on 6 September 2004
There have been some slightly disturbing comments left about this book, both in terms of failing to understand the underlying messages of the book, and in terms of individuals using the platform of leaving a review to impose their (frankly confused) ideas, safe in the knowledge that nobody can answer back directly. In particular the ramblings of the American reader from Hove (suzannemaria) who appears unable to see the irony of many of her statements, and who inadvertently manages to support some of the FEW genuine criticisms of the American population found within this book. That she feels it necessary to crudely insult the British nation and its citizens, while still living in this country (for far too long apparently!?) not only shows an astonishing lack of intelligence and respect, but also suggests that she must surely be being held against her will.:) I for one hope that her British oppressors release her from her hellish captivity soon, so that she can return to her beloved country and perhaps find work in the paranoid, inward-facing American media which promotes such confused and misconceived ignorance.
As a Brit who knows America well, and who genuinely enjoys the country and it's people (with the exception of narrow-minded individuals such as the aforementioned reviewer), I find it insulting to be told that Britain is fervently anti-American. While such feelings certainly exist (perhaps understandably given recent political movements emerging from the White House), they are FAR less prominent in Britain than in just about any other corner of the world. Perhaps the support given by Britain to America in recent conflicts, while the British government manages to retain a relatively high level of public approval is pure coincidence?
Likewise, while this book does contains some biting criticism of American foreign policy, to suggest that the tone of the book is overtly anti-American implies that some of the comments left here are from individuals who have either not read or not truly understood the tone and aim of this book. Ferguson does not seek to attack America beyond some of its ill-conceived political approaches and structure, but rather attempts to uncover some of the failings of a nation that has created responsibility beyond its borders, and which has not always managed to match words with actions.
Perhaps the main criticisms I would level at this book, are that a) it focuses more upon the military actions of America, than on the economic and cultural factors (although explored in part) that help to explain why such actions took place, and b) that the thematic links between the American, Roman and British Empires, while interesting and insightful, are often overplayed for effect.
Despite these minor criticisms, American Colossus is highly recommended read for anyone interested in trying to understand the only true empire of our generation, and the political and historical causes and consequences of its far-reaching actions. ****
on 3 March 2006
The core argument of this book is that a world without an empire can be a dangerous place. Stability within the international system is guaranteed by the overwhelming power vested in the hegemon. Moreover, not all empires are despotic and Ferguson argues that liberal empires are beneficial for all parties in a range of ways.
The liberal empires (first the British empire and now, somewhat reluctantly, the American empire) are guided by the principle of the spread of liberal values across the globe. They are motivated by the desire to bring responsible representative government to countries in which it does not exist, to engender respect for the rule of law, create the stability needed for economic growth and encourage the peaceful coexistence of nations. Ferguson decisively rejects the Hobson theory of empire as some quasi mafia style protection racket run by elites in the imperial core.
Looking at the historical record, Ferguson argues that imperial status has done a great deal of good. The stability thereby created enhances the colonial state's credit ratings, thus allowing it to borrow and service its debts more cheaply than countries outside the imperial system. Also the guarantee of intervention by the imperial power in cases where the colony is threatened or otherwise in difficulty promotes further stability and positive attidues to the future, so necessary for investment and growth. This is backed up by statistical argument that growth rates within the British empire were superior to those of the same countries once outside the imperial framework.
This book is however about America. Following the British Empire's decline, the Americans slipped into the role of system hegemon, adopting responsibility for developing favourable political climates in countries falling under its influence. Thus the likes of Japan, Germany and Korea were transformed from dictatorships into vibrant market economies with healthy growth rates, high standards of living and respect for the rule of law. He argues that Empire is not a money-spinner in itself - in fact the normal running costs of maintaining standing armies are high - but that the principal benefit comes from increased stability, and hence greater international integration, trade, growth and prosperity.
