Customer Reviews: Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
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on October 8, 2005
Ferguson's thesis is basically as follows: the world is a very dangerous place because it contains menacing terrorist and criminal organizations along with numerous states which are either (a) unstable or failed states and thus breeding grounds for the aforementioned (e.g. Afghanistan), or (b) all-too-stable states which give support to the same. Given that (1) the UN's membership is made up of tyrants (e.g. Zimbabwe), dysfunctional governments (e.g. Congo) and states which are simply irresponsible (e.g. Russia), and that (2) Europe is too weak both militarily and morally to keep order, the United States has to do it. Yet the U.S. itself may be unable to fill this role due to its financial imbalances and the unwillingness of individual Americans to serve abroad or even pay attention to what is happening.

Overall evaluation: The fact that I give this book a "five star" rating should not imply that agree with it entirely. Ferguson sets forth several main theses, with which I agree entirely, and along the way makes numerous judgments on ancillary issues, several with which I disagree. I am a specialist in Middle East affairs, and I think Ferguson's understanding of the region is basically sound and much better than most who write about these things. I disagree with a few factual evaluations, but I only noticed one blatant factual error: the Abu Nidal Organization (formed in 1973) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (formed in 1967) did not arise in the 1980s with Hizbullah and Hamas, and furthermore they were (the ANO doesn't exist now) and are not Islamist or identified with Islam in any significant way (as misstated on pages 123-124).

This book is valuable and worth reading for two reasons. First, Ferguson lays out why it is that some global hegemon is necessary and beneficial to the world, and why the U.S. can and should fill that role. He notes that regions of the world where U.S. military hegemony is lacking tend to be violent, poor and unstable. Not merely Europe but the other more developed regions of the world have benefited from this military umbrella. He also discusses how the British empire, despite the brutality and exploitation which often came with it, also held many economic and security benefits for nations under British rule. Ferguson's argument is not that the U.S. should try to copy what the British did, but that they should learn from their predecessors in hegemony, keep the good, get rid of the bad, and do better for themselves and the world today.

Second, Ferguson argues that despite the ability of the United States to be a force for good in the world, its foreign policy, or "empire," as he puts it, has serious weaknesses due to its three "deficits" - its financial deficit, its manpower deficit, and its attention deficit. The financial deficit comes not from military spending, but from the estimated $45 trillion in unfunded liabilities from Medicare/Medicaid and, to a lesser extent, Social Security. The manpower deficit comes not from a lack of population, but from an unwillingness of Americans to serve abroad, either in the military or in civilian positions. The attention deficit comes from the paucity of interest most Americans have in the details of what goes on in the world. These are the deficits which could cripple U.S. foreign policy in the future.

My primary question about Ferguson's approach is more semantic than substantive. Although empires of the past have often done good as well as bad, the term has been so demagogued that it is difficult to have a rational discussion once you use the word "empire." Moreover, because the U.S. has no settlers, only expats and professionals who do relatively short overseas tours and then come home, America today is really quite different from Britain in its imperial heyday. I would use the word "hegemon" because, while still offensive to some of the illiterati, it is fully accurate, and it describes the kind of role that the United States needs to play to fulfill the role set out for it by this Scottish historian.
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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2005
This troubling book by a prolific scholar of empire dissects the American version of that phenomenon in eight well-researched chapters and a conclusion. Ominously, his first four chapters are grouped under the title 'Rise' and the last four under 'Fall?'. Ferguson's personal interest in empire and his unusually positive appreciation of its role in human history is best understood by first reading EMPIRE: THE RISE AND DEMISE OF THE BRITISH WORLD ORDER AND THE LESSONS FOR GLOBAL POWER.

Ferguson is convinced that empires can only be understood comparatively-by comparing one with another-and against the alternative of anarchy. This brings a welcome realism to the discussion of how empires should and shouldn't behave. His interest in empire is not merely academic. He confesses in his epilogue what his book theorizes throughout: 'I believe the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the United States is the best candidate for the job'.

