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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire » User review

A total misread of America - not Ferguson's best

  • Aug 10, 2005
I bought this book after falling in love with Ferguson's "Pity of War." Sadly, I think Ferguson did a much better job understanding the nature of WWI than the American soul.

First, I should state that I did support the invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds and I do hope we don't simply cut and run. Second, I agree that American power can be used for the good and we should consider intervention more often on humanitarian and security grounds (particularly in Burma).

However, by insisting that America is an empire, as opposed to the more apt term hegemon, he seems intent on forcing analogies and terms onto the current situation that may not be pertinent. Yes America expanded mightily in the 19th century. But most of the new territory acquired was incorporated into the country as EQUAL states, not subservient territory. Texas these days does not seem very subservient to my New York, one of the original 13 states. Likewise, many of our interventions, from Vietnam to Iraq, are premised more on (sometimes faulty) assumptions on threats than desire to establish an economic toehold. Even if some view Iraq as a base of power to project into the Middle East, it's pretty clear the American people don't. Therefore, the term hegemon is appropriate and accurately describes our abundance of power, despite lack of territory.

Perhaps most damning is Ferguson's assertion that people should wake up to the fact that America is an empire and they should serve overseas. I think rather the question is why should Americans feel this way? For whatever cultural reasons, Americans are loathe to serve overseas in government postings. Furthermore, the pay is less, the risk is more, and the standard of living is horrible. Who would want such a posting? Furthermore, it drains the budget from things most Americans consider priorities. Given this, it's quite understanable Americans are not too eager to serve abroad.

As I said, I support the idea of projecting American power abroad in certain cases. Rather than whine that the American people don't like large foreign projects or serving abroad, he should propose other solutions. I for one think a pay raise would do more than anything else. Also we could and should rely more on people from other countries and the UN to do our work.

Finally, there is no reason to stay in countries so long after such a conquest save in cases with two hostile warring parties, as in Bosnia. Had the situation in Iraq been handled better at the beginning, it is quite likely that it never would have gotten to the point where violence and lawlessness became part of everyday Iraqi life. I think, if anything, once the security situation is controlled, US forces should leave and not present the opposition with a target.

For these and a variety of reasons, I think the book falls short of its promise. As an intellectual argument on hegemony and occupation, it is interesting, but it does not capture the American soul or mindset.

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About the reviewer
Dominic J Nardi ()
Ranked #77
I am a recent law school grad with an interest in Southeast Asia legal issues. Unfortunately for my checkbook, ever since high school I have been addicted to good books. I have eclectic tastes, although … more
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"The United States today is an empire—but a peculiar kind of empire," writes Niall Ferguson. Despite overwhelming military, economic, and cultural dominance, America has had a difficult time imposing its will on other nations, mostly because the country is uncomfortable with imperialism and thus unable to use this power most effectively and decisively. The origin of this attitude and its persistence is a principal theme of this thought-provoking book, including how domestic politics affects foreign policy, whether it is politicians worried about the next election or citizens who "like Social Security more than national security." Ferguson, a British historian, has no objection to an American empire, as long as it is a liberal one actively underwriting the free exchange of goods, labor, and capital. Further, he writes that "empire is more necessary in the twenty-first century than ever before" as a means to "contain epidemics, depose tyrants, end local wars and eradicate terrorist organizations." The sooner America embraces this role and acts on it confidently, the better. Ferguson contrasts this persistent anti-imperialistic urge with the attitude held by the British Empire and suggests that America has much to learn from that model if it is to achieve its stated foreign policy objectives of spreading social freedom, democracy, development, and the free market to the world. He suggests that the U.S. must be willing to send money, ...
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ISBN-10: 0143034790
ISBN-13: 978-0143034797
Author: Niall Ferguson
Genre: History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Penguin
Date Published: March 29, 2005
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