In response to:
Plain Tales from British India from the April 26, 2007 issue
To the Editors:
William Dalrymple [“Plain Tales from British India,” NYR, April 26], accuses me of having “encouraged the US to embrace empire.” He adds in a footnote that I have “recently expressed doubts about the capacity of the US to sustain the imperial interventions he earlier supported.”
However, anyone who has read my book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, written in 2002 and published before the invasion of Iraq, knows that my doubts about the American capacity to make a success of quasi-imperial undertakings are scarcely recent. “On close inspection,” I wrote,
America’s strengths may not be the strengths of a natural imperial hegemon. For one thing, British imperial power relied on the massive export of capital and people. But since 1972 the American economy has been a net importer of capital…and it remains the favoured destination of immigrants from around the world, not a producer of would-be colonial emigrants. Moreover, Britain in its heyday was able to draw on a culture of unabashed imperialism which dated back to the Elizabethan period, whereas the US…will always be a reluctant ruler of other peoples. Since Woodrow Wilson’s intervention to restore the elected government in Mexico in 1913, the American approach has too often been to fire some shells, march in, hold elections and then get the hell out—until the next crisis. Haiti is one recent example; Kosovo another. Afghanistan may yet prove to be the next.
And now Iraq, just as I predicted in Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, published in 2004. QED.
I might add that it was my unease about the naiveté of American neoconservatives that, six days before the event, led me to cast doubt on the wisdom of British involvement in the invasion of Iraq (“What’s Really in It for Britain?,” Financial Times, March 14, 2003).
William Dalrymple replies:
Though I strongly differ from Niall Ferguson in my politics, and have often wondered at his odd enthusiasm for the bloody business of conquering and ruling over other people, as a fellow Scot of the same generation working in the same field, I have nonetheless long admired my compatriot’s impressive eloquence and his great industry. I was therefore more than a little surprised to see him denying encouraging the US to embrace Empire, and to find him distancing himself from the neocons he says he now finds “naive.” Could this be the same Niall Ferguson who wrote with characteristic brio in The New York Times Magazine of April 27, 2003, the following passionate call to arms?
Let me come clean. I am a fully paid up member of the neoimperialist gang. Twelve years ago—when it was not fashionable to say so—I was already arguing that it would be “desirable for the United States to depose” tyrants like Saddam Hussein. “Capitalism and democracy,” I wrote, “are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an Imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary by military force.” Today this argument is in danger of becoming a commonplace…. Max Boot has gone so far as to say the United States should provide places like Afghanistan and other troubled countries with “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” I agree.
The United States unquestionably has the raw power to build an Empire…[but] where, then, is the new imperial elite to come from? The work needs to begin, and swiftly, to encourage American students at the country’s leading universities to think more seriously about careers overseas—and by overseas I do not mean in London…. So long as the American Empire dare not speak its own name…today’s ambitious young men and women will take one look at the prospects for postwar Iraq and say with one voice, “Don’t even go there.” Americans need to go there. If the best and brightest insist on staying at home, today’s imperial project may end—unspeakably—tomorrow.
The extreme folly and naiveté of such neoimperialist ideas are now, one hopes, obvious to all.
July 19, 2007