report on the collapse of an empire before its fluctuations have ceased. Gibbon conceived the idea of writing his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1764, 1,300 years after the Vandals sacked Rome (he finished his task in 1787). Professor Ferguson allows himself neither distance nor diffidence in making his pronouncement, which is, broadly speaking, that an imperial America is a jolly good thing, but that, alas, the Americans can't handle it properly and are likely to make a mess.

Unlike Gibbon, Ferguson is not "treading with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum". Indeed, he refers more familiarly and affectionately to the late British Empire (the subject of a previous book) than to the Roman colossus. Yet it is by studying the Roman and American hegemonies that one discerns the most strikingly common failures: infirmities of life and purpose in which the will is weak, opportunity barren and temper uncertain.

HG Wells wrote that Rome "gave government to the rich ... It was a colossally ignorant and unimaginative empire. It foresaw nothing. It had no strategic foresight because it was blandly ignorant of geography and ethnology." While Ferguson wouldn't be so harsh on Washington DC, there is no shortage of people (Americans included) who would, especially at the present Caesarean juncture.

I imagine the author to be in general sympathy with the right wing of American politics: the neo-conservatives currently running George W Bush and the Iraq adventure. But that does not preclude his embrace of the unAmerican word "liberal". He argues for an "effective liberal empire" in which the United States - "the best candidate for the job" - would not only undertake regime-change in nasty countries but would hang in there for as long as it takes to dictate democracy, enforce freedom and extort emancipation, rather than dash in with the cudgel and dash out again amid calls to "bring our boys home". US annexation of Cuba, Haiti, other parts of the Caribbean and Central America, he feels, might well have been better all round.

Instead, he says, the Americans installed (where they could) petty tyrants with an appetite for brutality. He quotes the frequently decorated General Smedley D Butler who was involved in some of these exploits. "I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in," the general wrote in 1935. "I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long."

In other words, the Americans did harm to the places they invaded by not staying long enough to curb the excesses of their local protégés and seeing a permanent all-American style operation in situ. I wonder if the National City Bank boys and Wall Street racketeers would have been happy with that.

Staying in Iraq until all Iraqis are thoroughly democratised would also be helpful for the whole region, halting "a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression". Further, reviving oil production "is a necessary precondition for the success of the American transformation of Iraq".

However, the author appears to contradict himself by conceding that, for effective imperial duties, America is not really the "best candidate" after all, seldom having demonstrated the necessary willpower for the job.

Loss of willpower (or aboulia, as psychiatrists would have it) was a chief cause of the fall of Rome. The ideal sketched by Cicero in his De Republica, of a constitutional president of a free republic, was realised only in appearance. The special prerogatives conferred upon Octavian restored to him in substance the autocratic authority he had resigned. Consequently, unity could not be sustained. The development of money, the temptations and disruptions of imperial expansion, the entanglement of electoral methods, weakened and swamped a tradition of justice, good faith and loyal citizenship. Rome became demoralised and aboulic. What appeared invincible became transient. Again, some of the above repercussions may carry a recently familiar ring.

"The question Americans must ask themselves is just how transient they wish their predominance to be," Ferguson says at the end of a very readable, intelligently argued, if somewhat pessimistic book that examines US imperial origins, military capabilities, anti-imperialist imperialism in the Cold War years, Europe's increasingly anti-American political culture, and Washington's contradictory policies towards the Middle East, particularly Iraq.

He suggests that American objectives towards Iraq were "laudable and attainable" but unlikely to achieve successful "nation-building". The American people "lack the imperial cast of mind. They would rather consume than conquer ... Consequently, and very regrettably, it is quite conceivable that their empire could unravel as swiftly as the equally "anti-imperial" empire that was the Soviet Union."

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