American imperialism

Print edition : August 13, 2004

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire by Niall Ferguson; Penguin Allen Lane; pages 366; 20.

"The language of Article 1, as to the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy, renders it desirable that I should remind your Excellency that there are certain regions of the world the welfare and integrity of which constitute a special and vital interest for our peace and safety. His Majesty's Government have been at pains to make it clear in the past that interference with these regions cannot be suffered. Their protection against attack is to the British Empire a measure of self-defence. It must be clearly understood that His Majesty's Government in Great Britain accept the new Treaty upon the distinct understanding that it does not prejudice their freedom of action in this respect. The Government of the United States have comparable interests, any disregard of which by a foreign Power they have declared that they would regard as an unfriendly act. His Majesty's Government believe, therefore, that in defining their position they are expressing the intention and meaning of the United States Government."

The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain, to the U.S. Ambassador, May 19, 1928.

IN writing thus, Britain's Foreign Secretary was reminding the U.S., whose Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg had sponsored a global no-war pact known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact after its co-sponsor Aristide Briand, Foreign Minister of France, that the United States and Britain were both imperial powers and a mere no-war pact cannot curb their freedom of action. Seventy-five years later, Britain has declined in importance while the U.S. has emerged as the sole superpower. It runs an empire of enormous dimensions with 752 military installations in more than 130 countries, with its troops based on 63 of them. New leases are being acquired, the latest being Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, and the Bishkek air base in Kyrgystan. What gains the invasion and occupation of Iraq yield remains to be seen.

A pejorative bandied about during the Cold War, the word "imperialist" has acquired a relevance of frightening significance. A senior U.S. official told The Times (London) on July 16 that "the United States would not use military force, as in Iraq, but if Bush is re-elected, there will be much more intervention in the internal affairs of Iran".

Prof. Niall Ferguson has been hailed as "the most brilliant British historian of his generation". He is not against American imperialism. Far from it. His thesis is that the U.S. has always been imperialist since its very birth; it should be conscious of its imperial role and play it for the good of the world as a "liberal empire". A careful scholar, he does not overlook its Achilles' heel nor the fact that for all its coat-trailing - which exposes Tony Blair to one humiliation after another - the U.K. has received no "tangible" gains from its much-touted "special relationship" with the U.S.

He asks whether the U.S. is "capable of being a successful liberal empire" since it has been "a surprisingly inept empire builder". He tries to explain its ineptness and why its imperial ventures "are almost always short-lived and their results ephemeral". The book is a good blend of history, international affairs and economics. The author is Professor of Financial History at the Stern School of Business, New York University.

The geographical stretch of American Empire has widened from the home ground to Latin America, to the Philippines, to West Asia, Europe and Central Asia. The author surveys American empire-building in the past and more recently after the Cold War. American intellectuals have, predictably, joined the ranks of empire builders. Americans need to "reconceive their global role from one of traditional nation-state to an imperial power", Richard Haass urges. Not one advocate of this thesis is neglected. Thoroughly sourced, the book can serve as a good work of reference on aspects of recent U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, during the election campaign in 2000, George W. Bush criticised Bill Clinton for undertaking too many "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions".

Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, told the Washington Post in August 2001, "There is not all that many people who will talk about it (empire) openly. It's discomforting to a lot of Americans. So they use code phrases like `America is the sole superpower'." In 2000 General Anthony Zinni, then commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the journalist Dana Priest that he "had become a modern-day pro-consul, descendant of the warrior-statesman who ruled the Roman Empire's outlying territory, bringing order and ideals from a legalistic Rome". This was not irony.

