A review of Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, by Niall Ferguson;
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson;
America's Inadvertent Empire, by William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric


After the Athenians led a coalition of willing Greek city states in a spectacularly successful war of resistance against the invading Persians early in the 5th century B.C., they remained for decades thereafter the "hegemon" (Greek for "leader") of a maritime-oriented alliance designed to control the waters and littorals of the Aegean and thus contain Persian power. Initially, most of the allied cities, even very small ones, contributed ships to the coalition's naval forces. As time passed, however, and with the acquiescence if not encouragement of the Athenians, cash subsidies came to replace actual military forces as the allied contribution to the common defense. Gradually, too, as the Persian threat came to seem less immediate, the allies grew restive with Athens' sometimes heavy-handed leadership, particularly when the Athenians appropriated league funds for a major public-works building program at home (we owe the Parthenon to it, among other things). Eventually, Samos, one of the most powerful of these allies, rose in revolt against Athens and was subdued only after a lengthy and bitter struggle. From this point on, it was clear to all that the nature of Athens' "leadership" in Greece had taken a fateful turn: what began as hegemony had ended in "empire" (the Greek word, arché, means simply "rule"). 

There are certainly suggestive parallels between this ancient history and the evolution of the Atlantic Alliance under the leadership of the United States following World War II. Particularly interesting is the complicity of the allies themselves in the drift toward empire, reminding us of the long decline in the military capabilities of NATO Europe relative to the United States and their growing psychological dependence on America as the global security provider. It is also worth emphasizing the relatively mild character of the Athenian empire. Many of Athens' dependencies were democracies that were friendly to the metropolis for ideological reasons and looked to it for support against internal political opponents; but even non-democratic cities tended to enjoy a high degree of political autonomy, and few had a regular military garrison. At the same time, the fundamental difference between Athens and America is clear. The allies of the United States have both "exit" and "voice" to a much greater degree than did those of the Athenians. The United States did not send the Sixth Fleet against France when it withdrew from the military component of NATO in 1965 nor when it opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2002—gratifying as the thought might be. Nor, of course, has the United States sought to plant or acquire colonial dependencies (with exceptions relating primarily to the Spanish-American War over a century ago), as did the Athenians, the Romans, or the European maritime powers of modern times. 

From this point of view, it has to be said that a great deal of the current talk about an emerging American "empire" is simply lacking in elementary perspective. Such talk is also troubling because it manifestly injures the reputation of the United States abroad. We should not be surprised if foreigners—especially our post-bellic European allies—are alarmed at the prospect of an America whose political class shows signs of embracing a self-consciously imperial role in the contemporary world. Moreover, we must worry about the collateral effects of such a development on our military and our political institutions. Some observers are pointing already to the enhanced role of American regional military commanders, pro-consuls in the new order. And if empire, can emperors be far behind?

* * *

Is the United States really an empire in any meaningful sense? And if so, is this a fate Americans should embrace? Niall Ferguson, one of the most distinguished younger historians writing today, answers an emphatic yes to the first question, and a qualified yes to the second. Ferguson denies that there is any real distinction between hegemony and empire. The fact that the United States, unlike conventional empires, has for most of its history eschewed direct rule of foreign peoples is not sufficient to deny it the name of empire, for as the British (or for that matter the Romans) showed, imperial rule can also be indirect—rule exercised through native elites or through the promotion of extreme economic dependency, as in the case of British financial domination of Chile and Argentina in the 19th century. From the earliest days of the republic, Ferguson contends, Americans had "intimations" of empire, albeit an "empire of liberty," in Thomas Jefferson's well-known phrase. Washington himself called it a "nascent empire." That the new nation would expand was a foregone conclusion as early as July 1776, when the Continental Congress rejected a proposal to set western boundaries for the states. Although dollars and diplomacy contributed as much as military force to the acquisition of its vast territories, the United States was far from hesitant to take up arms against Indians, Mexicans, or other inconvenient claimants to those lands. 

And from an early period, it was also clear that America's "manifest destiny" would be pursued beyond its own shores, especially in Central America and the Caribbean and later in the Pacific. The Monroe Doctrine signaled the nation's intention to establish a hegemonic sphere of influence in Latin America. The acquisition of Hawaii through a rather sordid political intrigue in 1893 marked the beginning of an openly imperial phase. More typical, however, and of greater relevance for the present, is the growing involvement of the United States in the political and economic affairs of Mexico and other countries in Central America and the Caribbean early in the 20th century, in an effort to foster good government and thereby indirectly support an American imperium. As President Theodore Roosevelt put it in his "Corollary" (1904) to the Monroe Doctrine: "Chronic wrong-doing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may…ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation." Though American enthusiasm for nation-building and democratic development in places like Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti did not long survive the realities encountered there, the strategy of "dictating democracy" has retained at least latent appeal throughout the American political class as the best way to deal with international troublemakers and failed states.