The complaint underlying all of this is that, according to Ferguson, America is yet to acknowledge its role as the new imperial power. It is reluctant to commit its forces in the long term to any country, it tries to leave as soon as circumstances permit, rather than (as say the British in Egypt) linger on trying to condolidate the liberal values it promotes. Moreover, American elites (again in contrast to their British counterparts of the last century) are unwilling to spend their entire careers, or even lives, in some far-flung outpost of empire in the service of the imperial system. This all goes together to make the US an "empire in denial" which de facto ends up having to behave like an empire, but lacks the political conviction to see through its policies to the end.
A particularly fascinating part of this book is the analysis of the current world financial system based on the dollar as the almost universal reserve currency. American spending is essentially bankrolled by the East Asian economies, which run a huge trade surplus with the US. Thus while this makes the US vulnerable to creditors calling in their dollar debts, at the same time the resulting shock in the US in terms of consumption may have strong reverberations in Asia. Thus this precarious balance maintains America's status as a paradoxical debtor empire (in contrast to the capital exporting British empire).
A few qualms to add to this otherwise rosy review. Ferguson does tend to cherry pick examples which support his view of benign empire, ignoring those which do not fit in with the scheme of liberal empire. Ferguson often cites the venture in the Philippines, but is rather more reticent on the blood-stained details of the US occupation. Some other questions: Why for example did the US bankroll the Indonesian regime committing acts of genocide in East Timor, continuing to sell it weapons for the duration of an invasion which left up to 30% of the pre-war Timorese population dead? Why should a liberal empire support a sanctions policy against Iraq which led to over 1,000,000 excess deaths over 10 years? Why did a liberal empire interested in establishing the rule of law support the mafia in 1940s Italy and rig the 1948 elections? Why did a liberal empire overthrow the Arbenz government in Guatemala? Why did a liberal empire support the Suharto coup in Indonesia which led to the murder of 1,000,000 communists? Was it necessary to kill these people in order to save them from communism? Just how liberal is this sort of Empire? This is not of course to say that America is a great Satan, far from it, but a review of its foreign policy needs to be nuanced enough to account for these different and often contradictory policies towards the third world. In always focusing on positive aspects of US power, Ferguson's account risks one-dimensionality.
Nonetheless recommended reading. It's not his best book but it's comfortably in the same league as Empire and the Cash Nexus.
When Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown, the Economist ran a very clever cover. It was a full list of all the issues he had tackled as Prime Minister, all his initiatives and all his achievements. This was in tiny, tiny print and it covered the whole front page. But some of those words were in darker print and some in lighter print, the overall effect being that if you looked at the cover of the magazine from a distance any longer than an inch all you could really discern was the word IRAQ.
That would be an excellent summary of Colossus. Ostensibly, this is a book about empire in general and the American “empire” in particular. We’re taught extensively about previous empires, such as the British Empire, potential challengers to the American “empire” (with plenty of scorn thrown the EU’s way) and we’re given the author’s view on empire in the introduction: a liberal empire can be a force for good in Niall Ferguson’s view. It’s almost your duty to run one if you can.
A list of reasons is given, furthermore, that make the US “Empire in denial” unlikely to succeed the way the British Empire had done: it has lost the willingness (and, increasingly the ability) to dedicate the necessary finances to the cause of running an empire, it lacks the manpower to rule (Americans are very reluctant to spend time abroad running an empire the way the British used to), it lacks the patience to wait the minimum one generation it takes to see nation-building through, it is allergic to loss of American lives in combat etc. etc.
But if you ask me, this is all filler. This is a book about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We get warmed up with an account of the Europeans’ failure to deal with the Yugoslavian civil war, the moral imperative the Americans allegedly answered to when they depleted their Tomahawk arsenal on Serbia and the precedent this set. Finally, on page 156 the author lists why we invaded Iraq, starting with the reasons offered to the public:
2. to replace Saddam
and continuing with three “practical” ones advanced by the neocons (don’t think the term appears in the book):
3. to send an “unequivocal signal of hostility” to anybody challenging the US post 1989
4. to transform the Middle East through the creation of a democratic Iraq
5. to create an alternative base for US forces in the middle East, given 18 of the 19 hijackers had
The book having been written in 2004, Niall Ferguson pronounces the interim results of the invasion a success and his only fear for the future comes from what he perceives as the weaknesses inherent in the American “empire in denial.” But if the Americans have the patience to finish the job, he’s quite satisfied they did the right thing.
