The Wall Street Journal

June 17, 2004

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Bestriding the World, Sort Of

June 17, 2004; Page D7

In the post-9/11 scramble to devise the Next Big Idea in American foreign policy, the notion of empire held considerable appeal to many thinkers -- including many Bush advisers. A year after Operation Iraqi Freedom, however, the U.S. is tripping over itself trying to transfer away its responsibilities as an occupying power in Iraq. Empire looks less appetizing now. Which raises an interesting question. Is the notion of empire itself outdated or are Americans just really bad at it?

Historian Niall Ferguson -- who seems to write provocative books at about the same rate that most mortals read them -- provides some provisional answers in "Colossus" (Penguin, 384 pages, $25.95).

He argues, first, that the U.S. has been an imperial power ever since the Louisiana Purchase, a fact that we ignore at our own peril. What is more, our imperial record, beyond North America, is uneven, with notable successes (Hawaii, Germany, South Korea, Panama) and notable failures (the Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Lebanon). As for the future, Mr. Ferguson believes that the U.S. will become increasingly unable to administer an overseas empire: We already lack the will, and we will soon lack the means.

An American empire? Perhaps -- if we have the will, and money, to keep it.

Much of this argument is persuasive. Mr. Ferguson shows that, even in the early days of the republic, Americans acted in an imperial manner, using blood and treasure to acquire territory in a manner that would have made Alexander the Great smile. Even as our direct control beyond North America became limited, our "informal" empire of pliant allies and military bases steadily grew.

What comes through most clearly in his account is that the troubles in Iraq are hardly unique. Empire, even the American kind, has always involved moral quandaries, confused planning and shifting tactics. About a century ago, there was enthusiasm over the U.S. victory in the Philippines, a distant theater in the Spanish-American war. The enthusiasm was soon tempered, though, by the news that American military officials "had ordered the summary execution of Filipino prisoners."

In the case of Japan, one of the architects of the country's postwar constitution admitted: "I had no knowledge whatsoever about Japan's history or culture or myths." In the case of Germany, Gen. Lucius Clay, the military governor of the U.S.-administered zone, planned to cut his staff by half in the six months following V-E day and to transfer power to a civilian government by July 1946. He did neither, of course. But in the end, America's "empire by improvisation," as Mr. Ferguson calls it, worked well because the Cold War required the U.S. to stay in those two countries indefinitely.

Mr. Ferguson makes the case for an American empire in the post-Cold War world, too, but he bemoans our congenital inability to properly run such a thing -- and here his book runs into trouble. He claims that, compared with the British upper class of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the members of America's elite are too status-conscious to engage in the grubby task of nation-building: "America's best and brightest aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but to manage MTV; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund."

But is this true because such Americans are now uninterested in engaging the rest of the world or because their government has not asked for their help in recent years? In the wake of 9/11, President Bush refused to seek any form of national sacrifice to prosecute the War on Terror, including a call to "wise men" to do their part. Such a request worked for John F. Kennedy; one suspects that it would have worked for George W. Bush.

And the cost? Mr. Ferguson notes, on the one hand, that "America's nascent liberal empire is surprisingly inexpensive to run." On the other, he says that the looming costs of Social Security and Medicare, combined with a low national savings rate, will leave us at the mercy of the Asian governments that own American debt.

He does an excellent job of spelling out the fiscal crunch that America faces but fails to explain why our creditors would pull the plug on Washington's inexpensive imperial efforts. It is certainly possible that Asian countries would be fearful of America's imperial ambition if it seemed to threaten Asian spheres of influence. But it is equally possible that they would be delighted to take a free ride off of American efforts to preserve order beyond the Pacific Rim.

The most obvious puzzle that "Colossus" fails to answer is why the U.S. should even try to run a "liberal empire" if we're so bad at it. Would haphazardly administered American dominions really prove superior to self-rule? Mr. Ferguson believes that the answer is yes and favorably compares the economic performance of the British Empire with the postcolonial performance of less developed countries.

The trouble with this analysis is that nationalism is a much more powerful force now than it was during the heyday of the Victorian era -- even in areas with a brief history of statehood -- and subduing restive provinces would persistently drain America's resources and reputation. In "The Cash Nexus" (2001), Mr. Ferguson showed that simple economic determinism cannot explain political behavior. Strangely, three years later he assumes that the economic benefits of being a colonial subject would triumph over tribal, national and religious passions. They won't.

Mr. Drezner teaches political science at the University of Chicago.

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