For Ferguson (an economic historian by trade—and a Briton), the United States is in a deep sense the successor to the British Empire as part of a larger enterprise he calls "Anglobalization." The "liberal empire" established by the British differed qualitatively from previous empires. Though careful not to airbrush Britannia's warts, Ferguson rightly emphasizes Britain's role in promoting global free trade and economic development and disseminating liberal political ideas and institutions. Winston Churchill once characterized British imperialism's goals in this way: "[to reclaim] from barbarism…a fertile region and large populations…. To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain…." In suitably updated language, Ferguson thinks, this statement could serve equally as an advertisement for contemporary American foreign policy.

Ferguson's case is in many ways persuasive, yet one is left feeling that it overstates the continuities with imperial Britain. He fails to emphasize sufficiently, for example, the extent to which American continental expansion was driven by individuals rather than the state, as well as the resistance consistently shown by the Congress toward various annexationist projects (Texas, Hawaii, the Philippines). Though many of Britain's imperial acquisitions were no doubt undertaken in part for defensive reasons, this was more clearly the case for the United States. Further, the republican character of the country made it very difficult for Americans to hold alien peoples in permanent or even semi-permanent subjection, as the Philippine experiment so plainly showed. Finally, while the processes of "Anglobalization" are certainly real, it is less clear in what sense these processes are inherently imperial or imperialistic. To speak, as Ferguson does, of Britain's "imperialism of free trade" or America's "imperialism of anti-imperialism" begins at some point to drain the term of all useful meaning.

But let us grant his thesis for a moment. Is an American empire then a good thing? Ferguson is an unabashed believer in empire in the sense just described; but he is skeptical that America is up to the job. Americans are imperialists "in denial"; they still cling to an antiquated vision of their country as the slayer of empires. America is hobbled in its imperial mission by three "deficits": an economic deficit, a manpower deficit, and an attention deficit. Ferguson is excellent on the economic dimension of so-called modern imperialism. Contrary to the notion popularized in the 1980s by the historian Paul Kennedy, America is far from suffering from "imperial overstretch": for the United States today (and the same was true for Britain in the 19th century), the cost of empire is remarkably low. The United States currently fields the mightiest army in the history of the world for a very modest fraction of its gross national product. The real problem is the nation's unbridled appetite for consumption and its apparent entrapment in an upward spiral of social welfare costs. Americans have, in other words, little interest in sacrificing personal comfort for the honor of ruling the world. For similar reasons, they are unwilling to create the additional legions or underwrite the auxiliary forces (some equivalent, that is, of Britain's Indian army) necessary for policing the world effectively. Finally, Americans are fixated on the short run and lose interest in imperial projects before they are fairly launched, as we have arguably done in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. All of this would seem to argue strongly that the United States should not be in the empire business. Yet it is not clear that Americans any longer have a real choice. Ferguson is emphatic that the Europeans are wholly incapable of playing a comparable global role today. In a recent article, he has gone so far as to argue that a world in which the United States declines to exercise global dominance will end not in a "multilateral utopia" but in "the anarchic nightmare of a new Dark Age."

* * *

William E. Odom (a former army general and director of the National Security Agency) and Robert Dujarric provide an analysis that has many parallels with Ferguson's, especially in their appreciation of the importance of liberal economic institutions and practices for the success of the new American imperium. America's Inadvertent Empire offers what is probably the best and most comprehensive account to date of "the sources of American power" in the world today. Its discussion of the American military and its global presence is authoritative and shrewd, but valuable too is its focus on aspects of American power that tend to be neglected or at least not considered sufficiently in this broader context—demography, education, science and technology, and the media and mass culture. Odom and Dujarric argue that the extent of American superiority in each of these areas makes it a phenomenon that is historically sui generis and alters the normal rules of international behavior. Against the dominant "realist" school of international relations theory, they argue that the liberal character of the American imperium (that is to say, of the advanced democracies more or less associated with the U.S. alliance system) creates a kind of "constitutional" structure that helps make American international behavior self-limiting and thereby obviates traditional "balancing" against the U.S. by potential major-power adversaries, and that the economic benefits it confers provide powerful incentives to virtually all states for "bandwagoning" with it. They go beyond Ferguson in insisting that the American global order, if an empire at all, is "an empire of a new type." They hold out the prospect that this order has the potential for unprecedented stability and endurance, but also warn that enlightened leadership by American statesmen will be essential for that to happen.

These are impressive arguments. At the end of the day, however, one has to wonder whether our authors are not underestimating on the one hand the potential for resistance abroad to American dominance, and on the other, the potential for resistance at home to an imperial mission. One thing is virtually certain: to the extent that the American government and political class continues their apparent flirtation with the notion of empire, such resistance can only grow.