The author believes that America has always been an empire but is afflicted with the peculiar need to deny this fact. Popular criticism considers empire a bad thing, but because Ferguson insists that we take seriously what has happened in the absence of empire, he stands apart from those whose reflex is to equate empire with oppression and the unjust imposition of alien structures. Ferguson wishes that America would get over its denial complex and get on with being a productive empire in a world that, more often than not, simply needs that.

In 'The Limits of the American Empire' (ch. 1, pp. 33-60), Ferguson shows that Americans thought, spoke, and wrote in imperial terms from the moment of their secession from the British Empire. Often this was articulated in stark contrast to their self-identity as the anti-empire. Still, in all their attempts at empire and colonization there was a chronic failure to execute well. By comparison with America's imperial antecedents, its hegemonic achievements up to World War I were unimpressive.

American exceptionalism-to my knowledge a term that Ferguson does not employ in this book-manifested itself in the pre-WWII insistence that America could be an empire unlike all previous empires ('The Imperialism of Anti-Imperialism', pp. 61-104). The author trenchantly observes that '(f)or an empire in denial, there is really only one way to act imperially with a clear conscience, and that is to combat someone else's imperialism.' The rhetoric of anti-imperialism pervaded the post-War growth of America's influence, in spite of the obvious ironies. Ferguson analyzes the remarkable fate of Japan and West Germany under American stewardship, all of which begs the question of why this extraordinary achievement-or accident-has not occurred with more frequency elsewhere.

One man, Douglas Macarthur, appeared to have the inclination and gumption to become America's emperor. However, his ambition was decisively rejected and, like all good soldiers, in the end he faded away. Ferguson wonders whether Macarthur was right about 'winning Korea'. He might have ended hostilities two years ahead of time. Harry Truman's self-restraint, if that's what it was, rang out its echo in the growing 'bad conscience' about Vietnam two decades later. Americans, it would seem, did not have the heart to exert its influence in foreign lands with the attention span that fulfillment of its intentions would require.

Ferguson is a master of turning the tables on comfortable assumptions, a skill he engages with relish in 'The Civilization of Clashes' (ch. 3, pp. 105-131). He argues that the United States is a late arrival in the Middle East and that it has been far more interested in containing Soviet advances in the region than in hijacking its oil wealth.

Nevertheless, a robust American response to the events of September 11 was made inevitable by what Ferguson calls '11/9', the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Israel having assumed for so many years that it had carte blanque from the US to impose a military solution to its own territorial woes, the disappearance of a Soviet checkmate in the Middle East, and the growing western dependence on oil from the region, American military action was inevitable. What the terrorists achieved on September 11, 2001, was the inadvertent psychological shock that would allow Americans to support a full-scale incursion into the region.

The provocatively titled 'Splendid Multilateralism' (ch. 4, pp. 132-166) wraps up Ferguson's first section on the `rise' of the American Colossus. The term is a play on the Victorian reference to 'splendid isolation', not a good thing for the long-lived monarch's diplomatic advisers. Ferguson is at paints to show that multilateralism is not a always the splendid treasure that popular discussion of the diplomatic run-up to George Bush, Jr.'s invasion of Iraq often assumed it to be.

If I am reading Ferguson correctly, he can barely conceal his contempt for Bill Clinton's aversion to military casualties and the UN's oft-stated but seldom-executed desire to intervene in trouble spots on behalf of the international community. Indeed, he uses the A-word ('appeasement') to describe the UN's (i.e. the Europeans') response to the Bosnian crisis.

With regard to Iraq, the author believes that George W. Bush's appeal to multilateralism-hardly his crass unilateralism!-created more trouble than either America or Britain needed. There were solid reasons for intervening without tying oneself in knots at the UN. Still, Bush was incapable of making the kind of long-term commitment to a nation-building task that Candidate Bush had specifically derided to accomplish a goal worthy of an empire's good name.

