Dire implications of U.S. imperialism

May 02, 2004|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,Sun Staff

Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, by Niall Ferguson. Penguin. 400 pages. $25.95.

The United States may end up a long-term loser in Iraq because we lack the vision to acknowledge our imperial status and the will to stay the course in the current struggle. And that is a bad thing for a world that has benefited enormously over the last half century when this nation has been willing to effectively exercise its looming economic and political power.

That's the provocative -- at times compelling -- argument offered by Niall Ferguson, an economic historian at New York University, in Colossus: The Price of America's Empire.

Ferguson suggests that even as we act aggressively to assert our interests around the world, we are too self-absorbed, unwilling to make the long-term personal and economic sacrifices needed to achieve our goals.

And he argues, most persuasively, we are hobbled by our refusal to acknowledge our imperial status.

Most Americans, from presidents on down, vehemently deny imperial desires, he notes, even as we routinely exercise our unequaled economic and military power around the world to defend our interests and support our ideas.

But he says few people outside the United States today doubt the existence of an American empire. "That America is imperialistic is a truism in the eyes of most educated Europeans," he says.

America's denial of its international power and interests matters, he says, because it prompts us to make serious mistakes when we choose to intervene in the affairs of lesser states. Perhaps most important, we attempt to achieve economic and political transformations in an unrealistically short time frame.

Why, Ferguson asks, should Iraqi leaders risk their fate by cooperating with occupying American forces when we repeatedly declare our desire to leave as quickly as possible?

The consequences of our haste, he argues, are visible in Haiti, Cuba and Vietnam and likely to be tragically repeated in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ferguson argues that America has been most effective internationally when it has been willing to stay -- as in Germany and Japan after World War II -- and when it worked through the United Nations, NATO and other international institutions that limited yet legitimized U.S. power.

"There is nothing more dangerous to a great empire than what the Victorian Conservatives called, with heavy irony, splendid isolation," he writes.

That's increasingly the situation the United States finds itself in around the world these days, because of the aggressive unilateralism of the Bush administration.

But while Ferguson produces a powerful analysis of the realities of America's international dilemma -- from the costs of the current war on terror to the struggle to deal with antagonists capable of effectively resisting America's seemingly overwhelming military power -- Colossus falls short on core questions about America's use of power around the world.

Perhaps most important, if other governments don't share our vision or even seem hostile to it, do we have the right or responsibility to strike out at them? And, if we assume that right, what will be the cost?

If the United States learns to act like a real empire, digging in around the world to bend others to our political and economic vision, it seems likely we would lose the veneration of freedom and independent thought that has made America special for its citizens and millions of others around the world.

There seems to be no tactical answer to that core dilemma.

Larry Williams is business editor of The Sun. Previously, he was bureau chief in Howard County. For more than a decade before that, he observed the risks of inside-the-Beltway politics as an editor and bureau chief in Washington, and before that he was managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal.

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