Niall Ferguson’s American Empire: A Matter of Mimesis

It is probably not surprising that in the five or so years following September 11, 2001, writing on American empire ballooned in both periodicals and academic literature.[1] Journalists and scholars from across the spectrum offered their “expert” opinions on the goals, nature, and relevance of American empire, often in ominous and prescriptive terms. There were both opponents and proponents of empire, with, for the most part, the left in the former group and the right in the latter.[2] Some writers got more attention than others, either for making polemical claims or having popular names; some even got attention for both. Perhaps no one squeezed more out of this combination of claim and name to get his ideas to the public than the conservative historian Niall Ferguson.[3] Already a well-known historian and polemicist by the early twenty-first century, Ferguson had no difficulty finding a platform for his supposedly incontrovertible ideas. At breakneck speed, he wrote several books, essays, and articles on empire in general and American empire in particular. His first book, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, is self-explanatory in its project, as is its sequel, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, though there is more to both book’s than the titles suggest.[4] Along with his other writing, these books are the foundation of Ferguson’s imperial ideology.

Yet, unlike his books, Ferguson’s essays have not been extensively discussed by other commentators on the subject of empire. Most analysts look to Colossus for his take on American empire, and although this is understandable, it fails to acknowledge Ferguson as a public intellectual who desires and thrives on access to the public. As a public intellectual, his goal is not simply to reach the public but also to reach them as much as possible and in multiple ways. And there is arguably no historian with a greater appetite for a an audience than Ferguson. As the late Andrew Porter pointed out in 2003, “Niall Ferguson is a glutton for exposure.”[5] Understood this way, all of Ferguson’s published material is equally important, for all of it is meant to be read, analyzed, and reflected on. Failing to recognize this precludes a serious consideration of the various essays that Ferguson wrote about empire and its American variant in the several years after 2001. This paper ventures where few other scholars have thought necessary to go: Niall Ferguson’s essays. I attempt a reading of Ferguson’s essays on American empire in order to discover how each of the essays articulates a unique stance (or not) and how each essay contributes to a larger imperial ideology (if at all). Specifically, I analyze four essays, each from a different publication, from the years 2003 and 2004.[6] I focus my analysis on these two years because it was during this time period that writing on American empire, the so-called “new imperialism,” and empire more generally flooded the pages of periodicals and the shelves of bookstores and libraries.[7] Ultimately, I hope to show that Ferguson’s interpretation of the goals, form, necessity, and limits of American empire is, in the last analysis, a product of his understanding of the British Empire. This is not necessarily a novel observation, given that Colossus is regarded as a sequel to Empire, but the point I want make is that Ferguson’s notion of empire is not a fluke or a haphazard creation; rather, it is a coherent understanding of empire, so much so that it can even be ascertained solely from his essay work.

Contextual Commentary

In order to set the stage for Ferguson’s imperial ideology between 2003 and 2004, and to give texture to an interpretation of his views, I want to discuss a few essays by other writers.[8] The essays are not representative of any specific trend or take on empire; rather, they demonstrate some of the viewpoints that came out in conjunction with Ferguson and, therefore, offer a glimpse into the general tone of the commentary published in magazines and newspapers at the time. The first essay I want to discuss is Michael Ignatieff’s “The American Empire; the Burden,” which in some ways can be considered as the foundational text of the period.[9] It was not the first text of the era, and it came out at the very beginning of 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, but it is arguably the best example of the type of writing that came out in 2003-04, as evidenced by the numerous references to the text in other writings from the period and those written after.[10] In the essay, which today would be given the hashtag longread,[11] Ignatieff attempts to show that the new American empire can take many different forms, based on the decisions it makes, but all of them, in the final reading, are burdensome. Ignatieff spends little energy convincing the reader that America is an empire; in his eyes, no other moniker is appropriate:

What word but ‘empire’ describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.[12]

If empire were a job, then no other country but the United States would be qualified for the position. It has the perfect resume, complete with all the appropriate action words: it polices, maintains, deploys, guarantees, drives, and fills the most influential military, economic, and ideological tasks. For Ignatieff, it would be futile to deny that the US is an empire; yet this is exactly what it does. This is one aspect that is considered unique and representative of American empire, or the “new imperialism.” As Ignatieff states,

the 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known. It is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who like to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere. It is an empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad. But that does not make it any less of an empire, with a conviction that it alone, in Herman Melville’s words, bears ”the ark of the liberties of the world.”[13]

As Ignatieff makes plain, if it looks like an empire, acts like an empire, and talks like an empire, then it is an empire, regardless of whether it admits it or is even aware of it. It is a de facto empire, and empire comes with responsibility. This is the burden: whether or not it admits it is an empire does not change the fact that the choices the United States makes are imperial in kind or that their consequences are those of imperial choices. Ignatieff describes a heavy burden, and although he does offer some advice, he does not paint a bright picture of the future for American empire or its objects.

