The Truth about Empire: How Empire Benefits World Order in the 21st Century

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NIALL FERGUSON is Professor of History at Harvard University and Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He has written Empire (2003) and Colossus (2004) on the British and American empires, respectively.

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What are the benefits of an American empire in the 21st century? Which countries or peoples will benefit most?

From the point of view of our time, many people would dispute whether the United States is an empire or something more like a benign hegemon--but let's just assume that it performs many of the functions that previous empires performed. The United States provides at least some of the underpinnings of an international order based on relatively free trade. It provides the international reserve currency in the form of the US dollar, and it provides a whole range of financial and accounting standards that are more or less adopted by countries that want to trade with the United States or attract US investment. So the United States provides a range of "economic public goods." It is not just the United States that benefits from the existence of organizations like the WTO, which is in many ways a US creation; it is everybody who participates in that organization. Those are just the economic benefits.

If you then ask about the cultural benefits, the United States is providing a kind of global lingua franca. We call it English, but it is actually American. There is a kind of public good there, as people find it easier to communicate. We do not all need to approve of The Simpsons to recognize that there is a type of American popular culture adopted globally, which can be traced back to the older days of Hollywood and the export of jazz music. These are all parts of the cultural benefits that the United States provides.

Finally, there is the security dimension. The United States prevented the expansion of Soviet communism during the Cold War. There is a sense in which the United States, as the dominant, pre-eminent military power in the world today, still has the potential to act against what we call "rogue regimes," even if its performance in dealing with the rogue regime in Iraq has been rather disappointing. Those are the three main kinds of benefits that I think any empire would look to address: the economic benefits, the cultural benefits, and the military benefits or geopolitical benefits in terms of global security.

Let me stress that there are liabilities as well as assets in this balance sheet. Although the American empire provides public goods, it also acts in its own self-interest. Its negotiations of trade agreements are advantageous to the United States, its export of culture is profitable to US producers of culture, and its military power is exercised primarily from the point of view of the US national interest. Like most empires, the United States is concerned as much with its own security as with the interests of other countries. Empires are not entirely altruistic; no empire in history has been entirely altruistic.

What are some of the costs of an American empire or of any empire?

The costs of empire are distributed between the rulers and the ruled. From a US point of view, it is quite expensive to maintain the largest military force in the world. Those who serve in the military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan pay a cost that could be in terms of life itself. The taxpayers who foot the bill for the vast defense budget are also paying some of the cost of empire. But notice that the national security budget is now lower than the social security budget, so the American military empire is quite a cheap empire compared to the US welfare state. From the point of view of people outside the United States, however, the costs of US power are quite obvious because US power is not terribly good at transforming countries from a state of misrule into a state of stability.

US interventions over the last century have generally been quite poor. …