Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Putting America on the Psychiatrist's Couch; Does the US Have the Will to Impose a 'Liberal Empire' on the Rest of the World?

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Putting America on the Psychiatrist's Couch; Does the US Have the Will to Impose a 'Liberal Empire' on the Rest of the World?

Article excerpt


COLOSSUS: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, [pounds sterling]20)

THERE is something about the effortless ease and prolificacy of Tory-leaning historian, Niall Ferguson, which suggests a Paul Johnson for the new millennium.

This is a comparison, I suspect, for which neither historian will thank me.

Ferguson's new book, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, puts America on the psychiatrist's couch. Ferguson diagnoses a condition he calls "empire in denial", which means a great power refusing to face up to her role and duties.

America's nemesis, he worries, will not come from any external threat but from "the threat within", namely a combination of her staggering budget deficits and a citizenry who are disinclined to take on their full geopolitical responsibilities. Rather than build infrastructures for the countries it controls, Americans, says Ferguson, prefer to build shopping malls in Ohio.

To follow Ferguson's argument you first have to agree that America is a liberal empire. His definition of empire is flexible enough to encompass almost any notion you want - hegemony, indirect rule, unilateralist power.

As for "liberal", by that he means an ethos of nation-building that includes creating the infrastructure for a free-market economy underpinned by peace and order, the rule of law and uncorrupted institutions. Fair enough. This liberal empire is self-evidently a good thing, but given American reluctance to stay the course, Ferguson fears it may well disappear as quickly as mountains of soft snow in the eye of a bright sun.

Ferguson takes us on a fascinating ride through American interventions abroad: Central and South America, Vietnam, Liberia, right up to the present action in Iraq. He observes history through both an economic and political lens, giving readers original insights and marvellous prose.

He is prone to sweeping generalisations in this book which make him vulnerable to error.

Reviewers can nitpick those. His economic analysis of America (and Asia) is extensive and one that I have little interest in, in part because Ferguson himself implies that it may be altered by (that handy phrase) "unintended consequences". But the philosophical thrust of the book - how America can sustain a liberal empire - is of immense interest.

American presidents have always made a point of denying their nation's imperial ambitions. "We will not impose our form of government," President George W Bush promised the world. With such protestations, it is no accident that the United States has, as Ferguson points out, a manpower shortage in both its army and nationbuilders.

There is no Colonial Office to which Harvard graduates can flock as did ambitious bright things from Oxford and Cambridge in the rollicking days of British Empire. …

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