Thursday, November 03, 2005

Colossus, by Niall Ferguson

In the acknowledgments of this book Niall Ferguson writes, ‘I write not as a carping critic but as an avid admirer of the United States who wants it to succeed in its imperial undertakings and who fears the consequences if it should fail.’ Ferguson also makes a point of setting himself apart from other European writers in stating that he is pro-American Empire. (Ferguson is from the UK.)

His reasoning, as far as I can see, follows that of Hobbes, who advocated subservience to the state in order to gain protection and security form an otherwise hostile world. We need a superpower to keep everyone in order, otherwise the world will descend into chaos. To prove this point, Ferguson goes through all the countries that have won independence from colonialism, only to botch it and have their polities fall into despotism and their economies become total basket cases. Most interestingly for Australian readers, even Australia’s economic status has gone backwards after gaining independence from the British Empire.

Furthermore, Ferguson argues that Empire has actually improved the quality of life for those it has governed. Coupled with this is a redoubled argument on the necessity for more freeing up of global markets, despite the author admitting that America’s success in building its own economy was done by imposing high tariffs.

As you can see form above, this is the sort of book that many argue over – many from the left or liberal side of politics. This is not the say that Colossus is one big love letter to America. While I didn’t find Niall Ferguson to be particularly critical of the United States and some of its more heinous practices (like supplying arms and military know-how to both Iran and Iraq during their 8 year war, not to mention a list of other questionable acts), he certainly didn’t shy away from pointing to behaviour he called ‘Machiavellian’. Seeing his project is to keep the United States Empire on track, he needed to dispense some tough lessons.

Most notably, the author writes that the biggest reason that the American Empire could decline and fall is due to an ‘attention deficit’. In empires past, like the British, the empire building citizenry knew that they must venture beyond their borders and live in and learn about the countries they took over. He cites the 19th century orientalists, who became experts in Arabic language and culture (T.E Lawrence, for example), often living in occupied countries for years. Not only that, they genuinely loved the experience. Counter that today with the American wish to get out of Iraq as soon as possible – creating democracy in a stop over tour. In effect, Ferguson says, Americans have little to no interest in anything that happens beyond their border. American culture is one of consumption, of being safely ensconced in the homeland. In short, they are unwillingness to pay the necessary price for militarily exporting American ‘values’ to the rest of the world. (Note the fatigue the American public now feels with the war in Iraq, that it was ‘not worth it’ after all.)

As I said above, there’s much to argue about in this book. Every point that Ferguson raises, you can immediately think of a counter point. It reminded me of what Schopenhauer said with relation to history, that there can be no definitive truth, as there are just so many competing stories and points of view. Shakespeare put it more succinctly, in just seven words: Truth may seem, but can never be.

For example, Ferguson says that the Taliban would not hand over Osama bin Laden. But if memory serves me correctly, didn’t they offer to hand him over as long as he was tried in an entirely Arab court? When writing history, it can be all about the details you put in.
Ferguson smugly says that if the opposition to war in Iraq was so great, how come no one went there to fight the American forces? (like the socialists who went to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.) While this is true, he could have mentioned the 'human shields’ who risked their lives by placing themselves in direct danger.

His section on why Tony Blair decided to join the coalition of the willing seemed pretty lame to me. After not being able to establish any firm reason as to why it would be in Britain’s interests to go to war against the Iraqi dictator, the author offered up this:

‘Even Tony Blair, who once appeared instinctively to prefer Tuscany to Texas, proved unable to resist the allure of the special relationship.’

On the subject of George W. Bush, Ferguson doesn’t offer any criticism either. Yet he’s more than willing to give Jacques Chirac a good going over. I don’t object to trenchant, no holds barred criticism of Chirac, but Bush’s failings, in a book such as this, should be illuminated as well.

Okay. Having said that, I heartily recommend Niall Ferguson’s Colossus. It’s a book that provides some fascinating perspectives and forces you to look at things you may not have considered before. He also marshals a lot of material and research to back up his judgements.

Would you call Niall Ferguson right wing? No, I don’t think you could, even though he is an avowed cheerleader for American Empire. I’m sure there’s a lot of right wing thinkers and writers that would grumble about various points made in this book, and how America is portrayed.

A book that makes both right and left fidget in their seat, scratch their head and want to throw the book at the wall can only be required reading.

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