Excerpt from Colossus by Niall Ferguson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Price of America's Empire

by Niall Ferguson

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  • First Published:
    Apr 2004, 400 pages
    Apr 2005, 400 pages

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The Victorian historian J. R. Seeley famously joked that the British had "conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind." But the Americans have gone one better. The greatest empire of modern times has come into existence without the great majority of the American people even noticing. This is not a fit of absence of mind. This is mass myopia.

It is not hard to explain such attitudes given the anti-imperial origins of the United States. However, just because you were once a colony doesn’t mean you can’t ever become an empire. England was once a Roman colony, after all. Americans also like to point out that they don’t formally rule over that much foreign territory: the formal dependencies of the United States (like Puerto Rico) amount to just over ten thousand square kilometers. But nowadays, thanks to air power, it is possible to control vastly more territory than that with a network of strategically situated military bases. And as for the claim that when Americans invade countries they come not to subjugate but to emancipate, the British said exactly the same when they occupied Baghdad in 1917. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors, or enemies, but as liberators." Those were the precise words of General F. S. Maude’s proclamation to the people of Mesopotamia, dated March 19, 1917.

Unfortunately, the American refusal to recognize the reality of their own imperial role in the world is one of the things that make their empire very different from—and significantly less effective than—the last great English-speaking empire. For a start, Americans feel no qualms about sending their servicepeople to fight wars in faraway countries, but they expect those wars to be short and the casualty list to be even shorter.

Moreover, compared with the British Empire, the United States is much less good at sending its businesspeople, its civilian administrators and its money to those same faraway countries once the fighting is over. In short, America may be a "hyperpower"—the most militarily powerful empire in all history—but it is an empire in denial, a colossus with an attention deficit disorder. And that is potentially very dangerous.

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From Colossus by Niall Ferguson, Copyright Niall Ferguson 2004. All rights reserved.

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