June 28, 2004 5:10 PM   Subscribe

"Without American hegemony the world would likely return to the dark ages" according to historian Niall Ferguson, author of the book Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, which one of his former housemates is critical of.
posted by homunculus (41 comments total)
A longer version of Ferguson's article is available to Foreign Policy subscribers. Available to everyone is an artical on America's "Imperial Amnesia" by John Judis, the author of an upcoming book, The Folly of Empire.
posted by homunculus at 5:17 PM on June 28, 2004

I saw the Channel 4 documentary of the book, and it was particularly convincing, and quite shocking. The stuff about America as an empire is pretty obvious, but his theories on why Modern America seem incapable of winning wars made for very interesting watching.
posted by seanyboy at 5:20 PM on June 28, 2004

Do you know, if extended and direct rule by America would lead to all the freedoms and rights that americans enjoy, then yeah, why not. But that won't happen, will it?

The last thing the neo-imperialists want is the right for lots of furrners to reside in the states. Indirect rule has been disastrous for many centra and south americans, and many still do not possess a robust form of democracy (Venezuela, for example, recently had a counter democratic coup which was applauded by Washington).
posted by dash_slot- at 5:28 PM on June 28, 2004

The Fall of Rome
(for Cyril Connolly)

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

"The Fall of Rome" by W. H. Auden
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:58 PM on June 28, 2004

The US may fall, but we certainly have a few more centuries left. On the other hand, Europe will be Muslim in a few decades.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:03 PM on June 28, 2004

On the other hand, Europe will be Muslim in a few decades.

posted by Space Coyote at 6:15 PM on June 28, 2004

Paris, you're amazing.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:22 PM on June 28, 2004

Don't even bother.
posted by The God Complex at 6:23 PM on June 28, 2004


In the dark of the moon
You listen for any sound,
But you do not hear my approach.
You strive to see movement in shadows,
But I am standing behind you.
You do not want to die,
But death is upon you.

posted by quonsar at 6:27 PM on June 28, 2004

I think what Paris is referring to is the differentials in birth rates. He's not necessarily wrong, although the fallacy of extrapolation does need to be respected (i.e. there were 5000 elvis impersonators in 1975 and 250,000 in 1995, so by the year 2035 a quarter of the earth's population will be an elvis impersonator).
posted by effugas at 6:30 PM on June 28, 2004

Muslim ninjas are sweet.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:30 PM on June 28, 2004

Muslim ninja Elvis impersonators?

Totally sweet!
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:41 PM on June 28, 2004

Protestant Victorian Britain frequently saw families of 8, 10 or 12+ children, PP. Things change, y'know. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the average family size of UK muslims married in the last 20 years is a great deal smaller than their parents generation.

And just in case you want to tell me that you meant some other "Europe"... the UK is a part of Europe, however you define it.
posted by dash_slot- at 6:59 PM on June 28, 2004

I hate to be a spoil sport, but there are now more liberal democracies in the world than ever before...and this largely due to the USA, a country which also has given more aid and help to countries in need than all the rest of the world put together. And, ps: Auden moved and became American citizen.
posted by Postroad at 7:01 PM on June 28, 2004

quonsar, you just scared the hell out of me. That is one eerie poem. Who is the author?

(p.s. Matt: "quonsar" is still not in the dictionary - isn't it in Websters by now?)
posted by caddis at 7:07 PM on June 28, 2004

I for one bow down to our muslim ninja evlis overloards.

Ahalla hum dillalla, woah woah, baby!
posted by delmoi at 7:17 PM on June 28, 2004

This was a great post. I love Niall Ferguson (he's very thorough and persuasive) but the second article in the post does a great job of refuting some of Niall's ideas.

I wish some of you would actually read the damn articles instead of feeding the trolls.
posted by BlueTrain at 7:18 PM on June 28, 2004

As far as Europe being taken over by Muslims, don't worry. The whole continent has been holding back it's genocidal tendencies for way to long. It's way over due.


If America had no power after WWII, for some reason, everyone would have simply ended up communist. If we lose power now, there are too many "Modern" nations for the whole world to end up fucked. China, or the EU can take over. Although I'm convinced China's self-centered arrogance may keep them from being a superpower, as it has in the past when they were on top economically (16th century, and other times).

If you think Americans are self-centered, national chauvinists, you probably haven't spent much time on mainland china.

The EU, on the other hand, has a proven track record with respect to world domination. And without the minor problem of periodically murdering each other wholesale, they shouldn’t have the same problems as before.
posted by delmoi at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2004

AMERICA: Gee, Niall, what do you want to do tonight?

