From the bestselling author of The Ascent of Money and The Square and the Tower Is America an empire? Certainly not, according to our government. Despite the conquest of two sovereign states in as many years, despite the presence of more than 750 military installations in two thirds of the world's countries and despite his stated intention "to extend the benefits of freedom...to every corner of the world," George W. Bush maintains that "America has never been an empire." "We don't seek empires," insists Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. "We're not imperialistic." Nonsense, says Niall Ferguson. In Colossus he argues that in both military and economic terms America is nothing less than the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Just like the British Empire a century ago, the United States aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law, and representative government. In theory it's a good project, says Ferguson. Yet Americans shy away from the long-term commitments of manpower and money that are indispensable if rogue regimes and failed states really are to be changed for the better. Ours, he argues, is an empire with an attention deficit disorder, imposing ever more unrealistic timescales on its overseas interventions. Worse, it's an empire in denial--a hyperpower that simply refuses to admit the scale of its global responsibilities. And the negative consequences will be felt at home as well as abroad. In an alarmingly persuasive final chapter Ferguson warns that this chronic myopia also applies to our domestic responsibilities. When overstretch comes, he warns, it will come from within--and it will reveal that more than just the feet of the American colossus is made of clay.
Unfortunately, Ferguson never clearly defines 'empire'. He dismisses the exact definition in the introduction which clearly do not apply to the US. Most clearly, America lacks subject peoples (as it did in Cuba and the Philippines). It sometimes occupies countries but no longer for keeping the territory. What Ferguson is talking about, and what his title 'Colossus' implies, is not empire but superpower. Trying to translate his knowledge about the British empire to the US is a flawed approach. He predicts the fall of the American empire due to three deficits: the economic deficit, the manpower deficit and the attention deficit. The last one shows the basic flaw in his argument: Most Americans do not care for empire, they barely know much about the world outside the US, they do not speak foreign languages, they do not travel abroad. Compare this to the British empire where the elite was deeply involved with India and their other colonies.
Read the brilliant first part, especially the lessons of the Philippine adventure, and forget the second part.
The scary part is that I would rather have a world where the US is the dominant country, to a world where China is the dominant country. I really like the Chinese people. It's Chinese politicians that I am scared off.
The US does need to look at it's own economy a little more carefully, to avoid losing it's dominance too fast.
Sadly, I doubt that this will happen. This is something that Niall Ferguson could have covered: what happens if the US fails?
Now, it is no secret that Ferguson is a staunch conservative, but his digressions, jabs at "Old Europe" and his seeming infatuation (at the time) with the prospects of the Iraq War got a bit tedious at times.
His central tenet in this book seems to be, that America needs to own up to its position, don the purple mantle, and get down to the business of being the military governor pro tem of the underdeveloped world - insinuating that the manpower for such an endeavour could be mustered by introducing a conscription scheme inspired by the ancient Roman one, where convicts and illegal immigrants could achieve social status and citizenship by donning the uniform. Europe, by contrast, is described as a somewhat dysfunctional federation of states where the workers and unions have too much power.
If you take it for what it is - and take its age into account, it's allright. I wasn't blown away, but there were quite a few tidbits of trivia that I did not know before.