The next essay I want to discuss is “American Empire, Not ‘If’ but ‘What Kind’,” by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay.[14] The authors remind the reader early on that “in the last six months alone, as debate on Iraq peaked, the phrase ‘American empire’ was mentioned nearly 1,000 times in news stories, while bookstores have been quickly filling their shelves with freshly minted tomes on the subject.”[15] Michael Ignatieff published his essay for New York Times Magazine in early January 2003; Daalder and Lindsay published their essay for the New York Times in May 2003. Ignatieff’s essay falls within the timeframe that Daalder and Lindsay consider, which begins in November 2002, and is presumably included in the count they give, which is indicative of a huge surge in writing on American empire. Daalder and Lindsay take it upon themselves to enumerate the different stances taken in the surge and, like Ignatieff and other writers of the period (including Ferguson, as we will see below), make recommendations for the American empire going forward. Also like Ignatieff, Daalder and Lindsay are quite certain that the US is an empire: “for all the debate over whether or not the United States should be an empire, that question is beside the point. Like it or not, the power and reach of the United States have already turned it into an empire.” “The real debate, then, is not whether to have an empire, but what kind.”[16] For Daalder and Lindsay, “what kind” is a question of unilateralism versus multilateralism—that is, should the US run its empire alone, or should it work with other nations? The authors favor multilateralism, because “a unilateral exercise of power will breed more and more resentment abroad to the point that other states may decide to work together to obstruct the chosen American course. Then, the United States could stand alone, a great power frustrated in the pursuit of its most important goals.”[17] An empire of multilateralism, then, is the kind of empire Daalder and Lindsay believe the US should be, for it is the surest way for the US to achieve its imperial goals.

Finally, I want to look at Amitav Ghosh’s New Yorker essay “The Anglophone Empire,”[18] which was published in April 2003 and, therefore, possibly part of Daalder and Lindsay’s count. This is perhaps the most creative interpretation of American empire in the 21st century, though this is hardly surprising, given that Ghosh is a novelist who is recognized as one of the Anglophone world’s most talented writers of both fiction and nonfiction. Ghosh opens his essay by writing, “during the past few months, much has been written on the subject of a ‘new American empire.’ This term, however, is a misnomer. If the Iraq war is to be seen as a kind of imperial venture, then the project is neither new nor purely American.” Ghosh confirms what Daalder and Lindsay say about the increase in writing on American empire, but this is where the similarities end. Unlike Ignatieff and Daalder and Lindsay, Ghosh refocuses his lens to reject the Ameri-centric spatial and temporal assumptions undergirding the “new American empire.” As he notes, “what President Bush likes to call the ‘coalition of the willing’ is dominated, after all, by America, Britain, and Australia—three English-speaking countries whose allegiances are rooted not just in shared culture and common institutions but also in a shared history of territorial expansion. Seen in this light, the alignment is only the newest phase in the evolution of the most potent political force of the last two centuries: the Anglophone empire.”[19] Rather than seeing the American empire as distinct from the British Empire that came before it or Australia’s expansionist history, Ghosh does away with the stale interpretation of empire that is centered around national histories and argues that the American empire is not a descendant of an earlier empire but rather a continuation of what he calls the Anglophone empire. Beyond what he says in this claim, Ghosh shows that the parallels between the Americans in Iraq and the British in India are too obvious to ignore, and, in concert with his peers of the time, offers lessons and warnings. He closes, for example, by saying, “as George Orwell and many other observers of imperialism have pointed out, empires imprison their rulers as well as their subjects. In today’s America, where people are increasingly disinclined to venture beyond the borders, this has already come to pass. But perhaps, in these accelerated times, it won’t be long before most Americans begin to long for an escape from the imprisonment of absolute power.”[20] Ghosh has some hope for Americans burdened by empire, but as we saw above with Ignatieff, not everyone from this period does. At this point, we might ask ourselves what Niall Ferguson has to say on the matter. Is he hopeful or fearful? More generally, how does he define and understand American empire? Let us now turn to his essays to find out.

