This is the first of a series of eight reviews of books on the Patterson Summer Reading List.
You get the sense that it’s bad from the cover quotes. Gaddis: “No contemporary historian rivals … Ferguson for the range, productivity, and visibility of his scholarship.” Ernest May: “Every page of Colossus is provocative.” Paul Kennedy: “Amid the seemingly endless writings and decisions about ‘America as Empire,’ the most prominent recent voice is that of Niall Ferguson.” Even Max Boot: Colossus is sure to shake the assumptions of both fans and critics of American Empire.” Clever readers will note what’s missing from all of these; an actual endorsement of Ferguson’s work. He’s provocative, productive, visible, prominent, and assumption shaking, but none of the esteemed reviewers can actually bring themselves to say his argument is compelling, well reasoned, or sensible. Getting hit in the head with a 2×4 is “provocative”, after all.
I’m not unsympathetic with Ferguson’s central thesis, that the United States is an empire or empire-like entity. That is to say, I may not be convinced, but I’m not viscerally opposed to the notion, either. Ferguson sprinkles the book with a few nuggets about the ineptitude of the Iraq War, and tries to win me over with the following passage:
Yet criticism of American empire was never the exculsive preserve of the political Left. In the eyes of Gore Vidal, the tragedy of the Roman Republic is repeating itself as farce, with the ‘national-security state’ relentlessly encroaching on the prerogatives of the patrician elite to which Vidal himself belongs
A good Gore Vidal bash goes a long way to winning my heart; I recall once a leftish friend in Seattle tried to get me to go to a Gore Vidal talk. I politely declined, thinking to myself that I’d rather have my fingernails ripped out than listen to that smug windbag for two hours. That’s probably not true, but it’s not far off, either.
The word that leapt to my mind most often while reading the book was “fudge.” That is, Ferguson makes his argument by relentlessly fudging every definition that might make his case understandable, logical, and consistent. For someone who likes to talk a lot about empire, Ferguson is extremely reluctant to define what an empire is. This is convenient, as it allows him to count any positive consequence of what might otherwise be called “hegemony” in the imperial column. To give an example, Ferguson declares that the British Empire had any number of ways of manifesting its influence, from direct rule (India) to indirect rule (Egypt) to economic influence (Argentina). He then dispenses with the term “hegemony”, arguing that all of these different forms of authority, and more, basically amount to empire. It doesn’t apparently bother him that this makes no sense; were we to take this definition seriously, we would have to count China and Japan in the 19th century as constituent elements of the American, French, Russian, British, and German empires, all at the same time. I wonder, which empire should the credit for Japanese success go to? When did Japan cease to be part of the British Empire, and become its own empire? Ferguson gives us no insight into this question, apparently because his purpose is to applaud empire without ever giving a clear idea of what empire actually is. Indeed, in his fervor to declare the US an empire he even repeats the old lefty canard about McDonalds and the spread of US imperium, without, again, ever giving any indication of how this matters for political authority. In any case, Ferguson can’t help us at all with the question of whether or not the US is an empire, because, again, to make such a determination one would first have to develop a definition of what empire is. Rather, Ferguson simply glides over the question and moves on.
And move on he does. A few of his more minor sins include extraordinarily shallow and facile interpretations of the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, a claim that the economic reconstructions of Germany and Japan in the 1940s and 1950s are more or less the same as the development of extractive industries in South Africa after the Boer War, and an amazingly bad account of the diplomatic build-up to the Iraq War (did you know that, in spite of popular majorities of 80% plus in opposition to the war, that Europe actually favored the invasion? Neither did I!). Ferguson periodically invokes “will” to explain American failures, and you get the sense that he kind of thinks of himself as a cranky Joseph Conrad-esque figure, mocking the American lack of gumption while celebrating the canon of pro-imperial British literature. In this he forgets to mention Graham Greene, the most interesting (and most skeptical) chronicler of Britain’s late imperial period; I can hardly imagine that Ferguson would sympathize with the protagonist of Heart of the Matter or even The Quiet American. It is hardly worth noting that Ferguson fails to discuss even in passing the negative effects of “empire”, including brutal occupation policies, economic exploitation, involuntary servitude, and political stultification. He also makes no effort to answer the Burkean critique of the domestic consequences of an imperial policy, one which, notably, both Conrad and Greene take seriously. But hey, to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs, right?
You might expect that Ferguson would deal in a perfunctory and unsatisfactory manner with the problem of nationalism. You’d be wrong; he doesn’t grapple with nationalism at all. Party like it’s 1788! You could read this entire book and come away with the notion that the only difference between 1856 and 2006 is that Americans aren’t as willing to dominate the world as the Brits. No discussion of advanced communication technologies. No discussion of identity. No discussion of the proliferation of small arms. No discussion of advances in guerilla technique. Nothing, in fact, that would make you think that Niall lived through the twentieth century at all. He does note that Robert Mugabe thinks that imperialism was bad, which means, obviously, that it must be good. Clever riposte, old man.
Colossus really shook my faith in the idea that “popular” international relations literature could contribute anything useful to a discussion of foreign policy. Fortunately, the rest of the books on the list ended up being a good deal better. I suppose that the most helpful thing I can say about Ferguson’s book is that it should help students develop a healthy critical eye and a skepticism about IR bestsellers.