TCS Daily

Empire of the Son

By TCS Staff - June 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: Frequent TCS contributor Jerry Bowyer recently interviewed NYU economics professor Niall Ferguson, author of the book "Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Its Lessons for Global Power." Niall Ferguson is a leading economic historian.

TCS: It seems to me that in your book your case is that the British empire did more good than harm, therefore certain aspects of empires are positive, rather than negative, and therefore America should not shrink from the role that Britain played in previous centuries.

FERGUSON: That's about right, Jerry. The key thing to say right upfront is that the book doesn't gloss over the bad stuff. It's a balance sheet and I look at the debits as well as the credits and nobody is going to pretend that, just to take one obvious example, that 18th century slavery, which the British were well into, was a good thing.

But what interests me is that by the time you get into the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British Empire was something unique. It was the world's first liberal empire, trying to export not only free trade and free markets, but also with institutions that many Americans today would regard as very good things, the rule of law being one and non-corrupt administration being another. And that's, of course, what many economists would say the poorer countries of the world most badly need.

So when the United States intervened in a country like Afghanistan, or, most recently Iraq, and talks in terms of creating a market economy and above all democracy there, in many ways it's acting quite like the Victorian British empire did without, I think, admitting it to itself. I know Americans have a kind of allergy to the word "empire." I'm constantly amazed at the legacy of the War of Independence even today.

TCS: As a former colony, I guess it's to be expected to some degree.

FERGUSON: Absolutely, and I think it's understandable, but, you know, in a way, it's time to realize that you're no longer the former rebel colony, you are now the world empire and this brings with it responsibilities and I think admitting the extent of America's imperial power might go a long way to making it more of a force for good than it perhaps has been in the past.

TCS: Are we talking about whether an empire is a good thing or are we talking about whether the English speaking empire was, on balance, a good thing?

FERGUSON: I think the latter. One of the key points I try to make in the book is that compared with the available alternatives in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the British empire was really clearly preferable. Whether you think in terms of the other 19th century empires from the Belgian empire to the Russian empire, or by the time you get to the 1930's to the kind of empires that Hitler and Hirohito wanted to create in the world. By comparison with those alternatives, people who were living under British rule in, say, India or in sub-Saharan Africa were pretty well off. And actually people living under British rule in sub-Saharan Africa were in many ways a good deal better off than they have been since the British went.

Because having your own corrupt dictators rip you off and send the proceeds to Swiss bank accounts is really significantly worse than being run by Britain's quite enlightened and very non-corrupt administrators back in the 1940's and '50's. So, I think there is a clear distinction, in other words, between the way English speaking empires work and the way the alternatives have worked.

TCS: I recently talked to Warren Zimmerman who's written about the American empire and about Theodore Roosevelt's legacy. According to Zimmerman, the Spanish empire and the French empire had a very deep streak of self-interest whereas the English-speaking empire, yes, there was self-interest, but there was also a streak of idealism that seems to have been missing from the other empires of world history.

FERGUSON: I think that's right. And the language of liberty, which, of course, the Americans regard as uniquely their own, was being used before the American revolution by British empire builders. And I don't think it's true to say that empires like the British empire are built purely out of self-interest and purely in order to "exploit subject peoples."

One of the really impressive things about what happens in 19th century British domains is the way that infrastructure is modernized. I mean the British bring a communications revolution to Africa and Asia by building railways and telegraphs, creating huge transoceanic cables for communications and steamship routes. It's a kind of modernizing project. And although that certainly has its profitable side from the point of view of the British, it would be absurd to pretend that it doesn't benefit the so-called "subject people." I mean, everybody gains from an empire of free trade and I think that's a crucial point. Britain's empire was the only 19th century empire that was committed to globalization and it wasn't just the British who benefited from that.

TCS: All right, let's turn the issue around for a moment. This is a counter-intuitive stance. Your stance is that empire is good for the colonies. But I'm not so much worried about what that would do to Afghanis or Iraqis, I'm more concerned about what it would do to us.

