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

Colossus: The Price of America's Empire

Apr 28, 2004

Ferguson argues that the United States would be better off embracing, rather than denying, its imperial destiny.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Merrill House programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you for joining us this morning as we welcome Niall Ferguson to our Books for Breakfast program.

Last fall many of you had the pleasure of listening to Niall discuss his book, Empire. At that time our guest beckoned us to take note of the similarities and parallels between the history of our own country and the rise and fall of other empires, especially Great Britain.

Having caused such a sensation with his scintillating wit and analytical clarity, it seemed only natural to have him return with the publication of his latest work, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire.

For several years now, commentators have raised the question and debated the issue of whether America is an empire. Books and articles have poured forth. Professors and pundits have pondered the implications. Such is the importance of this topic and the consequences that it has for not only the United States but for the rest of the world.

However, the book Colossus: The Price of America’s Empirestands out for being not only historically persuasive in arguing that we are indeed an empire, but that we have always been. With our daunting economic, political, and military power, Mr. Ferguson believes that America is nothing less than the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. “It is an empire," he says, “that could benefit the world if only we did not find being one so difficult and our empirical undertakings were not so often so short-lived."

Astonishingly prolific, sometimes controversial, but always eloquent, Niall Ferguson has been called the most talented British historian of his generation. Among his many published works, I would just like to call your attention to three: the critically acclaimed The Pity of War, the award-winning History of the House of Rothschild, and Empire, which became a best-seller in both the United States and in Great Britain.

From our history books, we know that the Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was said to stand astride the harbor at Rhodes. And from my reading of Mr. Ferguson’s CV, one could infer that our guest is also a colossus of sorts, not only of the written word but in his academic undertakings as well, with one foot rooted on the banks of England, where he is a Visiting Professor of History and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford, and the other foot planted firmly on the shores of the United States, where he is the Herzog Professor of Financial History at Stern Business School at NYU.

In addition, he has recently been appointed as Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and in July he will become Professor of International History at Harvard.

At this time I would like to ask that you please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a man that Time magazine has recently named one of the most influential people in the world today, a person who shapes how we see the world, our speaker this morning, Niall Ferguson.


NIALL FERGUSON: Thank you very much, Joanne.

What I would like to do in the brief time I have is to suggest not only what is wrong with America’s peculiar empire, but to answer the most important question facing the world today: Why is it that such an economically wealthy, militarily powerful, culturally self-confident society as the United States of America is so very unsuccessful compared with other empires in the business of imposing its institutions on other societies?

I want to go beyond that and offer some possible suggestions as to how the United States could improve its imperial performance.

But first to address the obvious question: Can we speak of the United States as an empire?

In a recent speech given by President Bush to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, he said, “Securing democracy in Iraq will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.

“The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. The strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before, and it will yield the same results as in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world: The advance of freedom leads to peace.?At a press conference earlier this month, not for the first time in his Presidency, Mr. Bush explicitly denied that the U.S. is an empire. “We’re not an imperial power,"he said, “we’re a liberating power." So Ferguson’s thesis collapses. Or does it?

For on closer inspection this is the authentic and characteristic language of Anglophone imperialism. It is precisely the same terminology that was used a century ago by those liberal imperialists who were in many ways the most coherent defenders of the British Empire at its zenith.

It is, after all, a characteristically British thing to do, to invade not only Iraq but also Afghanistan. These are territories familiar to the British imperial mind. When General Frederick Stanley Maudeissued his first proclamation to the people of Iraq in March 1917, he declared, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." Sound familiar? It should. It’s precisely the language that has characterized American rhetoric on Iraq for more than a year now.

The project is fundamentally not so very different. The project is not simply to globalize freedom and democracy. Let’s decompose this rhetoric and see what it means in practice. It means to create functioning free markets, to institute the rule of law, fiscal and monetary stability, a whole complex of economic institutions that are implied whenever President Bush uses that elastic term, “freedom".

It means non-corrupt administration, more efficient, less susceptible to speculation than the old Baathist regime, and an ultimate transition to representative government. Plus in brackets “and ideally, reliability as an ally". These are the desiderata of American policy towards Iraq today. They are identical to the objectives of British policy towards Iraq in the 1920s.

