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Imperialism: Doing it right

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Niall Ferguson, Basic Books: 392 pp., $35

August 03, 2003|Zachary Karabell | Zachary Karabell is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of several books, including "Parting the Desert" and "The Last Campaign."

For most Americans, the word "empire" has a distinctly bad odor. From an early age, Americans learn that the United States was a country that coalesced around the rejection of empire. That is, to put it mildly, a questionable interpretation of what happened, but regardless of historical accuracy, it's what many, many Americans believe to be true. Ever since independence, the United States has tended to define itself as anti-imperial. Even in World War II, when Americans were staunch allies of the British and French, the goals of the Roosevelt administration were anti-imperial. We Americans would help the Brits and the French repel the Nazis, but we would not countenance the continuance of direct British and French rule over their colonies in Africa and Asia.

To be sure, there have been exceptions to anti-imperialism. The ardent promoters of 19th century Manifest Destiny spoke of an American empire spanning the North American continent, and at that century's end, men like Theodore Roosevelt were unabashedly in favor of acquiring colonies. But after a brutal war against Philippine insurgents at the turn of the 20th century, the United States lost its stomach for the more brutal and pedestrian aspects of running an empire. Conquest was one thing, but governing another people thousands of miles away, to even the more ardent American imperialists, was unpalatable.

The United States is in a similar quandary today: We are able to muster some enthusiasm for conquest but little for governing. We win wars; we lose occupations. This bothers Niall Ferguson, a respected, controversial British historian and commentator. It bothers him not because he considers imperial conquest immoral but because he believes that it confers certain responsibilities and obligations that the British embraced and that the Americans shirk.

Ferguson has written a swath of books on subjects such as the Rothschild family saga and World War I. He is a professor at not one but two universities (Oxford and New York University) and is an intellectual of considerable standing in Britain and the United States, writing widely for newspapers and magazines. He is a young Tory who has staked out an unusual turf as an advocate for a new wave of imperialism, and he has de facto inherited the mantle of Paul Johnson, who more than a decade ago declared sub-Saharan Africa a basket case and called for a re-introduction of Western rule.

Today, Ferguson makes a similar, though more subtle, case. The United States, he believes, has a unique opportunity to use its power for good in the world, but only if it embraces what it has historically rejected: the model of the British Empire. Written as a companion to a television series that aired in England and lacking the visual oomph of the series, "Empire" is nevertheless an entertaining, engaging romp through four centuries of British imperialism. Ferguson cannot and does not pretend to tell stories that haven't been told before. Instead, he uses the familiar narrative of British conquest abroad as the basis for a very present-day polemic about what the British Empire can teach the Americans.

The world today, he argues, is largely "the product of Britain's age of Empire," and the United States is the uneasy heir to the throne. Like the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States can, Ferguson avers, "do a very great deal to impose its values on less technologically advanced societies."

The bulk of the book is a description of just how Britain did that. Ferguson may have an agenda (and frankly, it's refreshing that this agenda is so explicit; it is tiring to read ostensibly neutral narrative only to discover a hidden polemic), but he also has great verve as a storyteller. He charts the rise of Britain from "an economically unremarkable, politically fractious and strategically second-class country" in 1615 to a world empire two centuries later. The empire began as an extension of British commerce into North America, the Caribbean and South Asia. It soon involved not just commerce but colonization, followed by conflict with other imperial powers, such as the Dutch, the Spanish and, of course, the French.

The second half of the 18th century was a difficult time for the empire. The British lost a large swath of North America to the Revolution, though it retained Canada, and the French Revolution followed by the Napoleonic Wars taxed resources. Ferguson astutely punctures American self-importance by pointing out that the Colonists who staged the American Revolution had more freedom and paid fewer taxes than almost anyone in the world. He also notes that the British were not eager to fight the Colonists as ruthlessly as the situation demanded and that, in the overall scheme of the British Empire, the 13 Colonies were far less lucrative than the sugar plantation islands of the Caribbean.

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