Which parallel in history is relevant to the American enterprise? In Ferguson's opinion, not surprisingly, it is the British Empire from the 1850s to the 1930s. But, for all its power and vastness, the British Empire had to compete with rivals. The U.S. has no rival to compete with now or in the near future. "The Pentagon's budget is equal to the combined military budgets of the next 12 or 15 nations... the U.S. accounts for 40-45 per cent of all the defence spending of the world's 189 states." Such fiscal measures, impressive though they sound, nevertheless understate the lead currently enjoyed by American armed forces. "On land the United States has 9,000 M1 Abrams tanks. The rest of the world has nothing that can compete. At sea the United States possesses nine `supercarrier' battle groups. The rest of the world has none. And in the air the United States has three different kinds of undetectable stealth aircraft. The rest of the world has none. The United States is also far ahead in the production of `smart' missiles and pilotless high-altitude `drones'."

The British exported to their colonies and dependencies their culture and their values. Administrators, missionaries, writers and teachers collaborated in this enterprise. "Together all of them continued to spread British leisure pursuits like cricket and afternoon tea." American efforts have been no less effective in the globalisation of American culture. Thirty-nine of the world's 81 largest telecommunications corporations are American, and around half of all the world's countries rely principally on the U.S. to supply their cinemas with films. However, apart from Japan, Asian countries - particularly India - import very few American productions. Most translations of American books and foreign users of American Internet web sites are to be found in Europe and Japan. "According to Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, the number of Christian missionaries to Islamic countries has almost doubled since 1982, from around 15,000 to 27,000, half of them are Americans."

Like British imperialists, "the United States reserves the right to use military force, as and when it sees its interests threatened - not merely reactively but on occasion pre-emptively. Thus President Bush's `National Security Strategy' asserts that the United States reserve the right to `act pre-emptively... to forestall or prevent... hostile acts by our adversaries... even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack'."

Arnold Toynbee told his Oxford tutorial pupils for the Indian Civil Service: "If they went to India they were to go there for the good of her people on one of the noblest missions on which an Englishman could be engaged." The author quotes this in support of his romanticised view of the British Raj. But the scholar in him obtrudes and compels him to mention facts that belie the thesis. Akhilesh Mittal is one of those whose writings establish how India, one of the richest countries of the world, was looted by the British and reduced to penury. He should really write a whole book on the subject.

The U.S. profited by the Cold War. "The new policies inspired by containment did more than prime the pump of the occupied countries' economies, thereby reducing the share of the costs of occupation the Americans themselves had to pay. By boosting Japanese and German growth under conditions of increasingly liberal trade, they created new and dynamic markets for American exports. As early as 1948 and 1949, goods sold to West Germany already accounted for close to 7 per cent of total U.S. exports. By 1957 Germany and Japan had for the first time overtaken Great Britain in their importance for American trade. There was, in short, a self-interested rationale for stimulating the recovery of America's erstwhile foes. In notes he prepared for Marshall before the announcement of the aid programme, George F. Kennan had argued that the money was needed `so that they (the Europeans) can buy from us' and so `that they will have enough self-confidence to withstand outside pressures'. Now the calculation was vindicated. The United States had `a very real economic interest in Europe' stemming `from Europe's role... as a market and as a major source of supply for a variety of products and services'.

"At last, it seemed, the elusive virtuous circle had been established. American idealism could be assuaged because an imperial policy could be pursued in the name of anti-imperialism. But American self-interest could also be satisfied because the occupation of foreign countries turned out - after a remarkably short time - to pay a dividend" (emphasis added, throughout).

Particularly perceptive are the author's comments on West Asia. "When John Foster Dulles became the first American Secretary of State to visit the Middle East in 1953, he was impressed; the oil and other mineral resources of the region would, he declared, be `vital to our welfare'. Yet if the United States had really believed that, it would surely have acted very differently in one fundamental respect. For nothing could have been better calculated to alienate the Arab peoples than the consistent support for the State of Israel. The recognition and support of the new state of Israel were in many ways Harry Truman's responsibility; he insisted on it against the advice of the State Department." The author misses the point. The U.S.' pro-Israel policy did not affect its relations with Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. Their rulers need American protection.