Ferguson begins his part two ('Fall?') with 'The Case for Liberal Empire' (ch. 5, pp. 169-199) by making the audacious observation that empires have been around much longer than nation-states and thus are the more permanent fixture in history. However, the imperial phenomenon reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, then began its decline in the twentieth, 'impelled forward by a combination of European exhaustion, non-European nationalism and American idealism.' Empire was blamed for poverty, an accusation that Ferguson believes to have been refuted by post-imperial history.

The author then develops his argument that institutions and the free flow of capital are missing in post-colonial countries that remain poor. Importantly, these are two factors that empires seem relatively well prepared to establish and maintain. In a line of thinking that hearkens back to his Empire, Ferguson indicates that Britain's empire was fairly good at the kind of global integration-he calls it 'Anglobalization'-that safeguard liberal institutionalism. He then builds a bridge to the concern with American empire that is indicated by the book's title. Some countries, Ferguson provocatively urges, would indisputably benefit from American colonial administration. But is the United States capable of such 'long-term engagement'? If not, failure is predestined.

'Going Home or Organizing Hypocrisy' (ch 6, pp. 200-226) is a frightening comparison of the bland ambitions fostered by elite U.S. university graduates when compared with those of Oxbridge during Britain's imperium. I do not often find a book personally depressing, but this chapter is an exception. With devastating effect, Ferguson shines a light on American culture's short attention span with regard to the role its citizens are prepared to play in the wider world. An American reader does not have to agree to Ferguson's thesis about the appropriateness of empire in our day in order to lament this collective loss of will to think and act largely. It is futile to speak of nation building when the comforts of home have achieved canonical status, undermining the very plausibility of difficult work for an extended time in another place. The 'hypocrisy' of the chapter is actually a virtue that Ferguson urges upon America in its occupation of Iraq. Promise to go home soon, but don't even think about doing so.

Ferguson's seventh chapter ('"Impire": Europe between Brussels and Byzantium', pp. 227-257) examines the possibility of a European alternative to America's unipolar empire. He finds the American specter of an EU rival plausible in its potentiality, but then judges it too distant for worry.

Penultimately, Ferguson turns in his final full chapter (Ch. 8, 'The Closing Door', pp. 258-285) to the appalling financial balance sheet of the American economy. America is indeed suffering from 'overstretch', but not of the variety usually bewailed by the critics of its military engagements. Rather, domestic overstretch of the financially irresponsible variety threatens to bring the American lion to its knees. Given that Asian-including Chinese-central bankers have until now underwritten America's passion for indebting itself, Ferguson urges us to consider the risks to China's tentative door-opening strategies should a cocktail of financial events that is not hard to imagine for the US to default on the global financial commitments it has assumed.

In his epilogue ('Conclusion: Looking Homeward', pp. 286-303), Ferguson manages both searing criticism and touching concern. Summarizing his book, he argues that for all its unrivaled prominence America suffers three deficits: economic, manpower, and attention. Though he hopes so, he is not sure the third can be overcome.