I, for one, find it completely impossible to agree. It’s on par with his argument that the British Empire was good for India.
The interpretation that the White House was run by an imbecile who was taking advice from senile advisers of his father’s appeals to me a lot more.
But I’m glad I read the book. I am now satisfied that I have read the canonical apology for the invasion and I’ve found it wanting.
on 20 June 2004
This readable treatise on the US empire is accessible to both the academic and non-academic alike. It should be required reading of all US citizens, many of whom do not understand why the world does not automatically love them. This explains the thinking behind, and development of, the US empire across the globe. It also examines the reasons behind the way the US looks at its empire building. A challenging, thought provoking book.
on 21 April 2006
Colossus is one of the best books I have read on current affairs on politics in recent years, and the foreward for the paperback edition is the best piece of writing on the problems in Iraq I have read to date. He never holds back from being controversial, and his book is continually thought provoking, especially for anyone with a theoretical knowledge of international relations.
His argument that American has already been an Empire is a compelling one. Americans would certainly struggle to deny that America expanded westwards, displacing an indigenous population, whatever the merits or otherwise, and their interventions in South America demonstrate their imperial pretensions in ensuring that regimes sympathetic to their own interests are in place.
The real interest in Ferguson's argument is not that America is an Empire, but the strengths that can be gained from it and its possibility as a force for good. He stresses that America has already been doing this, and firmly believes that it has contributed much to security. He issues a stirring defence of globalisation and makes the rather neat point that globalisation hasn't created problems in Africa, as African economies aren't integrated into a globalsied system. He does acknowledge that the problem is that developed countries do not allow Africans to enter into that integrated economic system.
Whilst he presents an interesting argument and compelling about America being an "Empire in denial", I do not necessarily think he explained why it is in "denial" enough. This is surely necessary in order to understand and predict America's response to its decline if (or when) it occurs, and the dichotomy between this and what is often perceived as a willingness to exert influence where it is not needed or wanted.
His arguments concerning the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq was not as concrete as I think he assumes. He appeared to fundamentally misunderstand why people were concerned about the invasion, and whilst Saddam perhaps did deserve what happened to him given the repeated opportunities he had to stop flouting UN resolutions, to blame the invasion on Saddam was perhaps putting things a bit strong.
This book is an excellent exploration of America's foreign policy through history, and a magisterial survey of the contemporary global political system. Worth reading for anyone with at least a passing interest in international relations.
on 22 May 2014
I read the author's book the Ascent of Money some years ago and as a former stockbroker I enjoyed it and would thoroughly recommend it. Unfortunately I can not say the same for Colossus. The authors arguments are negated by his obvious right wing bias (his supporting arguments for the invasion of Iraq,even after no weapons of mass destruction were found, are particularly weak). He is very selective with his statistics and his knowledge of Asia and China and Africa is questionable - Botswana was never a colony, it was a protectorate. A disappointing book that,unfortunately, would would make me regard any future publications from this author with some scepticism.
on 18 December 2011
An interesting book, 'Colossus' is Niall Ferguson's warning to US citizens about how their national myth deceives them. We are now seeing the consequences of generations of Americans being indoctrinated to believe that the United States was born in rebellion against an empire. Of course the truth is that the 13 colonies had expansionist ambitions from the outset, and in the 1770s it was London that wanted peace with neighbours and was urging restraint on the budding imperialists in North America.
Ferguson looks at empires in general, and discusses to what extent the US now runs a global empire. He suggests that liberal empires can be good things, spreading positive values, and that the United States could administer its world empire much better if only it could admit to its longstanding mistake in seeing itself as anti-imperial in foundation and essence. Instead the US is embarrassed by its empire. It uses proxy rulers abroad, deceives its own citizens, and keeps abandoning foreign possessions instead of administering them for the benefit of both the inhabitants and itself.
Apart from this book, I have only read Ferguson's two equally readable articles in a paperback collection of writing about the current economic crisis Collateral Damage: Global Crash Phase Two - of which (full disclosure) I am one of the two editors.
