Originally published in the Tablet on June 5, 2004.

Colossus: the rise and fall of the American empire
Niall Ferguson
Penguin, £20
Tablet bookshop price £18.

Niall Ferguson’s book on the American empire is a fascinating mixture of brilliance and stupidity. The way in which he situates contemporary America in the context of the world history of empires shows tremendous historical sweep, grasp and intelligence. As befits one of the great economic historians of our time, his analysis of the underlying economic strengths and weaknesses of the American imperial system is acute and penetrating. His recommendations for American policy are, however, a different matter. The sections of this book on parallels between the American and British empires may be read with profit 100 years from now. On the other hand, due to the events of recent weeks, much of his analysis of the situation in Iraq was waste paper before it was even published.

“Colossus” is formulated as a plea for a more determined strategy of American “liberal imperialism”, involving the invasion and occupation of more rogue states and the “imposition of democracy”. To that extent, it resembles similar arguments which have emerged in recent years from the neo-conservative right in the United States. At least until the occupation of Iraq began to go so thoroughly pear-shaped, comparisons of the United States with the British or Roman empires were becoming increasingly common in this part of the US political spectrum.

At the same time, Ferguson continuously and deliberately counters this with his deep – and entirely justified – scepticism as to whether the American people really have the nerve and stomach for the kind of sacrifices which would be necessary in order to carry out such an imperial programme, and whether the existing American economic and state system can bear the cost. He also notes that in order to deal with terrorism and other global threats, cooperation between the United States and Europe is essential, and this cannot be maintained by American imperial diktat.

Ferguson’s book is indeed founded on the thesis that if the American empire is defeated and falls, this will happen from within, through the action or inaction of Americans themselves; and this is true enough as far as it goes. This, however, leads me to the greatest flaw in his book. Amazingly, for a contemporary historian of empire, there is almost nothing on local anti-imperial resistance movements, either in the past or today.

By ignoring the enemies of Western empire in this way, Ferguson has gravely downplayed two absolutely crucial differences between imperial conflicts today and those of the nineteenth century. The first is modern mass nationalism, which threw the French and Americans out of Vietnam. This obviously does not apply in the case of interventions in failed states which have collapsed largely because of the weakness of nationalism in the face of ethnic, tribal or religious differences, like Sierra Leone, Liberia or even Afghanistan.

If, however, the United States were to invade Iran, it would discover that there is a tremendous difference between the Iran of today and the country which Britain and Russia occupied on a number of occasions before 1945. Then, they were faced only with a decayed state system, an effete and decadent elite, a useless army, and an apathetic, ignorant population. Today, they would face the full fury of Iranian mass nationalism.

Even more important is the tremendous difference in the potential of anti-imperial forces to strike at the imperial metropolis. Nineteenth-century forces which fought against imperial conquest inflicted some stinging local defeats on the imperial powers. But there was no way that Afghans or Burmese could strike a devastating blow at London, or Cheyenne or Filipinos a blow against New York.

Thanks to the potentially deadly mixture of modern terrorism, the spread of the technology of mass destruction, and the globalisation of quick movements of goods and people, this of course is no longer the case. In the struggle against Islamist terrorist groups, the cooperation of Muslim states is essential – something which Ferguson ignores completely; and to be effective, this cooperation depends on those states enjoying some legitimacy in the eyes of their own people, and not being seen simply as slavish imperial dependencies.

This in turn requires restraint in the use of imperial force, irrespective of what the “will” of the American people might be. Take the case of Pakistan. The American uniformed military is well aware that the invasion and occupation of Pakistan is simply not an option. If Iraq is any parallel, it would require an American occupying force of more than a million men. This would require the restoration of conscription in the United States, which would tear American society apart and bring the American empire to an early end. In consequence America cannot afford even to take any minor steps that might eventually make such an invasion necessary. Finally, Ferguson does not pay nearly enough attention to the role of democracy, either in the countries he would advocate conquering or in the imperial metropolis. The nineteenth-century empires were not founded on a claim to be spreading democracy, and equally importantly were, in most cases, at best qualified democracies themselves, with highly restrictive suffrages and basically authoritarian state systems.

Britain can take credit for having successfully introduced democracy to India; but it began to introduce very restricted representative institutions only at the end of the nineteenth century. This was after Britain had been ruling parts of India for almost a century and a half, and all the other basic institutions of the British Indian and indeed contemporary Indian state system had been put in place: the “iron frame” of the Indian Civil Service; the army, police and judiciary – all of them, be it noted, essentially authoritarian in tone. And as Ferguson brought out in his previous book on the British empire, there is a relationship between the end of empire and democracy in the imperial countries themselves. The classic example is France where, by the end of the 1950s, it was becoming clear that the continuation of French rule over Algeria would require the creation of an authoritarian military regime in France itself.

If America engages in any more imperial military adventures like the one in Iraq, the long-term consequence may be the collapse of Western democracy, or of the globalised economic system on which American imperial power rests, or both. For such action will so inflame Muslim opinion that the resulting terrorism will only be containable – if at all – by a mixture of ruthless police measures at home and severe restrictions on the international movement of goods and people. Patriots and democrats should be doing everything in their power to devise new strategies which will avoid such terrible outcomes, and not indulging in nostalgic imperial fantasies – even ones as brilliantly, wittily and sceptically formulated as those of Niall Ferguson.