An Empire in Denial

Ferguson opens his essay “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism,” published by Harvard International Review in 2003, by saying, “it used to be only foreigners and those on the fringes of US politics who referred to the ‘American Empire.’ Invariably, they did so in order to criticize the United States.”[21] Things have changed, he informs us, for empire is now a topic of academic and mainstream discussion, not all of which is critical. “Officially, however, the United States remains an empire in denial.”[22] Effectively, this is the raison d’être of the essay; it is from this observation that Ferguson attempts to demonstrate that the US is in fact an empire and that refusing to recognize this is leading to/has the potential to lead to the decline of America on the global stage. Regarding his goal to prove that America is an empire, Ferguson first addresses the terminological game many commentators play when discussing US power and influence around the globe. Although other terms get thrown around, he maintains that empire is most appropriate, because the imperial character of the US simply cannot be denied. Ferguson argues this point by constantly comparing the activities of the United States and the British Empire, which he sees as the archetypal empire in modern history and a precursor to the American empire. Take this passage: “the expansion of the original 13 US states westwards and southwards in the course of the 19th century was itself a quintessentially imperialist undertaking. In both the US and British empires, indigenous populations were vanquished, expropriated and marginalized.”[23] Not only is Ferguson saying that the destruction of native populations is a mark of empire, but he is also linking US actions to those of Britain’s, suggesting that those actions should be interpreted as imperial. This also suggests that the US has been imperialistic since its inception.

However, just because the US was imperialistic, it does necessarily follow that it still is imperialistic. What makes the US an empire is, according to Ferguson, the combination of mainly two things: military and economic dominance—two things that, in his understanding, define empire in general. Although the US does not control territory in the same way as the British, it is the dominant military power around the globe, with “752 military installations located in more than 130 countries” and a military “budget [that] equals the combined military expenditures of the next 12 to 15 states.”[24] Its military dominance is so substantial that it even overshadows its British forbear. As Ferguson notes, “in military terms, the British Empire did not dominate the full spectrum of military capabilities, as the United States does today; it was never so far ahead of its imperial rivals.”[25] This raises the question: if the US exceeds even the British Empire in military power, then how can it not be considered an empire? Ferguson concludes that “if military power is the sine qua non of an empire, then it is hard to deny the imperial character of the United States today.”[26] Militarily, then, the US is undoubtedly an empire, and this holds true economically as well. Ferguson informs the reader that America’s global output is currently larger than that of any other country and even “exceeds the highest share…ever achieved by Great Britain by a factor of three. In terms of raw materials, then, the United States is already a vastly more powerful empire than Britain ever was.” He goes on to explain how the economic health of the US “partly explains how the United States has managed to achieve a unique revolution in military affairs while at the same time substantially reducing the share of defense expenditures as a portion of gross domestic product (GDP).”[27] Thus, as in the military domain, the US outdoes the British Empire in the economic domain. Allowing the reader to make the connection between Britain’s economic health and its military dominance, Ferguson makes the connection explicitly vis-à-vis the US. The parallels are too obvious to ignore, but even more telling is that the US surpasses the British Empire both militarily and economically. “In short,” concludes Ferguson, “in terms of military capability and economic resources the United States not only resembles the last great Anglophone Empire but exceeds it.” For one to outmatch another, both parties have to be playing the same game. The game here is imperialism.

Next, Ferguson ruminates on what is at stake in the recognition of the US as an empire. Answering his own question of whether or not it makes a difference if the US acknowledges that it is an empire, Ferguson responds, “the answer is yes. The problem with an empire that is in denial about its own imperial nature is that it tends to make two mistakes when it chooses to intervene in the affairs of lesser states. The first is to attempt economic and political transformation in an unrealistically short timeframe. The second is to allocate insufficient resources to the project.”[28] If the US cannot admit that it is an empire, then it cannot sufficiently achieve the goals of intervention. It will always disappoint the “lesser states” or leave them wanting because it cannot contribute enough resources to deliver on its promises. In other words, only an open declaration of American empire can produce the results the US desires in its excursions abroad. Without this declaration, those excursions are useless. “And this is perhaps the reason why this vastly powerful economy,” suggests Ferguson, “with its extraordinary military capability, has had such a very disappointing record when it has sought to bring about changes of regime abroad.”[29] It is important to note that Ferguson is not recommending that the US step away from imperial activity; rather, he suggests that the US continues its imperial undertakings as a bona fide empire. In another comparison to the British, Ferguson asserts, “there is no question, as we have seen, that the United States has the raw economic resources to take on the old British role as underwriter of a globalized, liberalized economic system. Nor is there any doubt that it has the military capability to do the job. On both scores, the United States is already a far more powerful empire than Britain’s ever was.”[30] Ferguson is a fan of the regime change and “globalized, liberalized economic system” of which he speaks, but he is also a fan of that empire on which the sun was never supposed to have set. If the US is the heir to the British Empire, and if it has the capabilities to match it and surpass it, then it should continue its work. In sum, for Ferguson, it is not just a name that is at stake with American empire, but also the “liberal ethos” that the British worked so hard spread and the Americans are now responsible for.[31]

