Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Empire Strikes Out



While on vacation this past week, I finished Niall Ferguson’s book Colossus -- The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. It’s one of those books that won’t leave me alone.

First off, I think Mr. Ferguson is wrong. A main theme in the book is that America is an empire whether it likes it or not and it’s time to grow up and act like it. Even though I think he is wrong, providing a counter argument is difficult. Which leaves me with the sneaking suspicion he could be right.

America is an empire. I think the term “reluctant empire” fits better but that still leaves us with “empire”. Americans hate to think of themselves this way but Mr. Ferguson rips away the fig leaves with which Americans like to cover their consciences.

”As we shall see, however, Americans were not the first Anglophone invaders to arrive in Baghdad proclaiming themselves to be “liberators” rather than conquerors.”

Ouch. If that doesn’t hurt bad enough, try Afghanistan. Or Vietnam. We’ve still got 52,000 troops in Germany. 35,000 in Japan. 28,000 in Korea. You might not want to think we “conquered” any of those countries but historians tend to look at things a little more objectively.

Another assertion that Mr. Ferguson makes is that all of history is written by empires. Which makes it easier to see another point. What if there was never an Athenian Empire? Or a Roman Empire? But we don’t have to go back that far for an answer, do we? We can still ask people that are alive about the British Empire. The answers may differ slightly depending on whether the respondent is Canadian, Indian or Egyptian.

And that brings us to the thought that won’t leave me alone. Are empires always evil? Can they be good? Is good vs. evil a valid measure of an empire?

If the truth be known, I’ve been playing with this question for quite some time. A year ago or more I was listening to the radio and the program was about an African intellectual arguing for the recolonization of parts of Africa. (I believe he was from Sierra Leone but I can’t be sure.) His real plea was for order. A man that has had both his hands hacked off with a machete knows something about order -- or the lack thereof. And evil.

Mr. Ferguson makes his case with Liberia. His justification is much the same -- there must be order for civilization to progress. On the cover of Time magazine this week is a portrait of a girl with her nose cut off. That is the way the Taliban tries to maintain order.

I fear the evil a country as powerful as the United States could be capable of. I am tempted by the good we could accomplish. Mr. Ferguson makes you think about the choice. It is a very sobering decision. One to be made by clear-thinking adults. A decision that should be made before we invade the next Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia, etc., etc. “Shock and Awe” does not impose order. It creates chaos. Chaos is not the friend of the status quo -- which is America as the sole superpower in the world.

We may not want to do the “nation building” that has been the history of the world’s previous empires but someone needs to. At the very least, we need to stop breaking existing countries without a plan to put them back together. Which is another point Mr. Ferguson makes. The elite British schools sent their graduates to fill the administrative slots of the Empire. American’s elite schools send their graduates to fill the administrative slots of corporations.

And therein lies my greatest fear of an American Empire. The arrogance of bringing “civilization” to the rest of the world caused enough problems. An empire dominated by corporate interests fills me with dread. The emphasis won’t be on exporting “civilization”, much less “prosperity and freedom”. It will be on extracting wealth. A quick glance at Nigeria and it looks an awful lot like the Middle East used to look like -- U.S. oil companies and the U.S. military. You don’t hear much about the U.S. State Department.

Mr. Ferguson may be right about the world needing the order an empire brings. America -- as he points out -- isn’t mentally prepared to do it. America certainly has the power and economic wherewithal. But the very idea of America actively engaged in empire building gives me pause. I wouldn’t doubt our intentions. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Colossus is a book that will make you think. And -- to me -- that’s the best kind.

Don Brown
August 1, 2010

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