NIALL: The same thing we do every night, America. Try to take over the world!
posted by moonbiter at 7:43 PM on June 28, 2004

Although I'm convinced China's self-centered arrogance may keep them from being a superpower

In the same Foreign Affairs issue as linked above (July/August), there's a great article describing why China may have a large GDP but no organization or internal technological advancement (as the article mentioned "indiginization") to consider the nation to be a global superpower on the rise. In fact, the article makes the opposite case, that China's businesses aren't making the necessary long-term investments to create a successful future.

As far as the EU is concerned, there have been several well-known articles published that suggest that the EU's extremely dibilitating economic structure, coupled with its complete lack of a military presence, will prove it to be an unworthy competitor to US hegemony.

In my opinion, no real power has emerged, nor will it in the next 10-20 years, to rival the former Soviet Union's status as an equal to the US. There are some great candidates out there, which include the EU, China, India, and the Asian Tigers. However, none have the physical, technological, or political infrastructure necessary to truly claim super-power status. Although what truly scares me is that during the interim, while a truly powerful rival emerges, rampant terror around the globe will hamper strategic economic policies between nations and regions.
posted by BlueTrain at 7:45 PM on June 28, 2004

Hmm...I really need an editor. Miguel, you busy?
posted by BlueTrain at 7:47 PM on June 28, 2004

I'm guessing the US will shoot itself in the foot if it were to try imposing a global Imperium. It's just not the stuff we are made of, for which I am glad.

I, for one, agree with those whose sentiment lay in bringing the rest of the world up to our standard of living. Sadly:
  1. evidence suggests that most who argue for global hegemony don't really have that laudable goal in mind;
  2. given the realities of resource consumption, it probably isn't a doable goal anyway.
"We like and/or want to improve the way we live and if you do anything to try to take that away from us we will kill you" has been a common theme in human societies throughout history, and when it comes down to it Americans are no different than any other group of people.posted by moonbiter at 7:57 PM on June 28, 2004

BlueTrain, is this is the Foreign Affairs article?

A Global Power Shift in the Making.

(FA is embroiled in a bit of controversy these days.)
posted by homunculus at 7:59 PM on June 28, 2004

Yeah. Here.

I subscribe. I love their stuff. I've wanted to submit some of my work to them, but I've never felt strong enough about my style. Hence my need for an editor.
posted by BlueTrain at 8:05 PM on June 28, 2004

Thanks. I read Hoge's article over the weekend but I hadn't seen Gilboy's.
posted by homunculus at 8:44 PM on June 28, 2004

"End of preview: first 500 of 4,856 words total."

posted by homunculus at 8:51 PM on June 28, 2004

Seems like there's a bootstrap problem... how did the world get out of the Dark Ages without America?
posted by RylandDotNet at 9:44 PM on June 28, 2004

Gilboy's article : "George J. Gilboy is a senior manager at a major multinational firm in Beijing"

Just saying.
posted by troutfishing at 10:12 PM on June 28, 2004

Good post homunculus. And I enjoyed your recent Bookfilter post as well, pity so few people saw it...
posted by vito90 at 10:30 PM on June 28, 2004

I like "hegemonkey" (in the window title)
posted by kirkaracha at 10:31 PM on June 28, 2004

GIRL: But can't war also be understood as a gap in history - an often catastrophic interruption of the steady course of civilization and culture?

TEACHER: And just what is your 'culture and civilization' doing while they supposedly wait for war to be over?
posted by kaibutsu at 2:03 AM on June 29, 2004

A bit more seriously, I think it kinda funny how obtusely euro-centric the article is. The whole 'global hegemony' thing seems to me to be a purely Western thing, that in recent times has been picked up by others. And this line: "Waning empires. Religious revivals. Incipient anarchy. A coming retreat into fortified cities." a) Wouldn't that imply a exodus from the cities into thin-spread, pastoral lifestyles, and b) Why exactly would these neccesarily be bad things?

And so on.

The author has his head up a loaded ass of cultural assumptions. I just don't see how conflict on a GLOBAL level is essential in staving off a so-called dark age. Sure, inter-tribal conflicts are an inescapable fact of life, but the nation-state is a very recent construct, with wars between them just as artifical. What makes this a 'bright' age? What constitutes a dark age, other than a 'depressed economy?'