Recovering Our Nerve

In a 2004 article for The National Interest, Ferguson attempts, as the title “Recovering Our Nerve” predicts, to make the case for America’s continued presence in Iraq, following its invasion of that country in March 2003.[32] Predictably, Ferguson believes that the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussain was a good thing; however, he is unsatisfied with the way in which these acts were carried out and expanded on. As he sees it, the United States committed seven mistakes in this regard: failing to think about reconstruction, basing assertions of weapons of mass destruction on weak evidence, employing mutually exclusive diplomatic tactics, ignoring the Geneva Convention in its use of torture at Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib, setting an unrealistic departure date, negotiating with rebels, and calling in the United Nations after bypassing it previously. For this discussion, I want to focus on failing to think about reconstruction, because it highlights Ferguson’s views of American empire. As in the essay “An Empire in Denial,” Ferguson does not think the invasion of certain countries is a bad thing; rather, it is failing to think beyond the invasion that he deems faulty, especially in the case of Iraq. For example, he writes, “in planning for a war to topple Saddam, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did a brilliant job. But in planning for the peace that would follow, he did a dreadful job.” “Only the State Department appears to have had a serious plan for the postwar period,” Ferguson continues, “and only Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to have understood that this was an implicitly imperial undertaking.”[33] In Ferguson’s view, Iraq needed to be invaded, and in its invasion of that country, the US performed well. Nevertheless, it failed to think about putting Iraq back together after invading it and toppling its government. Only Colin Powell was prescient enough to think of a plan for reconstruction, and this was the result of his understanding of US actions in Iraq as imperialistic. In other words, Ferguson is claiming that admitting its imperial nature and accepting the responsibilities of an empire would have allowed for the US to avoid this misstep.

Apparently, the same holds true for the US’s other mistakes. As Ferguson writes, “all of these mistakes have one thing in common. They betoken a failure to learn from history. Among the most obvious lessons of the history of modern imperialism is the lesson that an empire cannot rule by coercion alone. It needs legitimacy above all—in the eyes of the subject people, in the eyes of the other great powers and, above all, in the eyes of the people back home.”[34] Indeed, legitimacy is gained by taking on the burden of responsibility that comes with being an imperial power and delivering the benefits of liberalism; and it must come from all those effected by imperialism. However, Ferguson is actually saying a bit more here: legitimacy is not just one aspect of empire, it is also the most important aspect. An empire’s success—the American empire’s success—rests not on coercion alone, but on a mixture of coercion and legitimacy, with an emphasis on legitimacy. This, history suggests, is what makes for a successful empire. As Ferguson queries, after mentioning that only Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley recognized explicitly at the time that the US invasion of Iraq was an act of imperialism, “did no one else grasp that occupying and trying to transform Iraq (with or without allies) was a quintessentially imperial undertaking—and one that would cost money and take many years to succeed? Why did nobody bother to read about the last Anglophone occupation of Iraq?”[35] These questions are meant to demonstrate a few things. First, Ferguson points out that the invasion of Iraq was so archetypically imperial that pretending otherwise is pointless as well as detrimental; legitimacy cannot come without money and time, two things that an overt imperial commitment would presumably provide. Second, he compares America’s imperial exploits to those of Britain during its imperial heyday, a technique, as we saw above in his Harvard International Review essay, central to Ferguson’s ruminations on American empire. He does this as a way of suggesting that America should learn from the British. The British Empire, Ferguson makes plain, has much to teach its shy descendent, and America would do well to learn a thing or two, unless it wants to repeatedly blunder its unofficial imperial operations.

A World without Power

The next article I want to discuss is from the magazine Foreign Policy. Published in 2004, “A World Without Power” approaches American empire from a cautionary perspective.[36] In the article, Ferguson warns readers about what the world could look like absent of American hegemony. Most people tend to argue (or simply assume) that the opposite of a unipolar world is a multipolar world, assuming as they do that there is always a struggle for power among so-called “great powers,” whether empires or nation-states.[37] However, multipolarity is not the only alternative to unipolarity; just as viable is apolarity—a world with no dominant power. And this is not a good thing. As Ferguson puts is, “anyone who dislikes U.S. hegemony should bear in mind that, rather than a multipolar world of competing powers, a world with no hegemon at all may be the real alternative to U.S. primacy. Apolarity could turn out to mean an anarchic Dark Age: an era of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic plunder and pillage in the world’s forgotten regions; of economic stagnation and civilization’s retreat into a few fortified enclaves.”[38] Ferguson submits that apolarity could lead to fanaticism, plunder and pillage, stagnation, and—gasp!—civilization’s retreat, which is perhaps the item on the list that is meant to scare the reader the most; after all, what kind of world is possible without the blinding light of civilization? If civilization’s light showed us the way out of the “anarchic Dark Ages,” then the removal of light can only bring us back to a dark world. The hegemonic power maintains civilization, along with all that it provides and prevents; “today [2004], it is the United States; a century ago, it was the United Kingdom. Before that, it was France, Spain, and so on.”[39] Therefore, Ferguson argues, the US is the only thing keeping us from anarchy, regression, and degeneration.

