Tuesday, November 25, 2008


-the Rise and Fall of the American Empire
by Niall Ferguson

The Scottish-born history professor Niall Ferguson, behind the international bestseller on the British Empire, opens this argumentative book by telling us that it may be true that a power vacuum could emerge if the United States would be to lose its top position as a hegemon in world politics. Such situations are not unknown in history, he tells us, but experiences of absence of power is in no way encouraging. Apolarity is hardly something of a pacifist utopia but much more probably something leading to political fragmentation and an anarchic new Dark Age. And given the likely scenario that another power would soon seize the opportunity and bid for the role as world hegemon it is by no means of any likelihood that such a power replacing America would be more sensitive to critique, if we scrutinise the supposed options. A question important to ask is if critique would even be allowed.

What about an alternative spelled international community, where established autonomies of powers were to debate and conclude in supranational institutions such as the UN and WTO. Would it not rather be a new Light Age instead of an American superpower? Such is not the trend of today, as Mr Ferguson sees it, since the universal claims such supranational bodies rely on demands authority, and the defining characteristic of our age is not a shift of power upward, but downward. Means of producing general devastation and free flow of destructive technology, lack of control of channels of communication and the collapse of states' monopoly of violence empower criminal organizations and terrorist cells. That is the current trend.

With this background Niall Ferguson argues the case for America to stop living in denial and pronounce what it functions as. International agreements and multipolarity demands, just as a working national state, enforcement of rule of law. Multipolarity between open societies depends on the Liberal Empire. "The best case for empire is always the case for order. Liberty is, of course, a loftier goal. But only those who have never known disorder fail to grasp that it is the necessary precondition for liberty."

If the United States were to become self-conscious as a liberal empire and had the courage to articulate goals, what should be learned? What is the blueprint for spreading wealth, democracy and freedom? There are good reasons to believe that a minimum requirement for economic success lies in adopting a state governed by rule of law where property is protected, as it would be quite impossible to attract investments otherwise. Furthermore, what is needed for development is a legal system of publicly known rules securing rights of personal liberty, not only against tyranny but also against crime and corruption. Under such stability the finances of the state would be in such a condition that the government also could start having some welfare responsibilities. This does not only seem well-grounded in theory, professor Ferguson reasons, but is demonstrated in former parts of the British empire, and has been crucial in why global poverty levels have decreased the past decades.

The British endeavoured to build institutions they regarded as essential to prosperity: free trade and migration, infrastructural investment, balanced budgets, incorrupt administration and rule of law. This form of liberal Empire, Niall Ferguson argues, was on balance a good thing, but he questions if the United States of today actually is up to it. America, just like Europe, faces huge demographic problems with seventy-five million baby boomers starting to collect social security and medicare benefits. Ferguson uses the term generational accounting, and implies that people born today faces extremely high taxes in order to finance the ever-growing retired population. Under such circumstances it may be hard winning an election on arguing the case for a costly liberal empire. Mr Ferguson's other big doubt on whether America is up to such an achievement is due to the lack of character in the modern man. He describes this partly by pointing to one of the bigger differences between the American occupier and the British empire. That is to say that the former one wants to get out as quick as possible. Successful nation building however takes endurance, which is dependent on self-sacrifice and a belief in the goal. Where the Britons sent their best educated away, fostered with an overtly imperial ethos, hardly anyone at all of the graduates of the top American universities aspire to spend their life in far away disease-ridden, malicious and uncomfortable areas: "the letters ambitious young Americans would like to see after their names are CEO, not CBE."

What if Niall Ferguson had painted another opening in Colossus. Would a different conclusion be possible? Most certainly, that is the very honest basis of his way of interpreting history. I must say however, that I find his preconditions seeming pretty sound. Perhaps sad at times, but nonetheless truthful. Colossus is a very healthy response to those people certain of only one thing, and that is how bad America is. When so many wanting to pull the United States from grace, what exactly are they opposing? One must force these people to be more explicit in their critique, as in some circles all bad things in the world falls under the category of Americanism. If it is junk food and too high a BMI score one criticizes, then Ferguson would most certainly join in. In fact he does it wittily in this book, writing about the White Man's Burden around his waist. But if it would be America as the world power and defender of reliable supranational institutions these people are against, what is it they realistically opt for instead?

The mere fact that we have the opportunity to discuss these matters is proof of that we live in a free world. It is even more underlined by the fact that we can, and in some aspects should, criticize American power. But one must not let go of a sober view on matters. The free world is not free as in something we get for nothing. In that way the free world is far from free, it is quite the exact opposite. To bear the burden of defending it, for several reasons, is never a popular task. An ignorant scope may too often fail to understand its necessity and yearn for its downfall. In this respect the importance of this lucid defence of United States as guardian of, and in cooperation with, the free world should not be diminished.