Thus, the American Colossus may fall before time. Ferguson's peculiar contribution is to force us to imagine the consequences in something other than banal truisms. The decline of empires can just as well prove the occasion for tears as for jubilation.
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on June 5, 2004
Unlike some reviewers here, I did not come to this book instinctively distrusting its thesis. I was willing to consider that the United States was an empire in denial, and that the unfortunate part for the world was not that the U.S. was an empire, but that it did not embrace its role. Perhaps Ferguson is right that the world needs another liberal empire in the British mold; perhaps he is right that there are many troubled spots around the globe that require an outside agent to set them straight; finally, perhaps he is right that only the U.S. can now fill that position.
This book, however, does not prove his case. Ferguson writes very well and marshals an amazing array of facts to support some of his points, but he still fails to support the general task he assigns to "Colossus". For all the power of his prose and the flash of his facts, they merely gloss over crucial points in his analysis. This is true from the start, where Ferguson does not so much define "empire", as he does un-define it by giving the widely-used term so broad a meaning as to basically stand for any great power. He complains that some would use the word so narrowly that the U.S. would be excluded from the category, but he does not appreciate the opposite possibility: that the term can be defined so widely as to catch some ridiculous examples under its rubric, along with the U.S. By Ferguson's vague notion of the word, present-day Germany could be considered an empire along with the present-day United States.
But the weakest section of the book is its holding up of Imperial Britain as a model for the United States in the twenty-first century. Ferguson seems lost in a time warp here (and I speak both as a supporter of a strong U.S. foreign policy and an admirer of the British Empire). Perhaps the strangest argument in support of this section is his showcasing of Britain's seventy-four year stewardship of Egypt as a shining example of the benefits of liberal empire. But even Ferguson's presentation doesn't disguise that Egypt's long tenure under the British seemed to leave little of substance for the average Egyptian. Is this the best he could do for his argument? Give us Nasser and Egypt, circa 1956, as what Americans could look forward to in Iraq if we just stay the course there for the next seven decades, as the British did in Cairo? Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take the quick exit instead.
I still had a difficult time deciding what to rate this book. Ferguson's talents are obvious. He writes very well; his books are brimming with information and interesting narratives; there's no denying that some of his observations are brilliant. But the core message in this book is just so off that I couldn't bring myself to rate it higher, even as much as I sometimes enjoyed reading it. Like a delicious sweet, the taste of this book is hard to resist, but it's also impossible to deny the lack of anything nutritious inside it.
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on July 7, 2004
You will correctly surmise from purusing other reviews of this work that Niall Ferguson's books attract very well informed and thoughtful readers who are not at all reluctant to let him have it if in their view he strays too far into the counterfactual world he helped revive and refine with his works such as "Virtual History." My own take on the rather strong negative reactions engendered by "Colossus" here and elsewhere is that they are generated--like many counterfactuals--by Ferguson's message being taken too seriously on the one hand and not seriously enough on the other. "Colossus" is an essay on possibilities, not a prescription for world domination. It asks--and attempts to answer--the question of why the United States is such a reluctant world leader (in terms of active intervention in its affairs) and explores the possible implications of its shedding its historical aversion to international activism.

What I find lacking in negative reviews is an appreciation, however reluctant, of the value of this inquiry whatever the likelihood of its practical application. And this failure to "get" the message I attribute latently to our historic isolationism and explicitly to the same cause Ferguson highlights as one of the principal reasons why we are unlikely to change our minds: our national attention deficit disorder.

Irag provides the perfect illustration of one of Ferguson's most telling points: we were hardly there before we said we were leaving and then reinforced our apparent disenchantment with the enterprise by becoming politically irrational and transfixed by prisoner abuse and the failure to find WMD's. No reasonable person can argue that if we leave Iraq prematurely, we will have wholly failed to achieve our stated goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East, which conclusion raises the even more compelling public policy question of if we could have foreseen that home front and/or international political pressures were going to prompt us to cut and run, then why did we undertake the enterprise in the first place?

You can't go by me: I am an unabashed and unrepentent Ferguson fan. Every time I pick up one of his books, I feel like I am taking a walk on a pleasant Summer evening with an old friend who happens to be unassailably erudite and enviably eloquent and I am listening to him expound his well-informed views. Neither in these fanciful strolls nor in my critical reading of his works do I feel compelled to agree with him, but I am inexorably forced to think about what he is saying and consider the wonderfully diverse and provocative implications of his musings.

Finally, what troubles me is not whether this or my fellow readers' reviews will prompt you to buy and read this book. No, the question I ask is whether our policy makers ever choose a book like "Colossus" as their summer reading. Our recent foreign adventures suggest to me at least the exercise would be very much worth their--and our--while.
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on April 17, 2006
Colossus, by Niall Ferguson, is in a sense a sequel to his previous book, Empire. In Empire, Ferguson presented the history of the British Empire and drew the conclusion that British rule had a net positive effect on the former colonies. He justifies this conclusion by pointing out the economic and political benefits conferred by the transmission of 19th century British practices and institutions, especially honest and competent government, the rule of law, and free trade.