Not only that, but the agencies of American empire closely resemble those of the British Empire a century ago. These empires are not merely based on military power, though at times one gets the impression that American empire is. In practice it is also driven by the power of international corporations and reliant on the energies and commitments of NGOs, ranging from missionaries to more secular charities, not to mention broadcasters. We should never forget that when the BBC first began to broadcast in languages other than English, it began with Arabic.

So this seems at first sight like a bigger, better Anglophone empire, an improvement on the first model. If the first model had a defect, it was that by the late 19th century it had embraced a peculiarly conservative social philosophy that promoted somewhat decadent, rural feudal elites above the emerging educated, urban middle classes that the British themselves had done so much to create throughout their empire.

This is not a mistake, one assumes, that the United States will make. The U.S. is bigger economically in relative terms than Great Britain ever was. Its military capability far exceeds that of Great Britain at the height of its powers. There was never a time when the British had such a technological and firepower lead over their rivals as the United States enjoys today. And powerful though the BBC has been in its time, it has never had the sheer arsenal of media channels of communication that the U.S. has today to transmit its distinctive values the length and breadth of the world.

But this is the central paradox of my book, Colossus. Despite these advantages over the British Empire, despite these extraordinary capabilities—economic, military, and cultural—for some reason the U.S. has been a relatively unsuccessful empire. Its experiments with what the British would have called indirect rule in Central America and in Asia were characterized by repeated and often ignominious failure during the 20th century. Indeed, one could argue that it’s continuing to conduct precisely such an operation in Saudi Arabia today.

Its more self-conscious efforts at what we now call nation-building in countries like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the no-longer-existent state of South Vietnam ended if not in failure, then in very limited long-term success. Only three names stand out in the long list of countries in which the United States has intervened which can be described as successes: West Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

One of the questions I address in Colossusis why there are only three success stories in the history of what I’m happy to call “American empire." But that you, understandably, prefer to refer to using euphemisms like “hegemony"and “primacy."

The British, too, had their own peculiar forms of self-effacing rhetoric when they constructed their empire, though ultimately we never shied away from the term itself.

There are three ways of explaining the limits of American imperial power, and for simplicity’s sake I say there are three deficits.

1)In economic terms, the United States is a debtor empire in a way that Britain only became in the twilight of its existence as an empire. In its heyday, Great Britain was a net exporter of capital in a vast scale. One could legitimately refer to the British Empire as “the world’s banker". London was a financial market that existed primarily to channel British and indeed other European savings to the far corners of the developing world.

By contrast, the U.S. today is a society and an economy based on credit and borrowing that is ultimately borrowing from abroad. It’s not enough to understand America’s fiscal deficit; one has to look also at its current account deficit to grasp the magnitude of American indebtedness.

Recent calculations by economists like Larry Kotlikoff and Kent Smettersshow that the implicit imbalance between the projected expenditures and the projected revenues of the Federal Government is on the order in present-value terms of $45 trillion.

Even more impressive is that as a result of consistently running current account deficits since the mid-1980s, the U.S. currently has net overseas liabilities of minus 25 percent of gross domestic product and rising.

Fully 46 percent of the Federal debt held in public hands today is in the hands of foreigners and in rising measure in the portfolios of the central banks of East Asia. The banks' consistent interventions to maintain exchange rate parity with the dollar over the past two or so years are the single best explanation for the otherwise astonishing fact that interest rates in this country remain still at levels not seen since the 1960s, despite these extraordinary deficits that under different circumstances would surely have increased long-term interest rates by several hundred basis points.

2) America’s empire suffers from a manpower deficit. This is an empire without settlers, whereas anybody who reads Empirewill see that the most important foundation of British overseas power was colonization, in the literal sense of mass migration from the British Isles to the imperial periphery, settlements numbering many millions of immigrants.

By comparison, very few Americans today live even for a period of years abroad, and the great majority of the less than 4 million Americans who are resident abroad live either in Canada, Mexico, or Western Europe. Barely 100,000, if you exclude military personnel deployed there today, live in the Middle East outside Israel.

