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A shorter version of this paper appeared as a review of Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire by Niall Ferguson that appeared in the Washington Times on April 25, 2004. Here Prof. Hay traces the circumstances leading to America’s rise to global power and raises questions about the likelihood of it achieving status as a “liberal” empire. – Assoc. Ed

An American Empire?

” America did not so much claim an imperial role after World War II as find itself saddled with one. . . .”

According to the German economist Moritz Julius Bonn, “the United States have been the cradle of modern Anti-Imperialism, and at the same time the founding of a mighty empire.”1 Those words written two years after the Second Word War capture tensions in American policy and public discourse that define the country’s uneasy position in the twenty-first century. America’s role as guarantor of global stability raises the question whether an empire can operate effectively under anti-imperial premises. Unmatched by peer competitors since the Cold War’s end, the United States now faces a very different challenge from great power rivalry that derives from disorder along the periphery of the developed world. Where Edward Gibbon could argue by the eighteenth century that distance and technology provided the West security unknown even to the Romans, globalization now projects distant conflicts and grievances into the heart of Europe and the United States.2 The debate sparked by this new dynamic has revived interest in empire as a way to analyze the problem of international order and America’s role in solving it.

Niall Ferguson’s recently published Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (Penguin, 2004) offers an important contribution to understanding the United States’ role as a global power and the consequent tensions. Building on earlier studies of international finance and the First World War, Ferguson locates the war on terrorism and American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq within a broad historical framework. Indeed, as both polemic and analysis, Colossus expands upon themes he raised last year in a study of the British Empire and its lessons for global power. Britain led efforts to police the global commons in the nineteenth century, stamping out slavery and piracy while joining its European rivals and the United States to impose governmental control over private companies and autonomous tribes whose activities often generated violence. The decline of the Pax Britannica in the mid-twentieth century brought a brief power vacuum that the United States filled as instability threatened American interests, but the Cold War masked the nature of this gradual transition to a Pax Americana. Globalization, the catch phrase of the 1990s, provided a shorthand description of an American world order defined by the Washington consensus of free markets, rule of law, and representative government. Ferguson in his book notes the growing calls from writers including Max Boot and Michael Ignatieff for nation building as a means to address failed states and human rights.3 The September 11 terrorist attacks made these questions more acute and brought an open debate on whether the United States is an empire.

The phenomenon of “failed states” and the conflicts they engendered during the 1990s revived interest in liberal imperialism, and the war on terrorism provided a rationale. Like Arnold Toynbee in the 1940s, Ferguson sees the United States as Britain’s natural heir in exercising benevolent imperial rule, and he urges Americans consciously to underwrite the liberal empire necessary to sustain globalization. Nonetheless, he poses the fundamental question whether an empire can operate effectively while denying the scale of its responsibilities and trying to avoid long-term commitments of the time and money nation building requires. As an “an empire in denial,” the United States aims to shift or share burdens more than take up new ones and focuses on exit strategies rather than permanence. History and public culture impose constraints on American power that advocates of empire must address to present an effective case.

Perhaps Ferguson’s most valuable contribution lies in his efforts to define empire in a historically sophisticated manner. The word “empire” has been used carelessly as a way to describe the post-Cold War system ever since Michael Hardt and Toni Negri introduced it in their eponymous polemic that has been more cited than read since its publication in 2000.4 Empire does not mean direct rule or imply the possession of colonies, which carry an association for many Americans with squalor, backwardness, and exploitation. Ferguson proposes empire as a synonym for hegemony, primacy, or global leadership. Elsewhere in the book, he describes liberal empire as both the political counterpart for economic globalization and necessary step for sustaining it. Ferguson might also have noted other definitions emphasizing sovereign independence from external authority or control over expanses of territory.5 Americans in the early republic, from Alexander Hamilton to less famous men like South Carolina’s William Henry Drayton and the journalist Jedidiah Morse, drew on that usage when they spoke of their country as an empire.

Of course, the empire most Americans had in mind during the early nineteenth century, in Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “an empire of liberty,” involved continental expansion and conquest of the frontier. Viewing the thirteen colonies as the metropole of a settlement empire across North America provides a different perspective on both American history and imperialism than typically given by the literature on the frontier and settlement of the American West. America emerged as a global power in the next century as contingent events shaped the direction of American power. Policymakers either responded to challenges or sought to avoid the need for a response; there was no grand strategy for global mastery. The Cold War drew the United States more deeply into transforming Germany and Japan than its leaders had intended, and the outcome reflected circumstances rather than policies, which adapted to changing conditions.6British weakness and the devastation of Europe created a vacuum that in some cases Washington felt compelled to fill for fear of the repercussions. America did not so much claim an imperial role after World War II as find itself saddled with one owing to the consequences of other decisions. This largely was, in Geir Lundestad’s phrase, an “empire by invitation.”7

Ferguson views the Korean War as a defining point that indicated the limits to American action overseas. Although Ferguson claims the United States had the capability and motive to expand the war to achieve total victory and overthrow Mao’s regime in China, it lacked the will to do so. Most empires, he adds, would have seized the opportunity, and Douglas MacArthur urged a harder line. Harry Truman had a better sense of public opinion and the potential for a confrontation with the Soviets that might spread to Europe or require an unacceptable commitment in Asia. He easily outmaneuvered MacArthur after dismissing the general in April 1951. Korea showed that, John Kennedy’s later rhetoric aside, Americans would not pay any price or bear any burden. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States lacked a consensus that would support extended conventional wars to contain communism. Only faced with direct provocation where unambiguous questions were at stake, did American public opinion stand ready to fight.8 Even if unconsciously and in a crude manner, Americans imposed a rough calculation of costs and benefits on foreign policy that emphasized national interest over ideology or an ethos of public service.

What Ferguson calls the self-limiting character of the American Republic made liberal imperialism a difficult project under the most likely circumstances, and the end of Cold War rivalry brought even more resistance to foreign commitments. The backlash from Vietnam prompted the Weinberger-Powell doctrine stipulating that the United States avoid foreign intervention without firm public support, overwhelming resources, and a strong prospect of success. These criteria make liberal intervention difficult and the more extended project of nation building impossible, but they should be seen as a response to the dilemma Ferguson articulates.9Simply changing the doctrine to facilitate intervention fails to address the broader concerns behind it and risks a reprise of the disappointments brought by Vietnam.

Withdrawal offers no more realistic option than the liberal imperialism Ferguson advocates, and the real challenge is to balance objectives with a realistic appraisal of means. By drawing attention to this point, Ferguson’s well-written book makes a significant contribution. Ferguson rightly points out that the United States is unlikely to be an effective liberal empire without some profound changes in its economic structure, its social make up, and its political culture. It remains unclear how or when such changes might be accomplished or what domestic constituency will promote them. So the United States is unlikely to take up Ferguson’s project of liberal empire. Leveraging power through alliances and diplomacy, along with the judicious direct exercise of power, provides the best solution to sustaining global order.10 Political skill matters more than resources, and the real test for statesmanship will be how much America can accomplish without bearing the burden alone. The seriousness of that test cannot be understated. By citing lines from Kipling’s elegiac poem Recessional that “all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!” Ferguson strikes an appropriately cautionary note. He aptly ends with a nod to Gibbon, noting that for America as with Rome decline will more likely come from within the frontier than beyond it.

1. Moritz Julius Bonn, “The U.S.A. and British Imperialism” Political Quarterly 18.1(January-March 1947).
2. Edward Gibbon “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West” in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(New York: Everyman’s Library, 1994), IV:117-127.
3. Max Boot “The Case for an American Empire” Weekly Standard October 15, 2001 and The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002; Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan (New York: Vintage, 2003 and “Why Are We in Iraq? (And Liberia? And Afghanistan?)” New York Times MagazineSeptember 6, 2003.
4. Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000).
5. William Anthony Hay, “Empires, Benevolent and Otherwise.” Orbis 46.1(Winter 2002).
6. Douglas Porch, “Occupational Hazards: Myths of 1945 and U.S. Iraq Policy” National Interest 72(Summer 2003):35-47.
7. Geir Lundestad, “Empire by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952.” Journal of Peace Research 23(September 1986): 263-77 and The American Empire and Other Studies of U.S. Foreign Policy in a Comparative Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
8. See Walter A. McDougall’s discussion of global meliorism as a theme in American foreign policy after 1945 in Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
9. James Kurth, “First War of the Global Era: Kosovo and U.S. Grand Strategy” and Andrew J. Bacevich, “Neglected Trinity: Kosovo and the Crisis in U.S. Civil-Military Relations” engage this legacy from the Vietnam era in War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age Bacevich and Eliot A. Cohen eds., (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 63-96, 155-188.
10. Robert D. Kaplan, “Supremacy by Stealth” Atlantic Monthly July-August 2003.


William Anthony Hay is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University, Starkville, Miss.


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