FERGUSON: Yeah, good point. One of the old stories that you used to read about was that Britain's decline as an economic power was a consequence of imperial overstretch, the British were stretched too far trying to run the world all the way from Canada to Singapore and finally the sheer cost of it brought them to their knees. And you could infer from that, oh dear, the United States could face the danger of overstretch.

Well, I've tried to show in this book and I talked about it in my last book, "The Cash Nexus", as well, that this overstretch story actually doesn't make much sense. The British empire wasn't very expensive to run until finally the world wars came along and those really had quite different causes from the existence of an empire.

When you look at the actual costs of running the empire in terms of defense expenditure, they were remarkably low, and of course the benefits from Britain's point of view of having free trade and access to the markets of around a quarter of the world, these were pretty considerable. One can see that in many ways the empire was self-financing. I think from the United States point of view it's an even easier calculation to make because the U.S. is so much richer than the British Isles ever were.

I think if you just take the case of Iraq, which is clearly the thing uppermost in people's minds at the moment, the U.S. would gain immensely if it successfully transformed Iraq into a growing market economy with a stable form of government. First of all, it would no longer be a threat to the U.S. and her allies; and second of all, there would be economic benefits from trading with one of the world's great oil powers. It's a win/win story that I'm trying to put forward here. I don't think it was the empire that did Britain in. Quite the reverse. It was probably as much the loss of empire that did Britain in.

TCS: Well, it's interesting that you say this. My inclination is not to agree with your thesis, but you make a very strong case.

FERGUSON: Jerry, most Americans have an instinctive aversion to the word "empire." And when you tell them, I'm sorry, you already are running one, better get real about it, they really don't like to hear that. I've come to the conclusion that we need to think of a new word to describe what the U.S. is doing.

TCS: Well, I'm glad you said that because it seems to me that "empire" is an old battleship of a word that has taken on far too much shelling and I think it's impossible to raise it from the bottom of the ocean. And the thing that you're talking about is different enough from historic empires, other than perhaps the British, that maybe a new word is in order.

FERGUSON: Yes, and I think it's interesting the way the Bush administration is casting around to find terms to describe what it's doing in Iraq. I mean, "nation building" was one of the euphemisms it didn't used to like and now it's had to more or less accept it. And when it creates what is, in effect, a colonial government in Iraq, it has to call it the "office for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance", which is a wonderfully Orwellian term for an army of occupation. It's a struggle, and I'm not sure what the correct terminology is.

But the key point is that going out and using our military capability to create functioning economies with stable regimes, if it's not empire, then I don't quite know what it is. It's certainly in the interest of the United States and I only hope there's follow through in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. That is to say, I only hope that after the military intervention, American voters and politicians have the determination to see the transformation through. Because you can't turn a country like that into a stable system overnight. It's going to take years.

TCS: All right, let's talk ideology for a moment because you, said something very interesting. You said this was a liberal idea. And I agree. It is a liberal idea. It is interventionist. It is idealist. It has an emphasis on human rights. It is government centered. It is not a libertarian idea. You need a big government to have an empire. So, explain to me, in America it's the left that hates empire, and it's the right that flirts with the idea. Now, is that different than British political culture and where do you fit on that ideological spectrum?

FERGUSON: Well, I think it's a good question. I think most of the people on the left in Britain today have the same kind of post Vietnam anti-imperial impulse, whereas perhaps conservatives in Britain are more ready to think in imperial terms because they don't have that kind of a knee-jerk American feeling that empire must be bad, per se.

Now, it seems to me that people on the left and people who believe in individual liberty, people who believe that, say, female circumcision is bad, these people in fact should align themselves with an assertive American foreign policy because it's clear that the principal reason why the great majority of the world's women are repressed, let's put it really crudely, is that they live in undemocratic reactionary and oppressive regimes. And if anything can be done to expand American institutions to make individual freedom a reality for that enormous proportion of the world's women who are poor and live in miserable circumstances, then people on the left should embrace it.

