by Victor Davis Hanson
New York Post, April 25, 2004
Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire by Niall Ferguson, Penguin Press, 366 pages, $25.95
John Kerry makes the case that the present administration has unduly alienated our allies – leaving us alone, isolated and increasingly frustrated in trying to do too much overseas with too few resources.
Should we Americans rightly be worried about similar charges from allies and enemies alike of unilateralism, preemption and hegemony?
Not to worry, Niall Ferguson assures us in his latest reflection on the state of the world. The problem of failed states, global terrorism and European fury abroad has nothing to do with George W. Bush and the present administration’s muscular foreign policy. Instead, the culprits are the isolationist tendency and Americans’ innate distaste for staying long abroad that allow most of the worlds’ wounds to fester.
Those who got it right about America were not Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, but Teddy Roosevelt and Douglas MacArthur. The latter did not welcome war, but accepted that the world outside our shores was often a pretty rotten place that would take and take until someone – usually us – stopped it.
In reality, we should be natural imperialists, given our wealth and expertise. Americans are also endowed with an exceptional moral sense. We are a generous people, whose checkered imperial interventions in the past rarely proved profitable or exploitive.
Americans’ setbacks – from the negotiated settlement in Korea, the pullout from Vietnam, the mess in Haiti and the last quarter-century of appeasement accorded fundamentalist terrorists – resulted from an innate unease with using our power to its full extent to promote our own liberal values. What limited successes we have enjoyed in nation-building – most notably in postwar Germany and Japan – was a result of one of the few times Americans used their full military might and grasped that occupation was necessary to ensure such potentially dangerous societies reemerged under the aegis of the liberal West.
Does Ferguson propose a new American liberal empire? In fact, he does almost, but not before noting that the British Victorians themselves got a bad rap as exploitive colonialists. In fact, the record of the 18th and 19th centuries prove exactly the opposite: Former and once-prosperous colonies, following autonomy, quickly turned into self-induced miseries, while Britain itself thrived as never before once free of these costly obligations.
Empire turns out not to be a means of making money, but instead an idealist pursuit to keep sea lanes open, bullies at bay and nations trading rather than fighting. The world has been lucky to have the Americans fill this vacuum, inasmuch as the British once did a pretty good job of it as well. And the question anyway for a retiring United States is not if, but when another – far less humane – hyper-power will throw its weight around.
IRAQ is an interesting case study. Leftist critics cry that oil, Halliburton and neoconservative conspiracies are at the heart of our occupation. In fact, our $87 billion investment in security and reconstruction is both a gesture of American magnanimity and service to world stability by implanting consensual government where tribalism, state criminality and terrorism once helped to ruin the region.
The danger there is not military impotence or financial exhaustion, but rather a failure to invest our full military and civilian resources for a sufficient time to ensure success.
But aren’t we in danger of going broke, with over 150 bases abroad and hundreds of thousands of troops in the Middle East, Japan, South Korea and Europe? Indeed, the latter continent is busy triangulating with our enemies (witness the latest Spanish appeasement), getting rich while we sacrifice and running huge trade deficits with us as we supply their own security needs.
Not to worry, Ferguson assures us. Despite superficial appearances, Europe is really a mess. Its new union is undemocratic and statist. Its population is static and soon to fall. Its entitlement overspending is far worse even than ours. And unassimilated minorities and a socialist mentality ensure that European electorates are not going to reflect robust unity or idealism any time soon.
True, we are running dangerous annual trade and budget deficits, as well as accruing massive long-term foreign debt that at present rates are simply unsustainable and eventually incompatible with a strong presence abroad. But again the problem, Ferguson assures us, is willpower, not ability. We are just too self-absorbed and suffer from chronic attention deficit disorder when it comes to the need to stay vigilant and engaged overseas.
SO, the real crises of American power are soaring entitlements, unfunded social mandates and ever-increasing laxity and affluence among an indulgent citizenry. While we fret about prescription-drug benefits, the madrassas turn out soldiers of Islam who are emboldened in their hostility precisely because of our restraint and self-absorption. We have deficits of sorts galore – but they involve shortcomings in galvanizing spiritual power, fielding enough willing soldiers and setting sensible budget priorities.
This is a bold, original and eccentric argument, and there will be plenty of critics who will pounce on Ferguson’s Gibbonesque theory of internal decline and imperial denial. Indeed, sometimes Ferguson himself gives critics easy ammunition.
Need soldiers? Ferguson advises that we look at the millions of prison convicts, illegal immigrants and chronic unemployed who could easily be induced to serve in a massive new imperial army – as if the U.S. military is looking for such bodies for its high-tech, high morale expeditionary forces.
Ferguson really does argue that far from spending too little at home, our real problems are federal wasteful entitlements for couch potatoes. Americans risk becoming softies, pear-shaped and fat, with maxed-out credit cards, waiting to check out in luxurious rest homes – the entire society in danger of becoming an “inert lump of old iron.”
But the Marines – some with dyed hair and Ray Bans – who drove to Baghdad in three weeks, and the Rangers who sleep out in the Hindu Kush, hardly seem the same sort of fellows as those who pour out into the streets of European cities to protest for a 35-hour work week and more government unemployment insurance.
Twenty-six days after 9/11, Americans were in Afghanistan; 40 hours after a similar al Qaeda attack, the Spanish electorate voted in Socialists on the promise that they would get out of Iraq pronto. Our population may seem soft and flabby on university campuses and think tanks, but the sort of Americans I see out here in rural central California like to fight, work to exhaustion and, for the most part, worry more about what we are going to do to our enemies in the Middle East, rather than they to us.
Ferguson, in contrast, thinks that if we keep this indulgence up as a nation, we should fear not the Chinese, Middle East or jealous Europeans, but rather ourselves, who will have to either appease, bribe or apologize to a growing group of emboldened barbarians and terrorists.
SOMETIMES “Colossus” reads as if it is slapped together as a collection of at least five previously published but unconnected essays that don’t always work as unified and consecutive chapters. And often the analyses of popular American culture seem stereotyped and more the impressions of an Oxbridge don who has puttered around Boston, New York or San Francisco rather than hung out much in Kansas City or Salt Lake City.
But those are really minor complaints given Ferguson’s great strengths as an astute diplomatic and economic historian and a fearless, politically incorrect critic who offers a needed warning for a country that he genuinely believes in. So this is a welcome and controversial book from a principled scholar – and it couldn’t come at a better time.
© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson