Niall Ferguson is busy shooting his mouth off today at The Atlantic webpage. If you've read any of his opinion pieces over the last two years, there is really very little that is new to be gleaned. I suspect it is really just part of Ferguson's grand strategy of getting published in every English-speaking periodical in the world (he's in the most recent issue of Mother Jones, of all places, too). The small bit that is new is that Ferguson is plugging his new book, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire. I admit that I haven't read it yet; I'll get around to it this summer. That being said, the interview in The Atlantic together with Mother Jones and even Ferguson's piece in today's Telegraph make me feel like I've already read the thing.
The long and short of Ferguson's claim is that the British did empire a hell of a lot better than the US did in the past or does now and thus the upstarts need to learn a lesson or two from the old master. What made the British so damned successful, apparently, is that they were all about "liberal empire".
there were self-proclaimed liberal imperialists in Britain, liberals who saw the British Empire as a means of spreading liberal values in terms of free markets, the rule of law, and ultimately representative government. There was an important and influential faction within the Liberal Party who saw empire as an instrument for globalizing the British liberal model.This is to be contrasted to the "defective" US model.
it had been the model even before the Cold War, in the days of Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt�the "Our Son of a Bitch" model. And when you look at what happened in countries from Chile to Iran, I think it's obvious that the cost of that approach probably outweighed the benefits. The legitimacy of American foreign policy suffered serious long-term damage because support was given rather uncritically to some pretty lousy regimes. Indirect rule through petty dictators has the defect that you really have a problem controlling the bastards that you are notionally sponsoring.Let's stop right there. What is the evidence of British "success" and US "failure"? That British imperialism created "successful" (i.e. rich, stable, representative) societies whereas American imperialism created "defective" (i.e. poor, unstable, autocratic) ones? Ferguson waxes eloquently on the British experience: Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, Egypt, Iraq . . . huh??
First of all, no honest historian can count the so-called "white settler colonies" in the tally sheet of successful British imperialism. These are colonies in the proper sense of the term, appendages of Britain itself. The real proof in the pudding is places the British didn't colonize but simply conquered. And there the record is lousy. India can be placed in the "success" column on Ferguson's terms (of course, he ignores all the death and destruction, but at least the country has stable democratic institutions) and perhaps Sri Lanka (although stability seems wanting there). If I was being especially generous I might grant Malaysia. Where else can the British empire claim "success"? Sudan? Sierra Leone? Nigeria? Bangladesh? Pakistan? South Africa? Zimbabwe? Oman? Kuwait? Iraq? I think you get my drift.
Secondly, Ferguson is painfully naive and intentionally so when evaluating American imperialism, the goal of which was never to create liberal democracies but rather capitalist societies in which the rule of property could be carried out. In core countries like Germany and Japan post-WWII, the kind of capitalism created looked relatively benign. In the periphery of the Caribbean, Central America, the Philippines, Liberia, etc., it created a typically peripheral form of capitalism that was not designed to generate local wealth or representative government but stability toward the end of the enrichment of the core.
"Liberal empire" does indeed create the "rule of law," but it also undermines the "rule of law" at the same time. In the 19th century it destroyed one law (traditional) and replaced it with another (modern). Today it also destroys one law (national sovereignty) and replaces it with another (transnational globalization). Ferguson is incredibly sloppy on this point. He states boldly
So liberal empire has a discrete and distinct function to perform. It has to impose�and I stress impose�the rule of law.Of course, that which liberal empire seeks to bring to an end is not always anarchy and chaos. Iraq in 2003 was hardly anarchic, and neither was Afghanistan in 2001. Clearly there were pretty nasty forms of order in both places, but the point is there was order. If liberal empire is all about replacing disorder with order, where is Ferguson on Sudan, DR Congo or West Africa?
The point is that liberal empire is not about creating order. It is about creating order favorable to the interests of the empire. Sometimes that is good for the imperialized (e.g. Germany, Japan) but usually it is not (e.g. Vietnam, Haiti, Nicaragua). Enough of this nonsense about "liberal empire" and global civil war as the only two options for the 21st century.