'Colossus' is thoughtful, easy to read, and provocative - an unusual mix. I'm curious how many readers, especially in the US, really grasp the full force of Ferguson's case.
Colossus, Ferguson's natural successor to his best selling history of British imperialism 'Empire,' is a must read for anyone interested not only in how America came to dominate the world scene, but in how the world has developed since America became the world's number one power after WW2.
Ferguson's central contention is that America has long been an empire in denial, one that avoids ostensive control of the countries that it dominated. America as a nation and an empire is in relative terms far more powerful than any other hegemon in recent world history. This makes it even more disappointing that in retrospect it appears to have achieved so little.
Whereas previous empires brought stability, the rule of law and investment to the areas that they control, the period of American dominance has been characterised by declining living standards, growing corruption and degradation of human rights over much of the developing world.
This has not been caused by any malicious intent on the part of the US, quite the contary, but by lost opportunities and an unwillingness to get involved. America and it's electorate are wary of foreign entanglements, and particularly dislike being viewed as operating in an imperial manner.
Since world war two, capital flows have become concentrated almost exclusively within the developed world marketplace, with many developing countries now just seen as sources for primary products. This has meant increasing marginalisation for many from the world economy, and a poorer life for many of its inhabitants.
America seems to have dodged the 'Spiderman' maxim, 'with great power comes great responsibilty,' by being powerful, but not particularly responsible. Ferguson's conclusions are particularly bleak, firstly that even a disinterested dominant state such as the US is better than none at all, but that America's own emerging fiscal nightmare will inevitably massively reduce its ability to project power. Those that think this is a good thing should read this book, and take heed of what's said
In this assessment of America's relations with the outside world, Ferguson writes with his customary fluency,turns of phrase, and skill in drawing historical and other parallels. He is critical of the factors which he believes act as a brake on would-be American 'liberal imperialism': the short-termism implicit in its regime change initiatives, notably Iraq; the reluctance of the military to be involved in less glamorous peace-keeping roles; and the domestic pressures on US politicians exerted by a political process which at any stage is never far away from an election campaign. Much of what Ferguson concludes here is no doubt correct, though his assumptions about Iraq have surely been queried by the continuing presence of US forces there since the book was published.
The problem comes when one considers some of the solutions he implies as policies previous administrations might have adopted to resolve problems. Here, we move into a field Ferguson explored in an earlier book, the 'what if' of history. What if MacArthur had prevailed in 1950-1, and atomic weapons were used against China? The Korean War would have been won by the US, instead of ending in an unsatisfactory draw. Later on, Ferguson returns to the current problem of a nuclear North Korea, airily suggesting that a pre-emptive strike against its installations 'might leave South Korea in ruins'. As one who grew up during the 1950s, I am afraid this kind of speculation makes my blood run cold.
Nor am I convinced by his advocacy of 'liberal imperialism' to resolve the problem of failed states, nor the use of the 'indefinite occupation' as a device to secure the best outcome. Any Western intervention into Africa without substantial African support will fail. And the 'indefinite occupation' example given, Britain's occupation of Egypt in 1882, ignores the bitter legacy it left, going up to the 1956 Suez Crisis. In short, imperialism, however well-meaning, has no place in a world order that is attempting to move towards a greater and wider democracy.
Also,I am also concerned that Ferguson exceeds his brief as a historian, and makes predictions. Historians are no better than anyone else in the field of crystal-ball gazing, and have no innate ability to tell the future. To sum up, 'Colossus' is well-written, and makes many pertinent observations, but its basic premise, however benign this may seem, is deeply suspect. So, one star for its readability, one star for its analysis, only.
on 9 June 2004
It is a shame the previous reviewer couldn't be more specific about the supposed flaws in Niall Ferguson's book. I personally found it (and the accompanying TV programme) remarkably enlightening.
Of course it won't convince those for whom the US is nothing less than evil incarnate, but for my money the question of how it is the most powerful nation in history is unable to make that power felt where it counts is one requiring an answer.
Niall Fergason may not have given us the ONLY explanation, but at least it is AN explanation.