In Colossus, Ferguson presents the United States as the reluctant, and possibly transitory, successor to British imperial power. Despite the reluctance of most Americans to acknowledge, much less advocate, an imperial role, the US currently has the key attributes of an imperial power:

1. Absolute dominance in military power (which appears likely to persist for the foreseeable future).

2. Nearly absolute dominance in current economic power (which appears likely to diminish in relative terms over the next few decades).

3. Preeminence in cultural power (derived in part from the dominance of the English language and in part from the size and success of the US economy).

The ability to exercise imperial power may be a necessary condition for its existence, but it is not a sufficient condition. See, for example, Fareed Zakaria's From Wealth to Power in which he examines the evolution of international role played by the US.

Ferguson's message in Colossus is that an American imperial role would be a good thing for the world in general. His concern is that the American people and the federal budget may not support such a role.

Popular support for foreign, let alone imperial, involvement has never been strong in the US. Our only large and lasting commitment to a world-role seems to have started with our involvement in World War II and run through the Cold War up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now that we no longer have a clearly defined enemy whose military power approaches our own, the willingness of the American people to support long-term and costly foreign involvement, appears to be returning to pre-WWII levels. To contrast the American and British support for empire, Ferguson notes that a career in the Indian Civil Service attracted many of the top Oxford and Cambridge graduates in the 19th century. How many Harvard or Yale graduates today are seeking even temporary assignments in Iraq or Afghanistan?

The long-term demographic and fiscal problems presented by the Social Security and Medicare budgets may limit our ability to fund a major military involvement in world affairs some time in the next few decades. This thesis tracks very well with that of Paul Kennedy in his book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.

Colossus is well worth reading, whether or not you agree with the author's wish that the US would adopt a stronger imperial role. The argument that imperialism is not always bad is an interesting counterpoint to Fareed Zakaria's argument in The Future of Freedom that more democracy is not always better than less.
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on April 26, 2004
The United States of America is a de facto empire; the United States of America is a liberal empire; the activities of liberal empires are on balance beneficial; the United States of America is the only power capable of being a liberal empire; but, the United States of America lacks the financial and political will to fullfil its global responsibilities, which is regrettable, because no one else will do it. This is the thesis of Niall Ferguson's latest book length essay, which is cogently argued and chock full of perceptive observations.
Mr. Ferguson notes that American overseas adventures typically begin with a rapid and effective military campaign but lose steam in the post-war "nation building" period. In particular, the author accuses Americans of having a national "attention deficit disorder" to postwar responsibilities, the notable exceptions being Germany, Japan, and Korea in the second half the the twentieth century. The author's explanation for American nation building success in those three countries is that opposing the Sovier Union gave the United States political and moral freedom to exercise its true imperial proclivities. No national consensus now exists to support current imperial endavours. The book abounds with similar insights.
Most fascinating is the author's thesis that in addition to lacking the political will to empire, the United States may be unable or unwilling to pay the price of empire. This financial failure is rooted in government deficits, and in the future liability to pay the pension and health care costs of its aging population. Interestingly, Ferguson notes that the bulk of this projected financial deficit is in spiraling Medicare costs. How ironic if the Republican impetus to American empire depends on the political will to rationalize the American health care system.
Read this book The most quoted commentator on the American spirit is a Frenchman. Now a Scot adds a timely perspective on the American condition.
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on July 18, 2006
This is a compelling and worthwhile read. It is not an "anti-US" book, but provides constructive analysis of foreign policy. Niall Ferguson is a professor at NYU plus a fellow at Oxford and the Stanford Hoover Institution. He has authored six other books on politics, history, and economics. In this book he attempts to bring together economic data, history, and political concepts to prove some points about the role of "empires" in the spreading of economic and political benefits.