I don't get it.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:19 AM on June 29, 2004

Niall Ferguson is a brilliant man with a bad idea that he's been running into the ground for years now: Empire is Good! Ooh, revisionist, quirky, that'll show those soft-headed multiculti lib-lab types! Except you know what? Empire is bad, for exactly the reasons everyone (except imperialists) always thought it was: it causes terrible suffering for lots of people in the course of building those roads and bridges imperialists go on about, and in the end the subject peoples (unable for some reason, probably their backward barbarian brains, to fully appreciate those roads and bridges, and the fact that a few of their best and brightest get to go to Oxford/Georgetown/the Sorbonne) cause so much trouble the imperial power gets fed up and scuttles away in too much of a hurry to provide much in the way of a transition, leaving behind chaos, civil war, and deterioration of all that imperial infrastructure, leaving the people in Foggy Bottom/the Quai d'Orsay/the Foreign Office to say "See? Bloody wogs can't run their own country -- that's why they needed our imperial whip hand!"

Here's Mark Steyn's reasoned take on Sir Niall (as he will surely be in a few more years of brilliant bloviating):
...I know how the Prof feels. After 9/11, I wasted many months urging formal imperialism on the Americans. The hands-off approach — "He may be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch" — gave us the House of Saud and most of our present troubles. Better to kit out the chaps from the Beltway think-tanks in solar topees and ostrich feathers and make American imperialism an administrative reality. It could hardly get a worse press than the informal, cultural imperialism of hamburgers and "Dude, Where's My Car?" that provoked Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the former French defence minister, to claim America was dedicated to "the organised cretinisation of our people". Might as well make the cretinisation more organised, I'd say.

But no takers. America hasn't an imperialist bone in its body. For one thing, there's nobody to staff an imperial governing class. If you were the average 19th-century Englishman, life in the colonies had plenty of attractions: more land, better weather, the opportunity to escape the constraints of class. None of these factors applies to the average 21st-century American: if you're in Maine and you're sick of it, you can move to Hawaii rather than the Malay states.

Speaking of Hawaii, why is it a state rather than a colony? It's nowhere near the rest of America. Its flag even has the Union flag in it, just like the ensigns of all those other dots in the Pacific, such as Fiji and the Cook Islands. Yet Hawaii enjoys the same place in the American federation as New Hampshire. The framework that the Founding Fathers devised to unite a baker's dozen of small ethnically homogeneous colonies on the East Coast proved strong enough to expand across a continent and halfway round the globe to Honolulu. Had Britain in the 1880s or 1890s decided to transform its empire into a federation, it might still be in business today. Certainly, it could hardly be in worse shape than the moth-eaten façade of the Commonwealth.

The very reason that Hawaii is a state is the same reason that America makes a poor imperialist: it is uncomfortable with colonial subjects; it lacks the benevolent paternalism necessary for empire. In Iraq, they're betting not on imperialism, but on liberty. That's a long shot, given the awful passivity and fatalism of the Arab world. But it's not inherently more preposterous than the fake Hashemite kingdom imposed on Mesopotamia by Britain. America may fail. But it will be an American failure. Imperial nostalgics who wish to live vicariously will have to look elsewhere.
posted by languagehat at 8:08 AM on June 29, 2004


the poem Q posted.
posted by clavdivs at 9:37 AM on June 29, 2004

Please, please, folks... this is no more than bad alternate history fiction, and much too self-serious, to boot.

The one thing that we can be absolutely sure of without "American hegemony" is that things would be different. This is just wanking under the guise of history.
posted by lodurr at 9:40 AM on June 29, 2004

"Power, in other words, is not a natural monopoly; the struggle for mastery is both perennial and universal. The "unipolarity" identified by commentators following the Soviet collapse cannot last much longer, for the simple reason that history hates a hyperpower. Sooner or later, challengers will arise, and back we must go to a multipolar, multipower world".

Is this true, or is it opinion?

The author forgets the period of 1945-1948/49. Well, at least when it comes to global ambitions. When in college, I fleshed out a doctoral thesis that America is/was the only "power" NOT to pursue world hegemony through all means possible. More exacting, our sole possession of nuclear weapons. Data shows that we had enough bombs and a delivery system, by 1947-48 (if not before with "crash" programs), to flatten Russia and expand a truly Roman-like system throughout the world using war as it's main drive. We were unrivaled during those few years. History shows that empires will use every weapon at it's disposal to achieve its goal of domination and implementing a system to control Territories gained. But America did not. Forget other powers objection, forget the massive scope of humanity that would have risen against an american preemptive strike against anyone who opposed us. The fact remains we had the power to do so.