TCS: It seems to me that that liberal tradition you're talking about is being upheld very well by Tony Blair, who is on the liberal side. But he is a liberal who says, all right, I'm a liberal, there are women being oppressed, as a liberal I want to do something about it even if it's outside of our borders. So is part of the problem, in your view, that the left side of the spectrum has lost its liberals and they've been replaced with hard lefties?

FERGUSON: Yes, you asked me where I lay on the spectrum and I also hesitate to use the word liberal in this country because it's now so discredited, a little bit like the word empire. But I'm a 19th century liberal in the sense that I believe in individual freedom. And I also believe that one shouldn't simply sit in the developed world, whether in Britain or the United States, and enjoy my individual freedom while huge parts of the world, say in Africa, simply know nothing of it.

I think liberal interventionism might be a better word than imperialism to describe the attitude that Tony Blair has. I'm certainly to the right of Tony Blair on a whole bunch of domestic issues, but I share his vision that we, in the west, have the responsibility to deal with rogue regimes and failed states in the interest of the people who live there. But I also am prepared to say to skeptical conservatives, hey, look, this is in our interests, too; getting it right, whether it's in Afghanistan or Iraq, or, for that matter, in Yugoslavia. These countries will stop being a threat to us and our allies, and they may become dynamic markets with which we can trade. So I think you can make the case for interventionism both to liberals and to rational conservatives.

The people who hate it are out there in the extremes. Gore Vidal denounces the American empire as a kind of new Roman empire. I guess he's been watching some gladiator movies too often. And then you have Pat Buchanan on the right denouncing empire from the isolationist right. So, it's really, I think, something that has a kind of central position in the political spectrum now.

TCS: It seems to me that in the time leading up to World War II, the right was the dove party, for the most part. During the Cold War, the left was the dove party. But, in this post Cold War era, it's more like the fringe, the two fringe groups, the hard right and hard left are the dove party and the center is the hawk party.

FERGUSON: Yes, and I think you can see that very well illustrated in Tony Blair's speeches since 9/11. He, in fact, has been the most articulate proponent of the liberal interventionism since that great crisis and almost immediately he began to argue that we ought to take a more assertive role towards failed states and rogue regimes. I think people, if you like the political mainstream can see the rationality of that, can see that we gain from it and they gain from it.

In the end, people living in Iraq have had to endure nearly a quarter of a century of misery under one of the most ghastly dictatorships of modern times. They are going to benefit from economic recovery and they're going to benefit from greater political freedom if - and it's a very big if - the United States and Britain, and maybe also what we used to call the international community, create a framework within which Iraqi society can stabilize.

TCS: Recently my staff and I looked at the various stock markets in the Middle East, especially states adjoining Iraq - for instance, Iran and Turkey - and overlaid that with sort of a war timeline, you know, from the time of the Bush and Blair ultimatum on March 17th until now. And it's amazing those markets during the progress of the war and especially as the coalition forces succeeded, those markets were rallying. So, while people talk about destabilizing the region, in a month those markets have seen 5 to 12 percent growth.

FERGUSON: Well, it's not too surprising. I'm glad you do this kind of research, Jerry. It's just the kind of work that gets me excited and maybe you should come give a paper at New York University on your finding.

But, you know, it's not too surprising. If you go back to the pre-Saddam era, Iraq - which, of course, had been more or less run by the British for 40 years - was a successful economy. I mean, it had per capita GDP, which was about half of American per capita GDP. Thanks to Saddam, it's now down to about one fifteenth, if not less.

The potential for a bounce back is clearly there. There's no reason Iraq should be a kind of Sierra Leone-style basket case. But if there's a civil war there, or if there's an extreme Islamic regime elected because we hold elections too soon, then the whole thing could go completely wrong. I think one has to recognize that the job is not done. Nobody should be talking about bringing the boys home and holding elections in Baghdad because if that happens too soon I think we could end up with a worse regime than we had before.

TCS: Professor, thanks so much for talking with us.

FERGUSON: Jerry, it's been a pleasure.

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