One of his main points concerns the success of past empires such as the British Empire in the spread of democratic institutions, democratic ideals, trade, investment, and economic growth. The British Empire was in fact a vehicle that spread positive economic and social development across the globe. It provided a political and economic framework for the development of many countries and regions. When there was de-colonization, some of the poorer countries that were not yet self sufficient failed to sustain develop on their own and have remained mired in war, disease, etc. and run by various undemocratic repressive regimes. These states - some even with the benefit of oil wealth - among others are now "failed states" and are problematic to themselves and other world citizens.

The author claims that the UN is really quite a small and an ineffective political institution having a budget of less than 0.1% of the US federal government. It is not an institution (yet) where we can solve the world's problems. The US on the other hand, although far larger than any other country economically and militarily, is caught in an imperialistic ambivalence in which the US can perceive injustices and can in fact invade countries with overwhelming military force, but then lacks the ability to remain focused for any length of time once the war is over. Once the quick military victory is won, it wants to bring the troops home and in general it fails to follow through. The invaded country is not left in a state of political equilibrium or economic self sufficiency. Lacking the needed stability and permanent reform, such countries remain problem "failed states" - like Afghanistan.

He claims that the US is an imperialistic nation but is in a state of self denial. Even though the rest of the world views the US as imperialistic, the US itself fails to grasp or wants to avoid that concept because of the potential negative self image connotations. So the US remains ambivalent and confused in its foreign policy, and according to the author lacks the ability to carry out comprehensive and coherent foreign policy. Symptomatic of that is the concept of a limited war - sending for example 250,000 troops to Iraq when the generals said send 500,000 (my figures). Also he thinks that US suffers from an "attention deficit" syndrome, plus self doubts, internal confusion, and looks for quick military solutions. It remains largely fearful of any long term conflict that produces American casualties similar to Vietnam. Conflicts that produce casualties - be they peace keeping or otherwise - quickly loose US domestic public support. The author claims that the American political leadership has been reluctant to make a case for sustained foreign involvement - often not finishing an engagement - even though a greater effort is often needed to solve the problem and reverse the fortunes of many "failed states".

The US administration says that it is not in the business of nation building, but according to the author a long term investment in many countries is in fact that is the only way to solve the problems in a more permanent fashion (as we did in Germany and Japan).

This is a very well written book with lots of facts and figures. It tends to pull together a lot of nebulous concepts and bring them into focus. Highly recommend. I found it to be a compelling read. Five stars.
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on September 23, 2004
This new foreign policy book really made me think. Ferguson's argument is that America is an empire, albeit a reluctant one. He alludes to believing that this could be a good thing -- both for America and the world -- but often also shows how the costly running an empire really can be. He concludes the book by stating "I believe the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the United States is the best candidate for the job."

But what makes his book extremely interesting is the historical context he uses. Ferguson goes over so many of the U.S. large wars and tiny wars over the last 150 years. He also draws many parallels to the British empire -- and shows how a great deal of their forays were not successful (both in terms of British and the colony's interest).

The examples that most stared at me were the Philippines and Egypt -- where he draws parallels to Iraq.

The first example is one that is often used. America "liberated" the Philippines in the Spanish-American War and lost about 1000 lives conquering it (which was a very small amount for that day). However, people in the Philippines were not content to just shake off one master and get a new one. Over the next decade America lost another 4000 lives due to rebel activities on the islands. The war and conquest, which in the beginning was extremely popular, became increasingly less so over time. So much so that successive Presidents were trying to find a way out ... and fast.

Egypt is an example I have not yet heard. The British effectively took over Egypt in 1882 when the country's pro-British ruler was overthrown. And though the British claimed on countless occasions that it wanted to leave Egypt as soon as possible, it was still ruling the country for the next 74 years. In fact, in 1956, the year the British did leave (and only because the national purse could not afford it), the British still had over 80,000 troops on its Egyptian base -- which was a tract of land near the canal that was the size of Massachusetts!