and we did not do this. (the nuclear bombs dropped on japan, which IMO was not necessary, is not part of this thesis except if we did not stop with Japan, as in, gone on to bomb Russia)

but the real question is did we have the WILL. I say no, America was tired as was the world by 1945. The real drive to create a true empire is through it's people, more over, the lack of WILL and strength to oppose such an almost unthinkable course of action.

to me, it was the great tenets of democracy that prevented some mad american dictator from pursuing this course of action.
posted by clavdivs at 10:07 AM on June 29, 2004

Well said.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on June 29, 2004

i like these* treatments of imperialism, altho i think one might correctly consider hegemony a separate notion, particularly wrt 'soft power' -- where institutionalised/internalised.

in regard to global democracy vs empire, i think both suffer from what anne applebaum has called "The New New World Order" syndrome, in that books of this nature must espouse 'the big idea'. that's what we're taught afterall, and what we expect: a thesis; what's the big idea?
Alas, the real world isn't like an academic article. It is certainly comforting to have one big idea around which all other policies easily fall into place, and it is easy to see why everyone is so relieved. Even I am relieved. But I am also afraid that in the complicated, interlinked, globalized modern world, one big idea isn't going to be enough.
as for global democracy, i think it's worth asking, as benedict anderson does,
...why isn’t there a single democratic society covering the entire globe, or why aren’t there 300 million democracies in the world? The answer to this of course, in our time, is nationalism. Which is not about process, and it’s not even about rational interests in many cases, but is about collective solidarity and collective imagination.
..or lack thereof.

anyway, that said, i think it'd be interesting if the US opened up statehood again (we've been at 50 for awhile now!) or if hardt & negri's idea of global citizenship were to ever catch on (don't some refugees claim "UN citizenship?"), or if as bruce sterling writes:
...while the US was loudly conquering Iraq, the world's weirdest empire quietly swallowed 10 countries. In the ancient shadow of the Acropolis, the European Union expanded from 15 nations to 25, opening its gates to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the island of Malta, and the schizoid mess that is Cyprus. Someday, "Europe" might extend all the way to Japan.
..it's already happening :D like the roma all of a sudden aren't as displaced/stateless as they once were. or corsica, altho devolved from france, isn't so much a political entity anymore as an economic unit (kinda like wales and scotland?) and like it may even make sense, as miguel(?) wrote way back when, for the UK to eventually dollarise and canada to join the euro! ..i dunno, military arrangements would be weird i guess, but it's not like they'ren't already :D

speaking of military arrangements, if one of the prerogatives of the state is, as political scientists would have us believe, a monopoly on violence within its borders (the other being the ability to mint currency), i think this is where it becomes most clear where the role of the superpower hegemonist lies.

take for instance iran's recent insistence of its right to pursue nuclear armament. i would say go right ahead. if you found yourself surrounded on all sides by unfriendly, if not hostile forces -- being as it were labeled by those forces an axis of evil -- and israel already in contravention of 'international law' unsubtly hinting at its nuclear capability, while north korea has parlayed its program into a lucrative bargaining chip, and last but not least the US unbounded by weapons treaties of most any kind, what is the downside? the right to bear arms, national self-determination, defense and preservation and all.

more, you're trying to exert influence on iraq with an eye toward a 'greater persia' and as a counterbalance to sunni arab power and creeping ikhwan wahhabism (pls. let me know if this grossly mischaracterizes the situation! this is just what i've gathered :) i mean if you're a state there's lots of reasons to have them, and if you don't, more reasons to get them!

in other words, in a realpolitik world, except for it being expensive and hard to do, it doesn't make sense to me not to pursue the nuclear option. i'm always surprised the non-proliferation line has held up as well as it has. like it's hard for me to believe that a trident submarine in the sea of japan is why japan hasn't gone nuclear yet (if indeed they haven't already :)

ditto the militarization of space, which is why i think galileo is so historic. cuz the the admin's national security strategy has been explicitly to maintain a "balance of power that favors freedom," but implicitly, it seemed, to keep an arsenal far larger and superior than anyone else's, including our allies (erstwhile or otherwise). given india and china's involvement, allowing galileo to proceed seems like a tacit admission from the admin that it was backing away from it's unipolar doctrine, and therefore, hegemony!

we'll see about iran :D

plastic btw also had a pretty nice discussion recently on colossus :D

*also see SDB's treatment of 'empire' as network effect!
posted by kliuless at 3:39 PM on June 29, 2004

The Hall of Justice could solve serious disputes - without having a warring hegemonic nation.
posted by lightweight at 12:48 AM on June 30, 2004

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