Admittedly, Ferguson does not use the word “empire” in the above passage, but there is little doubt that what he means is just that. For one thing, we know from prior analysis that he already uses the term empire in conjunction with the US. Second, his willingness to use hegemony and primacy interchangeably suggests that he does not play the linguistic game that many other scholars engage in when discussing American power in the world—that is, hegemony equals primacy equals empire. Third, and perhaps more tellingly, he makes his typical (favorite?) comparison between the US today and the British Empire (see the second quote in the previous paragraph). It seems that, in this essay, he is taking American empire as a given to highlight another aspect of his argument: the absence of US power. Yet, there does seem to be a point of slippage, when, for instance, Ferguson writes that “the United States suffers from at least three structural deficits that will limit the effectiveness and duration of its quasi-imperial role in the world.”[40] Why quasi-imperial? The issue is not really that severe, for Ferguson clears up any confusion the reader may have just after. After explaining the first structural deficit facing the United States, Ferguson writes, “it is difficult to recall any past empire that long endured after becoming so dependent on lending from abroad.” Here, Ferguson uses empire explicitly and in its unmodified form, relieving any doubt that he was somehow copping out of calling America an empire. His use of “quasi-imperial” reflects his contention that the US does not recognize that it is an empire, which prevents it from fully committing to its imperial projects. As Ferguson notes of the US, “its republican institutions and political traditions make it difficult to establish a consensus for long-term nation-building projects. With few exceptions, most U.S. interventions in the past century have been relatively short lived.” Again, we come to the disjuncture present in US nation-building projects and interventions and the recognition of these as imperialistic; hence, the use of quasi-imperial. Although Ferguson does not say it explicitly in this essay, he implies that the US is quasi-imperial because it is not imperial à la Britain (admittedly imperial and dedicated to long-term interventions).

By the end of the essay, the reader has no doubt that Ferguson sees the US as an empire, and that that empire is a good thing for humanity. In closing his article, Ferguson warns,

if the United States retreats from global hegemony—its fragile self-image dented by minor setbacks on the imperial frontier—its critics at home and abroad must not pretend that they are ushering in a new era of multipolar hegemony, or even a return to the good old balance of power…. The alternative to unipolarity would not be multipolarity at all. It would be apolarity—a global vacuum of power. And far more dangerous forces than rival great powers would benefit from such a not-so-new world disorder.[41]

It is clear that, in Ferguson’s eyes, the US is indeed an empire, one that needs to stay in power if the world is to avoid falling into “a not-so-new world disorder.” And the anti-imperialists at home should think of this world disorder before hastily calling for a retreat of empire and civilization.

The Empire Slinks Back

In an essay written for New York Times Magazine in 2003, Ferguson points out what he thinks are the two main weaknesses of America’s imperial undertakings in Iraq.[42] The first is a lack of what he terms “stamina:” an imperial power’s willingness to stay in the territories it invades as it attempts to nation-build. For Ferguson, stamina is “the one crucial character trait without which the whole imperial project is doomed.”[43] If the US is not willing to stay in Iraq, then its empire—even if unacknowledged by the American people and their representatives— will disintegrate along with its projects. This would be an unfortunate loss, because the US has all the components necessary for empire. As Ferguson maintains,

the United States unquestionably has the raw economic power to build an empire—more, indeed, than the United Kingdom ever had at its disposal. . . . There’s “soft” power too—the endlessly innovative consumer culture that Joseph Nye argues is an essential component of American power—but at its core, as we have seen in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, American power is far from soft. It can be very, very hard. The trouble is that it is ephemeral. It is not so much Power Lite as Flash Power—here today, with a spectacular bang, but gone tomorrow.[44]