More seriously, it’s clear that the U.S. has a manpower deficit within the military sphere. Those who, like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, confidently argued that it would be possible to reduce the American military presence in Iraq to 110,000 within a matter of months, who at the beginning of this year were looking forward to a steady draw-down of America’s presence there, have been forced in the past few weeks to eat their words.

We are now in a situation in which a surprisingly high proportion of those people doing dangerous active service in the Iraq theater are National Guardsmen, what we in Britain used to call weekend soldiers. It has turned out to be a very long weekend for many of them.

It’s no secret within the Army and the National Guard that this experience is bound to have some impact, but perhaps it has not yet manifested itself, on re-enlistment rates. The United States is on the verge of a serious manpower shortage and its difficulties in Iraq are in some measure a function of its fundamental over-stretch in terms, to use a Pentagon cliche of boots on the ground.

3)But the economic deficit and the manpower deficit are not the most serious deficits that confront the American empire today. Far more serious in my view is the third deficit: the attention deficit.

The United States is an empire which has ADDS: attention deficit disorder syndrome. No sooner has it intervened in a foreign territory than its political elites and its electorate begin to grumble that it’s high time the boys came home.

I looked recently at Gallup Polls on popularity for the war in Iraq. Exactly twelve months ago, popular approval for the way the war was going in Iraq stood at 86 percent. At last count it was down to 35 percent, and very nearly half of those polled believe that all or some American troops should be withdrawn from Iraq immediately.

This was never an attitude that characterized British imperial undertakings. When things went wrong, the British response, perverse though it may sound, was to send more troops for longer.

The U.S. has faced this problem before—it happened in the Philippines, perhaps the earliest attempt in fully fledged nation-building that the United States undertook overseas; it happened in South Vietnam, but it has happened with far more speed in this present crisis. It took many more casualties in Vietnam and many more months of fighting to erode popular support for the war below the 50 percent mark. In less than a year, with fewer than 600 combat fatalities, support for this war has quite literally collapsed.

I find this deeply troubling, and ominous for what I called earlier "the project"— the implicitly imperial project to transform the institutions of Iraq, to Americanize them economically, culturally, and above all politically.

In many ways Colossusstops there. It presents you with the fundamental problem that American power suffers from these three deficits and therefore seems strategically and structurally incapable of long-term transformation of the sort that is implicit in an undertaking like the occupation of Iraq.

The only times that the U.S. has been able to get it right, to sustain its military presence for decades instead of months, was when it saw its strategic interests in Europe and Asia threatened by another empire. The key to understanding why the United States succeeded in West Germany, in Japan, and in South Korea is that then, and only then, the U.S. could credibly portray itself as resisting the expansion of another empire.

In the early phase of the Cold War, the United States practiced the “imperialism of anti-imperialism". Only when they could portray themselves as the opponents of an evil empire did Americans feel confident in deploying troops for decades on end in territories that they had conquered and occupied.

We are not yet in a situation when such a credible imperial rival exists that the American people feel confident that what they are doing—be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere—is really being done in the name of liberty.

What is to be done? In a recent lecture, the president of my future university, Larry Summers, argued that the American economy could not continue for much longer with a savings-to-national-income ratio between 1 and 2 percent. This, he argued, could not be sustained.

But if it’s not to be sustained, that has profound implications for the world economy. If the U.S. ceases to be the consumer of first resort for East Asia, then the East Asians must reassess their own economy strategy, must cease to believe that salvation lies in a fixed exchange rate against the dollar, bought at who knows what cost in foreign exchange market intervention. They must look to their own markets if the United States is to begin saving.

The Europeans too must cease to fret about the paltry question of inflation in Ireland and take more seriously the reality of near-deflation in Germany.

Much of what has to happen to transform the economic imbalances in the world today must happen abroad. In particular there must be change in the monetary policies of the great central banks of Asia and Europe. Nothing the U.S. can do beyond exhortation would achieve that.

