Fall 2003 - Volume 6 Number 1
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
New York: Basic Books, 2003
After reviewing the history of a British Empire upon which the sun never set (and the blood never dried), erudite Oxford historian Niall Ferguson considers the current fate of the United States. Unlike many critics of US hegemony, Ferguson is not worried that it is too committed to imperialism, but rather that it is not committed enough. The American attention span is too short. When vexed by a foreign opponent, it wants to get in, trash the bad guys and exit. Americans have not fully accepted the "white mans burden." Although they do imagine themselves a superior people (they have happily effected "regime changes" in Iran, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq and many others before and yet to come), they are notoriously ill-prepared to do the untidy business of "nation-building."
Ferguson reminds us that post-Taliban Afghanistan has seen its opium trade return to pre-Taliban levels. Women are still absent from public view. Violent clashes among contesting indigenous forces are common. Moreover, mirabile dictu, today (October, 2003) the US has more soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan than it did at the height of hostilities. Meanwhile, in Iraq, prostitutes are joyfully returning to their former trade, but bemoan the absence of law and order. What to do?
Niall Ferguson tells us. For him, the British Empire is no relic, but a model. It was historys largest empire with over 20% of the earth and almost 25% of the worlds population under its flag, but it was also the very mother of all modernity. Its cultural gifts to the world over three centuries included democracy (though some ex-colonies have become backsliders), capitalism (though some ex-colonies lack a free market) and cricket (a true success, complete with tea and cucumber sandwiches). The US, with a little more poise and self-awareness, could do even better. To do so, however, demands that it stop being an "empire in denial," guiltily carrying the burden of an "imperialism that dares not speak its name."
Howard A. Doughty, Book Review Editor
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