In Ferguson’s opinion, the US has the economic power, soft power, and military power that are needed to build and sustain an empire, but it refuses to use them adequately. The implementation of any or all of these different powers will have no lasting effects if the US refuses to stay in Iraq for a significant length of time. For what is power if it is ephemeral? Therefore, rather than continue with its current strategy (to get out as soon as possible), Ferguson insists the US should look to the British imperial encounter with Iraq, which lasted officially for 12 years and unofficially for 40; this long-term strategy was the key to realizing the British Empire’s goal:

The British regarded long-term occupation as an inherent part of their self-appointed “civilizing mission.” This did not mean forever. The assumption was that British rule would end once a country had been sufficiently ”civilized”—read: anglicized—to ensure the continued rule of law and operation of free markets (not to mention the playing of cricket). But that clearly meant decades, not days; when the British intervened in a country like Iraq, they simply didn’t have an exit strategy.[45]

Thus, concludes Ferguson, “the crucial point is this: when the British went to Iraq, they stuck around.”[46] Likewise, if the Americans want their plans in Iraq to succeed, they just need to stick around and give it the old college try.

The colloquialism “give it the old college try” is not insignificant. In fact, it brings us to the second weakness of American imperialism in Iraq that Ferguson identifies: not enough graduates from America’s top universities want to go to Iraq in the service of imperialism. As Ferguson reminds us, “America’s educational institutions excel at producing young men and women who are both academically and professionally very well trained. It’s just that the young elites have no desire whatsoever to spend their lives running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq.”[47] The professional ambitions of American graduates from elite institutions lean heavily toward the private sector, where they hope to run multinationals or financial institutions. These Ivy League graduates have no ambitions to join the American imperial apparatus in the same way Oxbridge graduates sought a position in the Indian Civil Service. This is a huge problem, claims Ferguson, by way of an anecdote: “’Don’t even go there!’ is one of those catch phrases you hear every day in New York. Somehow it sums up exactly what is flawed about the whole post-9/11 crypto-imperial project. Despite their vast wealth and devastating weaponry, Americans have no interest in the one crucial activity without which a true empire cannot enduringly be established. They won’t actually go there.”[48] Essentially, Ferguson is saying that the American form of imperialism in Iraq does not benefit from the infamous “man on the spot,” something—rather, someone—the British Empire relied on during its imperial reign; in fact, the man on the spot was what made the empire possible. As Ferguson describes him, the man on the spot was “indispensible” because he “learned the local languages, perhaps adopted some local customs—though not usually to the fatal extent of ‘going native’—and acted as the intermediar[y] between imperial authority and the indigenous elites upon whose willing collaboration the empire depended.”[49] Men on the spot were indispensable to the functioning of the British Empire, but the American empire does not have them; as such, it suffers from a serious deficiency. As Ferguson states, “until there are more [university-educated] Americans not just willing but eager to shoulder the ‘nation-builder’s burden,’ adventures like the current occupation of Iraq will lack a vital ingredient. For the lesson of Britain’s imperial experience is clear: you simply cannot have an empire without imperialists—out there, on the spot—to run it.”[50]

Taking Stock

Looking at four essays written by Niall Ferguson between 2003 and 2004, we see that his analysis of American empire is shaped and perhaps limited by his persistent faith in the lessons of the British Empire. In “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism,” written for Harvard International Review in 2003, he argues that the US is an empire by comparing its military and economic capabilities to Britain’s during its imperial reign. In his piece for The National Interest, “Recovering our Nerve,” he avers that the American empire cannot survive or thrive without legitimacy, perhaps the paramount lesson from Britain’s imperial adventures, particularly those in Iraq. Ferguson’s Foreign Policy essay “A World without Power,” from 2004, suggests that the American empire must continue the civilizational mission of its imperial predecessors, most notably the British Empire, its immediate predecessor, if the world is to be without chaos. Lastly, in “The Empire Slinks Back,” a longread written for New York Times Magazine in 2003, he maintains that the US flubbed Iraq because it failed to follow the British Empire’s model there. Taken together, Ferguson seems to be making the case for a perverted form of what Ghosh calls the Anglophone empire. But whereas Ghosh believes the Anglophone empire already exists, Ferguson believes the Anglophone empire is something to be strived for. After all, in his eyes, notwithstanding the American empire’s current role as global hegemon, it was the British Empire that made the modern world.


[1] Books from this period include Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, eds. Pox Americana: Exposing the American Empire (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004); Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and Charles Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). Articles from the period include John Agnew, “American Hegemony Into American Empire? Lessons from the Invasion of Iraq.” Antipode 35 (November 2003): 871-885; Sebastian Mallaby, “The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire.” Foreign Affairs 81 (March/April 2002): 2-7; and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “The American Empire? Not so Fast.” World Policy Journal 22 (Spring 2005): 43-46. See also the collection of essays in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds. The Socialist Register, 2004: The New Imperial Challenge (London: The Merlin Press, 2003). Review articles, news articles and other pieces from popular periodicals are too numerous to list here; however, a cursory online search should be enough to show the reader the popularity of American empire at the time.

