In a PW Daily interview, historian Niall Ferguson discusses his new book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power.
- PWD: Can global empire be avoided?
NF: I don’t think it’ll be possible for an even partial isolation. Globalization transforms economic and political life, too, but it is a choice, and America is ambivalent to global power. 9/11 brought that to the forefront of public consciousness. Politicians are downright hostile to empire and it’s very hard for Americans to accept that they are now an empire. America is essentially introverted: a huge country, where exports are less important to the U.S. Its default setting is for Americans to focus on domestic issues.
PWD: Why can’t we just ignore the rest of the world?
NF: The instinct about 9/11 is to look away from the rest of the world. But what 9/11 proved is they’ll come to you if you ignore them. The rogue states are even more threatening than they were in the Victorian age. It’s more difficult for us to turn our back on political issues. It was only under huge threats from Nazi Germany and Japan that America came out of its shell. The U.S. intervened in WWII, but FDR was overtly hostile to the British empire and the caveat for intervention was that the British empire would not remain intact. It
was only as the cold war unfolded that strategists realized this was a mistake, and the empire represented a potential partner for the U.S.
PWD: The word ’empire’ has been much maligned. Are you trying to redeem it?
NF: It’s been pretty effectively discredited by generations of left-wing historiography. I don’t think I can save the terminology, but can make the case that it set out to achieve economic and legal order and one can make the case that this is a benign force. We can no longer talk about empire building, but can talk about nation building. Interestingly, things now need to be done in the name of the “international community”–we don’t talk about mandates or
protectorates, we talk about “transition economies.” We talk about “provisional governments” and “safe havens.” We can come up with as much Orwellian newspeak as we like. We can call these things whatever makes us feel good.
Here is a description of the book:
- In this major new work of synthesis and revision, Niall Ferguson argues that the British Empire should be regarded not merely as vanished Victoriana but as the very cradle of modernity. Nearly all the key features of the twenty-first-century world can be traced back to the extraordinary expansion of Britain’s economy, population, and culture from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth — economic globalization, the communications revolution, the racial make-up of North America, the notion of humanitarianism, the nature of democracy. Displaying the originality and rigor that have made him the brightest light among British historians, Ferguson shows that far from being a subject for nostalgia, the story of the Empire is pregnant with lessons for the world today — in particular for the United States as it stands on the brink of a new kind of imperial power based once again on economic and military supremacy.
We have come full circle on the matter of empire: countries should be independent and self-determining, but we have learned through bitter trial and errror that there are better and worse ways of achieving this and that countries need to integrate themselves into the global economic and political order or they will fail and be a burden upon the rest of us.
The new form of “empire” is simply the reluctant recognition of this reality and the determination to do something about it. Al Barger’s excellent post “Good Guys Win” augments this theme.