But the United States can do one important thing to make a reality of President Summers' call to save, and that is to assess and radically reassess its own system of taxation. Nothing exposes the great lie that the United States is an efficient capitalist economy more effectively than to migrate and begin paying tax here.

When one contemplates the extraordinary plethora of direct taxation that exists, the complexity of the American tax system by comparison with some of the new and potentially very important simplified tax systems not only of Eastern Europe but also, in the case of Ireland, of Western Europe, one sees how much could be done to improve the way in which this country finances itself.

So my first proposition to address America’s fiscal and economic deficit is radical tax reform at both the federal and state level. It is deplorable that neither of the candidates for the office of the Presidency even considers this issue as a serious part of his campaign. Certainly we cannot consider what has happened in the last four years under this administration to be tax reform. “Tax deformation" would be a more accurate description of the extraordinary way in which fiscal policy has been mismanaged.

A value-added tax at the federal level would make an important step forward in the way that the U.S. addresses its fiscal imbalances.

How can the United States address its manpower deficit? Could it be rational for the U.S. to maintain an army abroad of no more than 250,000 men while at the same time incarcerating in its jails very nearly 2 million, many of whom seem ideally qualified for military service?

The British Empire had precisely the same problem. It solved it with a policy of systematic transportation, and the result was Australia.

I have ruled this out as a solution because I could imagine the headlines: “Ferguson proposes dirty dozen solution to America’s imperial crisis". "Lee Marvin to patrol American prisons recruiting for the 101st Airborne". This is not a feasible solution. It worked for us. I fear it cannot work for you.

Can the United States have its own Indian army? The British empire relied in large measure for its manpower not on the British Isles but on India. The “warrior castes" produced an enormous army which was entirely at the disposal of the British Empire.

Can the United States find an Indian army of its own in Iraq, perhaps, where it has at least begun the work of training an army that one might imagine would be loyal to the United States? We must acknowledge that progress has been slow.

We should abandon the notion of an Indian army of the Middle East and turn to a third alternative: Can somehow the United States co-opt the Europeans into its democratic revolution, its forward policy in the Middle East? The Europeans have large armies. They’re ill-equipped but they’re ideally suited to the kind of low-level constabulary duties which it is now the lot of the armed forces in Iraq to perform.

The trouble is that that opportunity has gone. The opportunity to achieve what has been achieved in other theaters, a partnership between the United States—the sharp end—and the European Union armies—the policing end—was there perhaps at the beginning of last year. It vanished in the course of last spring.

The most I can advise at this point is that those currently training at West Point with a view to a long-term career in the American military should be issued with General Sir William Gwynn’s 1934 textbook, Imperial Policing, and advised to read and digest its contents.

I fear that the United States is very largely on its own. It will have to solve the manpower deficit by itself.

I have one more positive suggestion. The U.S. must soon address the question of its inadequate imperial civil service. You cannot expect the Marine Corps to engage in the construction of the institutions of the rule of law and the free market. No Americans know less about the rule of law and the free market than those who have served all their adult lives in the military, where they are systematically cut off from that reality.

Until the U.S. creates as equal partners of the military a civilian administrative elite capable of understanding the problems of social, cultural, and institutional change in countries like Iraq, its nation-building efforts are doomed to failure. At the very least, the civilians that are currently in Iraq must be persuaded that 90 days is not long enough to learn the ways and the language of a foreign culture.

My last point relates to the question of the American attention deficit. How can that gap be closed? Could it be closed by a more forthright debate during this election campaign about the nature of American power rather than the present somewhat shabby convergence on the solution that the buck should be passed as soon as possible to the UN, while the candidates argue about their Vietnam War records, a puerile display that does nothing to impress foreign observers of the American political scene?

But can the buck be passed to the United Nations in any case? I am deeply skeptical about this. I never cease to be amazed by the optimism with which liberal critics of President Bush, and now even elements within the Bush Administration, praise the UN and portray it as an alternative to the blundering power of the U.S.

Where were these people in the 1990s when the United Nations failed time and again to resolve crises comparable with the latent civil war in Iraq today? I do not share this confidence, and I do not believe, given the present composition of the United Nations Security Council, which seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, that we should expect much in the way of meaningful support from the UN.