[2] The association of the left with anti-imperialism and the right with pro-imperialism is obviously reductionist, but it is indicative of a general pattern in the literature.

[3] Although most people would consider his views to be conservative, Ferguson considers himself to be a centrist who is right of center. This may carry some weight, given the emergence of the alt-right, which espouses a conservatism that does indeed push Ferguson closer to the center. Notwithstanding the 2016 election, however, Ferguson’s views are considered by most commentators to be conservative; I have not come across a critic on the right or the left who considers Ferguson to be a centrist. Anyhow, he is constantly placing himself in opposition to (American) liberals, so it is rather Ferguson’s own burden to show that he is not conservative, given that that is where he rhetorically positions himself.

[4] Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004). These two books were also published as Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2003) and Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London, Penguin Books, 2005).

[5] Andrew Porter, review of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson, Reviews in History, March 2003: review no. 325, (accessed November 25, 2016). Porter continues by informing the reader that “from January to mid-February 2003 six one-hour television programmes, four lectures to substantial audiences in the University of London’s Senate House, and a large glossy book have been devoted to his theme of ‘empire’ or, as he also puts it, ‘how Britain made the modern world’. Elsewhere, for example in The Times (6-7 January 2003), there have been extracts taken from the book.” Note that this doesn’t even include any of Ferguson’s work, written or otherwise, on American empire.


[6] The four essays included in this study are not Ferguson’s only pieces on empire or American empire in this timeframe. See Niall Ferguson, “Hegemony or Empire?” Foreign Affairs 82 (September/October 2003): 154-161; “The Last Iraqi Insurgency,” New York Times, April 18, 2004, (accessed November 26, 2016); “Power,” Foreign Policy 134 (January/February 2003): 18-24; Niall Ferguson and Laurence J. Kotlikoff, “Going Critical: American Power and the Consequences of Fiscal Overreach,” National Interest 72 (Fall 2003): 22-32. See also his interview with Frank Bures: “Our Imperial Imperative,” Atlantic Unbound, May 25, 2004. (accessed October 23, 2016).

[7] For a fuller understanding of Ferguson’s imperial ideology, a look at his later pieces would be quite beneficial. See, for example, Niall Ferguson, “Cowboys and Indians,” New York Times, May 24, 2005. (accessed October 19, 2016); “The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (and Alternatives to) American Empire,” Daedalus 134 (Spring 2005): 18-33; “The Nation That Fell to Earth,” TIME Magazine, September 11, 2006,,9171,1531303-1,00.html (accessed November 26, 2016); “An Interview with Niall Ferguson: The Truth About Empire; How Empire Benefits World Order in the 21st Century,” Harvard International Review 28 (Winter 2007): 74-77. See also his exchange with William Dalrymple: “The Question of Empire,” New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007, (accessed October 19, 2016).

[8] As with Ferguson, I chose to focus on other writers’ essays about American imperialism rather than their books. The essays speak to each other in a way that books cannot, given the audience demands and stylistic concerns.

[9] Michael Ignatieff, “The American Empire; the Burden,” New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003, (accessed November 25, 2016).

[10] I urge anyone interested in the writing of this period to read this essay.

[11] For insight into “long” things such as longreads, see Matt Buchanan, “The Origin of #Long Things,” BuzzFeed, April 11, 2012, (accessed November 28, 2016).

[12] Ignatieff, “The American Empire.”

[13] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[14] Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, “American Empire, Not ‘If’ but ‘What Kind’,” New York Times, May 10, 2003, (accessed November 25, 2016).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Daalder and Lindsay, “American Empire.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Amitav Ghosh, “The Anglophone Empire: Can Occupation Ever Work?” The New Yorker, April 7, 2003, (accessed November 25, 2016).

[19] Ghosh, “The Anglophone Empire.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Niall Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism,” Harvard International Review 25 (Fall 2003): 64.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial,” 65.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial,” 69.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial,” 69.

[31] Ibid., 66.

[32] Niall Ferguson, “Recovering Our Nerve,” The National Interest 76 (Summer 2004): 51-54.

[33] Ferguson, “Recovering Our Nerve,” 52.

[34] Ibid. 53.

[35] Ferguson, “Recovering Our Nerve,” 53-54.

[36] Niall Ferguson, “A World without Power,” Foreign Policy 143 (July/August 2004): 32-39.