We learn from these examples that our transformation of Iraq is going to be enormously difficult and costly. If odds makers were making bets (and some surely are), the odds would definitely be against us succeeding. And Ferguson weaves in Americas huge debts (see Running On Empty by Pete Peterson) of unfunded liabilities to the tune of $45 trillion (!!!) make saving the world an increasingly difficult thing to do.

Like Peterson's book, my outlook after finishing Colossus is one of decided gloom. And gloom is generally not in my character. Though I tend to be an eternal optimist and believe the world is becoming an increasingly better place, it is difficult to not see the enormous challenges that lay ahead of my generation.

Summation: Colossus is a academic book, but very much worth reading. I'd like to leave you one of Ferguson's key quotes from the book:

"there are three fundamental deficits that together explain why the United States has been a less effective empire than its British predecessor. They are its economic deficit, its manpower deficit and -- the most serious of the three -- its attention deficit."
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on October 15, 2005
In the 19th century a "Liberal" was someone who believed in free trade, meritocracy (instead of inherited privilege) and the advancement of science and civilization, the last meaning generally European civilization. Thus the "White Man's Burden".

Ferguson, though generally considered a Conservative in today's vernacular is really a 19th century liberal, not far from what we call a Neo-Con. As such he is unapologetic about America's potential role as a benevolent hegemon and in this book goes into considerable detail describing American and world attitudes, the history of 19th century liberal imperialism and argues persuasively the US should do more, rather than less of this, regardless of the cost.

Though clearly more on the side of the US Conservatives, Ferguson's view is actually a third way...combining some of the idealism of modern liberalism with the pragmatic self-interest of economic conservatives and dismissing entirely the social warriors of both sides. In other words alternatively furiating and enjoyable whichever side you are "on". I expect both sides will also manage to co-opt his arguments to their advantage...
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HALL OF FAMEon August 24, 2006
Niall Ferguson is one of the most exciting and interesting 'thinkers' in the world today. He is a historian with great knowledge but the most interesting part of his work is a whole set of ideas which challenge the conventional historical wisdom of our day.

One of Ferguson's innovations is to bring back and make centrally important to the reading of history, the concept of Empire. As he sees it this category has been central to Mankind far longer than that of 'nation- state'

In a previous work he looked at the British Empire and again surprised most in our politically correct world by seeing the positive functions the British Empire played. The rule of law, bureaucratic reliability, the flow of capitol for investment and development were part, as he saw it, of the British gift to its colonies.

In this present work he looks at the great power of the world today, the Colossus which is the United States. In military terms it overshadows all other great powers taken together. Economically it is still the great engine of the world though it is to a degree being challenged by the rise of Europe and China. Culturally too, thanks to the hegemony of English it is the prevailing world - power.

Ferguson finds fault with the United States in a way most unusual. He does not curse it as an 'imperial exploiter' but rather sees it as a reluctant giant not willing to fulfill its true global responsibilities. He faults the U.S. for having too few people willing to serve abroad, and help the world. He faults the U.S. for the weakness it shows through having too much debt. He faults the U.S. for not knowing its own imperial role properly and not transforming the world for the good to the fullest degree possible.

All of this is tremendously interesting, but sounds a bit odd given the current U.S. involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the defiance it is facing from a would- be- nuclear Iran. It is possible to argue that America's feet of clay are more and more apparent, even in the military realm where it is most supreme. The whole non- proliferation issue may be broken open by North Korea and Iran, leading to a world with tens of nuclear states.

Ferguson wants the American citizenry to be more informed about the world, more involved in it, more responsible for it.

It seems to me that he is not wrong in his demands, but perhaps a bit unrealistic in expecting them to be realized.

But what Ferguson does is he provides the reader a way of truly thinking anew about the world- and of deeply considering new perspectives.
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