Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson is a book that most Americans, conservative or liberal, probably don’t want to read or inherently disagree with. However, it is one that all Americans, especially ones involved with foreign policy, undeniably need to read. Why? Because it’s a book about why America is, in fact, an empire and what the consequences of that are.
Some Founding Fathers referenced the “American Empire” and “Empire of Liberty” when contemplating the purchase and settlement of the Louisiana Purchase. They dreamed of a vast empire stretching from sea to sea and weren’t afraid to call it such. Alexander Hamilton, in particular, favored that view of American expansion.
Since, then, however, we have grown somewhat uncomfortable with the term “empire.” Because we struggled for power with the British Empire during the American Revolution, we’re uncomfortable with being called one.
In Ferguson’s view, Americans need to wake up and smell the roses. America is an empire and its power- military, economic, cultural, and political- is used to maintain that power. Colossus is a book about why that is the case.
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Summary of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
The theses of Colossus are that America is an empire, that being an Empire is a good thing, but that America is, essentially, failing at being an empire because it is unable to effectively control other states and remain a hegemon.
Proving the first aspect of that thesis was relatively easy for Ferguson. By charting the history of our foreign entanglements and interference in other states, along with our vast number of military bases abroad and use of economic power to bend states to our will, Ferguson shows that the American state has become an empire. We don’t control territory in the same way that the Romans or British did, but we do have a vast number of states whose affairs we control.
Similarly, the second thesis makes sense and pairs well with Ferguson’s views in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order. Some empires have been evil. The atrocities committed by the Belgians in the Congo, the Spaniards in South America, and the Japanese in their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere were horrible. But those empires were not “liberal” empires. That is, unlike the American Empire now and the British Empire before it, they cared nothing for spreading the protestant work-ethic and capitalism, the benefits of free trade, respect for property rights, individual liberty and natural rights, and a just judicial system.
America, however, does care about those things. When we intervene, it is to fight evil. Whatever your opinion of the Iraq War or Vietnam, the opponents we fought against were evil. In nations where we succeeded in spreading our ideals, such as South Korea, Japan, and Germany, the citizens of those nations are significantly better off because of the American values adopted by those nations. Ferguson’s view in Colossus is that empire is what allows the spreading of those values. When America intervenes in other nations, the values and ideals we bring with us are morally upright and would make those nations better off.
Unfortunately, however, we are failing at doing that, which is Ferguson’s third, and most important, thesis in Colossus. Despite our vast military, economic, and cultural power, we can’t seem to get what we want done. NATO allies don’t spend enough on defense, China is a rising competitor power that we are now in a Cold War with, Russia is mischievous abroad, we lost in Vietnam and are in the process of losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our national debt is a crippling burden.
Ferguson places the blame for that failure on many people and things. He blames our schizophrenic-seeming political system for distracting us from important issues abroad, preventing us from committing to “nation-building” in the long term, and causing us to make horrible spending decisions.
He blames our seeming need to be liked by those whose affairs we interfere with on our ability to effectively control events; if you’re focused on being the “good guy” rather than being effective at combat and putting down insurgencies, it’s impossible to win, as we have discovered on the dusty streets of Iraq and freezing mountains of Afghanistan. Most importantly, in Colossus, Ferguson explains why our principal rivals are the European Union and China and why, although those two competitors both have domestic issues, our domestic economic health will have dire consequences for our ability to compete with them.
In summation, Colossus is a book about what American imperialism is and why, even though it is a net good for the world, we seem to be failing at it.
My Take on Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson
Generally, I thought that Colossus was great. Ferguson defends his theses well and does a good job of using both current events and historical ones to show that America is an empire and why it is failing.
Far more important than my personal interest in the book is its subject matter: American imperialism. Right now, our foreign policy is sclerotic and ineffective. Our military and State Department remain rooted in the Cold War and are unable to effectively combat new threats, namely terrorism and China. Meanwhile, America remains a mess at home. We are divided and constantly fighting, unable to agree on the most basic things or to settle the pressing issues like the national debt and the welfare state burden.
Ferguson’s analysis of those problems is excellent. Particularly, his discussion of the national debt is illuminating and shows why, contrary to the view of MMT proponents, the national debt does matter.
Additionally, Ferguson’s ability to passionately but objectively discuss tyrants is commendable. For example, his ability to discuss why empire is a good thing if in the context of a liberal empire shows that he is passionate about the subject, but the facts he uses and his discussion of the relative pros and cons of imperialism show his commitment to objectivity. Similarly, his discussion of the weaknesses of China and the European Union shows that he thought about the topic holistically and remain focused on the issue as a whole rather than whatever slice of it he is most passionate about.
However, there are weaknesses in Colossus. One such weakness is his preoccupation on Russia. Colossus was published in 2004. At the time, perhaps Russia was more of a threat than it now is. But, in any case, the problem for American foreign policy right now is not Russia. It is China.
And that leads into the second problem I had with Colossus, which is that Ferguson did not properly describe or anticipate the Chinese threat. At the time, China was significantly less powerful than it now is, but it was a growing threat. Ferguson should have better anticipated that growing threat to American hegemony and pressed home his points about the threat of China more forcefully than he does in the book, which spends more time on the European Union as a competitor than it does on China.
Finally, I think that, in Colossus, Ferguson does not sufficiently discuss why Americans should want to be part of an empire.
For example, he discusses why free trade and globalization are good for countries that are parts of the American empire, but not for Americans themselves. Similarly, it is easy to understand why the interventionist wars in the Middle East, as described in books like Hunting in the Shadows, My Share of the Task, and The Great War for Civilization are good for the people over there. Democracy and a liberal order are better than dictatorships.
But why are those things good for Americans? Why should we support free trade if it guts our manufacturing base? Does it really help us if investment flows to developing economies rather than American businesses? Why must American troops die to make Iraq better off? Ferguson never sufficiently answers those questions. He assumes that Americans want to be the heirs to the British Empire and spread values abroad, but never answers why they should want to do so and why the required sacrifices of blood and treasure are worth it.
And that, in my opinion, is the weakest part of Colossus. Humans are naturally self-interested. To convince them to do something, you need to appeal to their self-interest. Ferguson does not, but instead discussed the general benefits for the world of American imperialism. As Americans, we should care what is best for American, not what might help some villager in Mali or Myanmar become better off. Helping them is a good thing, but should be the goal of NGOs and selfless volunteers, not American troops and treasure.
Colossus is a good book about an important subject. I disagreed with some of Ferguson’s assumptions and conclusions but thought that, on balance, it was a good book.
Your opinion of it will likely boil down to your view of America abroad. Should we be a globalist power, bent on reshaping the world in our image? Or should we follow George Washington’s advice to “avoid foreign entanglements” and instead focus on domestic issues and policy? I lean towards the latter, so my opinion of Colossus is not as high as my opinion of Ferguson’s other books, such as Civilization: The West and the Rest and The Great Degeneration. Ferguson, while a good writer, just can’t say why Americans should want to involve themselves abroad.
By: Gen Z Conservative
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