American policy has come a long way since 1956 when the U.S. opposed the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. "In the wake of the Arab-Israeli wars a more dangerous - or at least less predictable - threat than Soviet penetration. This was terrorism, the original sin of the modern Middle East. What Zionist extremists had once done to drive the British out of Palestine, Palestinian extremists now did to the Israelis, once their hopes of an Arab military victory had been dashed... . Terrorism has already played a decisive role in bringing down the Habsburg and Romanov empire. Since the 1860s men like the Russian anarchist Sergei Nechaev had been preaching a doctrine of terrorism in which violence - notionally to further the `revolution' - came close to becoming an end in itself."

It is a myth that terrorism is invincible. It can be defeated. "Domestic terrorism can be reduced, if not wholly eliminated, by a combination of policing and parleying. The problem of terrorism was a severe one in Western Europe during the 1970s as nationalist minorities (in Ireland and Spain) and extreme Marxists (in Italy, Germany and Greece) waged campaigns of assassination and destruction. Today, with the exception of the Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), the perpetrators of these crimes have been jailed, marginalised or induced to renounce violence. The number of terrorist incidents has fallen sharply. The Provisional Irish Republican Army has effectively been split, its leadership ultimately forced to choose between the bullet and the ballot box, despite the fact that it is not even remotely close to attaining its goal of a united Ireland. The extreme Leftists of 1968 are dead, in jail or - their views miraculously moderated by the temptations of power - in government. No terrorist movement is immune from schism when confronted by both duress and dialogue." But the U.S. spurned dialogue both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

In Europe, the U.S. has no rival in the European Union (E.U.) as some fondly imagine. It is badly split. Only France and Germany opposed the U.S. on Iraq. "The United States has nothing much to fear from either the widening or the deepening of the European Union - not least because the two processes stand in contradiction to each other. Talk of a Federal Europe's emerging as a counterweight to the United States is based on a complete misreading of developments. The E.U. is populous but senescent. Its economy is large but sluggish. Its productivity is not bad but vitiated by excessive leisure. It is a successful but still insufficiently liberal customs union. It contains a monetary union that has depressed rather than enhanced its members' economic growth. It is certainly a legal union, but too much of its law emanates from an unelected and unaccountable commission for it to enjoy legitimacy. And as a political entity it seems likely to remain confederal for the foreseeable future." The Constitution of the E.U. will make no significant difference.

The challenge to U.S. hegemony is not external but internal, a point on which Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, and Niall Ferguson agree. Kennedy wrote in 1990: "The real problem, it seems, was not the force-projection capacities of the current `Number One', but its failure to recognise that the long-term wealth, health and strength of the country depends on the non-military dimensions of national power and on making hard political decisions on the home front."

Ferguson writes: "The decline and fall of America's undeclared empire may be due not to terrorists at the gates or to the rogue regimes that sponsor them but to a fiscal crisis of the welfare state at home." In his view the American empire suffers from three deficits - the economic and manpower deficits and, worst of all, its "attention deficit".

The British Empire drew on its colonies and on the Indian Army for manpower. Lord Salisbury memorably called it "an English barrack in the Oriental Seas from which we may draw any number of troops without paying for them".

The American empire has to resort to stratagems to secure cannon fodder from other states. "The question Americans must ask themselves is just how transient they wish their predominance to be. Though the barbarians have already knocked at the gates - once, spectacularly - imperial decline in this case seems more likely to come, as it came to Gibbon's Rome, from within." Not entirely. The U.S.' staying power will be tested in the countries it has ruined - Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nor is the external challenge to be underestimated. It is sad to see the new mood overcome American opinion.

Americans would do well to recall Will Durant's judgment on Sparta: "In end Sparta's narrowness of spirit overcame its strength of soul. Militarism absorbed her and made her once so honoured the hated terror of her neighbours. When at last it fell, all the nations marvelled but none mourned." All countries obsessed with "militarism" should heed this warning.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×