Books: Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire

Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire by Niall Ferguson

This new foreign policy book really made me think. Ferguson’s argument is that America is an empire, albeit a reluctant one. He alludes to believing that this could be a good thing — both for America and the world — but often also shows how the costly running an empire really can be. He concludes the book by stating “I believe the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the United States is the best candidate for the job.”

But what makes his book extremely interesting is the historical context he uses. Ferguson goes over so many of the U.S. large wars and tiny wars over the last 150 years. He also draws many parallels to the British empire — and shows how a great deal of their forays were not successful (both in terms of British and the colony’s interest).

The examples that most stared at me were the Philippines and Egypt — where he draws parallels to Iraq.

The first example is one that is often used. America “liberated” the Philippines in the Spanish-American War and lost about 1000 lives conquering it (which was a very small amount for that day). However, people in the Philippines were not content to just shake off one master and get a new one. Over the next decade America lost another 4000 lives due to rebel activities on the islands. The war and conquest, which in the beginning was extremely popular, became increasingly less so over time. So much so that successive Presidents were trying to find a way out … and fast.

Egypt is an example I have not yet heard. The British effectively took over Egypt in 1882 when the country’s pro-British ruler was overthrown. And though the British claimed on countless occasions that it wanted to leave Egypt as soon as possible, it was still ruling the country for the next 74 years. In fact, in 1956, the year the British did leave (and only because the national purse could not afford it), the British still had over 80,000 troops on its Egyptian base — which was a tract of land near the canal that was the size of Massachusetts!

We learn from these examples that our transformation of Iraq is going to be enormously difficult and costly. If odds makers were making bets (and some surely are), the odds would definitely be against us succeeding. And Ferguson weaves in Americas huge debts (see my review of Running On Empty by Pete Peterson) of unfunded liabilities to the tune of $45 trillion (!!!) make saving the world an increasingly difficult thing to do.

Like Peterson’s book, my outlook after finishing Colossus is one of decided gloom. And gloom is generally not in my character. Though I tend to be an eternal optimist and believe the world is becoming an increasingly better place, it is difficult to not see the enormous challenges that lay ahead of my generation.

Summation: Colossus is a academic book, but very much worth reading. I’d like to leave you one of Ferguson’s key quotes from the book:

“there are three fundamental deficits that together explain why the United States has been a less effective empire than its British predecessor. They are its economic deficit, its manpower deficit and — the most serious of the three — its attention deficit.”

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