[37] Ferguson uses terms of polarity here less as terms of his own liking and more as terms of communication. Like other jargon, these terms are favorites of political scientists, surely one of the target audiences of Foreign Policy, and thus it is no surprise that Ferguson uses them in this article; in fact, it’s actually quite prudent. I bring this up because I am not going to challenge the stability of these terms; instead, I am going to use them as Ferguson uses them—as terms of communication. Therefore, I will not use quotation marks with the terms.

[38] Ferguson, “A World without Power,” 34.

[39] Ibid., 32.

[40] Ferguson, “A World without Power,” 34. Emphasis mine.

[41] Ferguson, “A World without Power,” 39.

[42] Niall Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back,” New York Times Magazine, April 7, 2003. (accessed November 11, 2016). This piece, like Ignatieff’s, is a longread.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.” Joseph S. Nye Jr. coined the term “soft power” in his 1990 article of the same name: “Soft Power,” Foreign Policy 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-171. For a discussion of soft power contemporaneous with the Ferguson article discussed in this section of the paper, see Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Soft Power and American Foreign Policy,” Political Science Quarterly 119 (Summer 2004): 255-270.

[45] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.”

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.”

[48] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.”


Works by authors other than Ferguson and released between 2002 and 2007

Agnew, John. “American Hegemony Into American Empire? Lessons from the Invasion of Iraq.” Antipode 35 (November 2003): 871-885.

Bacevich, Andrew. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Daalder, Ivo H., and James M. Lindsay. “American Empire, Not ‘If’ but ‘What Kind.’” New York Times, May 10, 2003. (accessed October 14, 2016).

Foster, John Bellamy, and Robert W. McChesney, eds. Pox Americana: Exposing the American Empire. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004.

Ghosh, Amitav. “The Anglophone Empire: Can Occupation Ever Work?” New Yorker, April 7, 2003. (accessed October 14, 2016).

Ignatieff, Michael. “The American Empire; The Burden.” New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003. (accessed October 14, 2016).

Lal, Deepak. In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Mallaby, Sebastian. “The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire.” Foreign Affairs 81 (March/April 2002): 2-7.

Maier, Charles. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Nye, Jr., Joseph S. “Soft Power and American Foreign Policy.” Political Science Quarterly 119 (Summer 2004): 255-270.

Panitch, Leo, and Colin Leys, eds. The Socialist Register, 2004: The New Imperial Challenge. London: The Merlin Press, 2003

Porter, Andrew. Review of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson, Reviews in History, March 2003: review no. 325, (accessed November 25, 2016).

Schlesinger Jr., Arthur. “The American Empire? Not so Fast.” World Policy Journal 22 (Spring 2005): 43-46.

Pieces by Niall Ferguson

Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

——. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

——. “Cowboys and Indians.” New York Times, May 24, 2005. (accessed October 19, 2016).

——. “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of U.S. Imperialism.” Harvard International Review 25 (Fall 2003): 64-69.

——. “The Empire Slinks Back.” New York Times Magazine, April 27, 2003. (accessed October 19, 2016).

——. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

——. “Hegemony or Empire?” Foreign Affairs 82 (September/October 2003): 154-161.

——. “An Interview with Niall Ferguson: The Truth About Empire; How Empire Benefits World Order in the 21st Century.” Harvard International Review 28 (Winter 2007): 74-77.

——. “The Last Iraqi Insurgency.” New York Times, April 18, 2004. (accessed October 19, 2016).

——. “The Nation That Fell to Earth.” TIME Magazine, September 11, 2006.,9171,1531303,00.html (accessed October 8, 2016).

——. “Recovering Our Nerve.” National Interest 76 (Summer 2004): 51-54.

——. “Slinking Globalization.” Foreign Affairs 84 (March/April 2005)

——. “The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (and Alternatives to) American Empire.” Daedalus 134 (Spring 2005): 18-33.

——. “A World without Power.” Foreign Policy 143 (July/August 2004): 32-39.

Ferguson, Niall, and Frank Bures. “Our Imperial Imperative.” Atlantic Unbound, May 25, 2004. (accessed October 23, 2016).

Ferguson, Niall, and Laurence J. Kotlikoff. “Going Critical: American Power and the Consequences of Fiscal Overreach.” National Interest 72 (Fall 2003): 22-32.

Ferguson, Niall, and William Dalrymple. “The Question of Empire” New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007. (accessed October 19, 2016).


Buchanan, Matt. “The Origin of #Long Things.” BuzzFeed, April 11, 2012, (accessed November 28, 2016).

Nye Jr., Joseph S. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-171.


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