The lesson of the British experience is that an imperial people must be led. They must be persuaded of the need for long-term engagement, for sacrifice, and for patience in the undertaking, revolutionary as it is, to transform the very political institutions of a region of the world.

In 1922 Iraq ceased to be a mandate of the League of Nations. The problem was internationalized then too. It was set on the path towards independence under a Hashemite monarchyfashioned in the image of the British monarchy.

By 1932 formally it became independent. British troops were still there in 1955. Nobody would claim that Iraq was a miracle of political and economic institutional reform. But to get from 1917 until 1955 with one serious insurrection in 1920 and a relatively minor coup attempt to join the Axis during the Second World War, this is no mean achievement. If the United States could achieve even half that, it may be able to count its policy in Iraq a success.

But as things are presently set up, it is all too plausible that the U.S. will unwind its position prematurely in Iraq, both politically and militarily, and allow that country to slip into first civil war and then theocracy, all within a matter of years.

“Our patience is not eternal", said Brigadier General Mark Kimmet. There has already been too much patience for those who resist the imposition of order in Iraq today. But for the American empire, patience is the commodity that is most urgently required.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Without wishing in any way to intervene in this debate about the UN’s role in Iraq, I should point out that the failures to which you refer were not failures of state-building or nation-building, but military failures resulting from political disagreements amongst member states on the Security Council; and on situations where such political disagreements did not exist, the UN has a remarkable record of success in nation-building: East Timor, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, all of which began in the late 1990s. This explains why people think the UN has a better track record of doing that sort of work than anyone else.

I want to pursue the comment you made about the “imperial project to Americanize Iraqi institutions politically and economically. " Why is this necessarily in the interest of the Iraqis?

You said that foreigners should look to their own markets. Why shouldn’t foreigners look to their own societies or their own policies? Must they necessarily be Americanized? And if so, is it in their interest or in America’s?

NIALL FERGUSON: To describe Kosovo and Afghanistan as successes is something that only a diplomat of the United Nations could do.

And to suggest that the UN is successful when there are no political disagreements on the Security Council is to conjure up a parallel universe unknown to me in which those disagreements ever cease.

As to who benefits from American intervention and the overthrow of dictators like Saddam Hussein. I estimate that there are about a dozen countries today, and Iraq was one of them, which are incapable of reforming their own political institutions, either because they are subjugated by tyranny or because they have fallen into such conditions of anarchy. These countries cannot salvage themselves. Only intervention can transform their fortunes.

And that is why, if one looks at the early opinion polls that were conducted in Iraq in the second half of 2003, such a substantial number of Iraqis expressed the view that they were better off now that Saddam Hussein had been overthrown.

The disillusionment that has set in this year is one of the saddest consequences of the defects of American policy, because there was good will. There was relief, not dancing in the streets as we were led to expect, but nevertheless a genuine popular relief that finally one of the most egregious tyrants of the postwar era had been overthrown. And he would never otherwise have been overthrown, for even after his death we can be confident that a new heir to Saddam would have taken on the reins of tyranny.

QUESTION: I don’t think there’s an attention deficit disorder. I don’t think that you understand fully the dynamic of American politics.

The Republican Party was and always has been in fundamental disagreement with the idea of nation-building, and there’s a huge segment of the party today silent but very unhappy with this whole adventure.

The Democratic Party tried it and failed and had no particular interest. They might intervene in a genocide in Kosovo, for example, get it over with and come home.

There has never been an interest in this country in empire in any form other than that which exists because we’re so big, but not in the sense that you’re using it.

To postulate that we should build a civil society to occupy other countries is an utter non-starter. It will never happen. It’s not part of America.

As a result, this war has never been adequately grounded in this country. That’s why, at the first sign of failure, Americans want to withdraw. If it was an adventure that they believed in, it would be something else. Other than patriotism, very few people understood this war. Once there were no WMD and there was no connection with al-Qaeda, people are asking each day, “What are we doing there? What is our purpose there??

And if you say that our purpose is to lose all these fellows and gals and money to bring American-style democracy to Iraq, you wouldn’t get 10 percent of the public. It’s an adventure that was misconceived.

For you to put it in terms of an inadequate empire, without the institutions, is far wide of the mark. It’s doomed to be a failure, and, at the end of the day, there will be an Islamic Republic of Iraq, Shia dominated since they’re a majority, and the only open question for me is, what kind of Shias?

Many Americans are beginning dimly to understand what the end game will be here, and they’re not happy with that either.

NIALL FERGUSON: You’ve perfectly illustrated the phenomenon of American imperial denial in what you just said.

We just don’t do that. America just doesn’t do empire. After all, we threw off the colonialist yoke in order to establish our free institutions. You’ll never get 10 percent for this.

Ultimately, your views are very widely shared, and that is precisely the problem. After 9/11, I thought it would be obvious to more Americans that if one leaves rogue regimes and failed states to their own devices—Afghanistan, but also Iraq and others—if one allows, for example, Iraq to become a kind of mini Iran under its ayatollahs, then you will find that the support for terrorist organizations committed to the destruction of the U.S. and its allies will only grow.

Terrorist organizations derive their sustenance from such regimes. They derived some sustenance from Saddam Hussein in his heyday, and it is too late now to say, “What a terrible mistake we made. We thought there were weapons of mass destruction here. We were led to believe by Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush that Saddam was about to launch chemical warheads within 45 minutes at unspecified targets. We do apologize. We’ll go home now.? It’s too late for that.

If the United States walks away now, throwing up its hands and saying, “There will be some kind of democracy in Iraq, there will be some kind of government," it will be creating a situation akin to the civil war that raged for so many years in Lebanon, only bigger, and with geopolitical ramifications that will extend far beyond the Middle East.

The disintegration of Iraq, its descent into civil war, which is all too real a possibility; the emergence of a pro-Iranian theocracy, which is another serious possibility—these are dangers not just to the stability of the Middle East; they are dangers to the security of everybody in this room.

And is it fantasy? Too many American political leaders have connived at this fantasy to imagine that the U.S. can somehow walk away from this or any other of the rogue regimes and failed states that currently sponsor terror in the world today. It is time to get real about this, and that has to be spelled out by someone to the American people before we see another fiasco, another Lebanon, in Iraq.

QUESTION: You make a convincing case that America is better at being an anti-imperialist when there is another empire to push against. Why has this administration been unable to make the case to itself and to Americans that actually there is another empire pushing back, and that would be the reason to rally people around the case in Iraq?

NIALL FERGUSON: That’s a very good question. You must remember that it took many decades to persuade the American people that Bolshevism, that the Soviet Union, posed a mortal threat to the freedom of the world. This wasn’t recognized in the immediate aftermath of 1917. The Red scare of the post-First World War period soon abated. Intervention to overthrow the Bolsheviks was aborted. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the U.S. finally got it that this regime was the danger that it genuinely was.

We’re seeing much the same slow, belated reaction of a colossus to the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Living as they do in this prosperous, happy land, Americans don’t yet fully grasp the magnitude of the threat that this movement poses. It is as yet inchoate compared with the Soviet Union. It is a long way from having the firepower that once threatened the United States with nuclear destruction.

When it happens, let us hope we don’t look back and say, “Oh, if only we’d realized that then."

It’s more apparent in Europe than it is here, partly because we’re closer but also because we see every day within our free societies fundamentalist clerics preaching hatred, murder, intolerance.

I wrote an article in the Timesmagazine warning of the emergence of a “Eurabia," of a Europe fundamentally infiltrated, penetrated, even colonized by radical Islam. I do regard this as a serious danger. It’s a danger to which Americans seem oblivious at the moment, just as they were once indifferent to the threat posed by Bolshevism.

QUESTION: When Britain cobbled together the nation we call Iraq today after World War I, did they made a tragic mistake in putting three different groups together, and perhaps today, rather than trying to continue to make Iraq a nation, the groups could be split off into the Kurds going one way and the Shiites to Iran?

NIALL FERGUSON: I disagree profoundly with that widely believed view. It’s extremely important to knock that idea in the head.

Unfortunately, insofar as they remain enthralled with the idealism of Woodrow Wilson, Americans passionately believe even today in self-determination as the basis for an international order. But self-determination, as in the Balkans today, means disintegration. It means the creation of political units too small to be stable.

And it’s also based on a fallacy, that people of different ethnicities and religions can never live together in peace. The British Isles was once upon a time cobbled together. Calvinists, Scots existed in the same political unit as Anglicans in England. And only in one case did that experiment end badly, and that was in Northern Ireland where a large-scale colonization of a Catholic country created a permanent running political sore.

Scotland and England long ago put aside their historic hatreds, which still raged in the 18th century, and sublimated them into rugby and association football, rather to Scotland’s disadvantage. We were better at war than at football.

And the result is that the United Kingdom exists today as an advertisement of how people of different ethnicities and religions can live together.

In my belief it would be a geostrategic nightmare to follow Les Gelb’sadvice and divide up Iraq up into three. There was a good reason that the British did not do this, and it wasn’t purely imperialist self-interest. It was an awareness that there would be profound diseconomies of scale of trying to run a Kurdistan separately from the other provinces that the British had inherited from the Ottoman Empire.

Imagine the potential for instability if this country is broken up, because at all sides its neighbors have claims on these “statelets" that would come into existence.

I would warn you against believing that self-determination is the solution. Self-determination was the cry that created the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The slogan which was used to justify ethnic cleansing in multi-ethnic societies, which do not exist in discrete blocks, but in interpenetrated communities, this cannot be the basis for a reordering of the world. It didn’t work when Woodrow Wilson sought to apply it in Central and Eastern Europe after 1918, and it would be a recipe for disaster in Iraq today.

Please don’t blame all these problems on the British Empire. It’s like Robert Mugabe saying the reason that Zimbabwe is a basket case is the legacy of Cecil Rhodes. Zimbabwe is a basket case because of Robert Mugabe. Iraq is a basket case because of Saddam Hussein. It cannot be pinned on the British Empire, and anybody who looks at the state of development that Iraq had achieved when the British troops left in 1955 or the state of development that Rhodesia had achieved when the British lost control of that country will recognize that this claim is one of the big lies that is currently doing the rounds.

QUESTION: The reason that the short attention span developed on Iraq was that it was based on a tissue of lies, and when the lies were revealed as such, the costs were not worth it.

It is only people who live in countries like the U.S. and Britain that can have the conceit to not understand why having your country bombed, why having your country occupied, has itself a rather negative aspect and is not something that people will long tolerate.

I put against your thesis of old-style imperialism Jim Garrison’s book arguing that American interests very much depend upon its finding an integration with the interests of its allies, conventionally in Western Europe, but also in other countries, that see the solution to the problems of the world, such as the very real dangers of terrorism, as multilateralism and not an arrogant unilateralism.

NIALL FERGUSON: I have not argued that it was the right decision to invade Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein had concealed weapons of mass destruction. I said that it is too late now to suddenly declare that it has all been a terrible mistake and go home.

In the book I analyze quite carefully why, of all the different rationales for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, unfortunately the worst one was chosen to justify the undertaking.

I also argue that, equally unfortunately, the worst diplomatic route was taken to try to build international legitimacy for the undertaking, and my own prime minister must take some of the responsibility for this.

I’m not here to defend the foreign policy of the Bush Administration in the spring of 2003, but to argue that having undertaken the overthrow, the regime change in Iraq, there is no alternative but to follow through successfully with the project of nation-building, no alternative other than a chaotic and miserable end.

I am disturbed beyond measure by the complacency with which critics of the Bush Administration tell me that somehow this problem can be handed over to somebody else, be it the EU or the UN. It’s a fantasy.

Only the American armed forces are in a position of imposing order at the moment. Hesitation at this point, allowing the likes of al-Sadr and his Mehdi army to violate the law with impunity is a recipe for chaos. A failure of will at this point for the U.S. will ultimately lead to far more bloodshed than the suppression of these relatively small dissident groups would result in today.

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