Book Review–Colossus

“Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders, and to hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings, as she can. What a colossus shall we be.”~ Thomas Jefferson, 1816

This is the opening line to Niall Ferguson’s Colossus–The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. It is not often that one comes across a book that deeply embeds itself on your consciousness, but such a book is Colossus for me.

Ferguson is a Harvard and Oxford educated history professor who writes with potent clarity. The scope of his knowledge is enormous, ranging from economics, military history and literature. The premise for this book, somewhat of a modern-day classic, is this: America is an empire in denial. It has power that it no longer wants, and in the end, its lack of will may be its undoing.

My favorite aspect of Ferguson’s writing is that he backs up his statements with firm examples and numbers from history, not bumper-sticker slogans and feel-good quotes. First, the author speaks of the “Imperialism of Anti-imperialism.” America’s efforts to destroy despotism and totalitarian regimes. He juxtaposed this policy against the British Imperialism of the past and comes to the conclusion that British Imperialism did far more good than bad, and that America could do the same–if only it were tougher. To prove his point, he shows that of all the former British colonies, now relinquished to go about their business, only two have surpassed their per capita gross domestic product under imperialism– others have fallen. The two that have prospered being Singapore and Australia. Even Canada has declined.

Ferguson also tackles issues concerning the war in Iraq and shows how America was damaged in similar ventures in the Philippines and Central America. America’s problem: We don’t stay long enough. We remove regimes, then move out. The British on the other hand, stayed for decades and in almost every case, British overseas ventures resulted in better places for human beings to live.

The EU, according to Ferguson, has in some cases been beneficial, but for the most part, its effectiveness is overrated. It has not allowed Europe to move as an entity even in stabilizing places within its own borders such as Kosovo. Also, the EU as a whole still lags behind the United States in most economic areas and shows to signs of uniting further. The UN too is all but non-existent and impotent without the United States.

Ferguson ends his book by stating that America is a less effective empire than its British for-bearer and states the following reasons:

1) Social Security and Medicare, not military spending, are primarily responsible for America’s economic deficit. Both will continually drain the federal coffers at an increasingly dangerous rate. The political power of the AARP and the feel-good tactics necessary to get elected may prevent the cuts in these programs needed to avert disaster.

2) America’s armies are experiencing a man-power deficit. It’s standing army is the smallest it’s been in a long time–a time when our overall population was much smaller and a time when our allies were more likely to be of help as opposed to their current role as speed-bumps of American power. More men in uniform are needed if we are to nation-build.

3) Lastly, and most important to Ferguson, is America’s attention deficit. The United States lacks the will that Imperial Britain possessed and therefore, in it’s current state, America cannot make the world a better place as it would otherwise be capable of doing.

Ferguson states that it is possible that the world could become a place of apolar power. America, while having power, refuses to use it. Europe with its, self-imposed neutering. The occasional rise of rogue-states my in fact become not-so-occasional.

Few books that I have ever read have been so informative. I will read it several times in the course of my remaining years, if only to better understand what Ferguson has to say. This book should be required reading for all studying American history and International Relations. Lastly, it should be required reading for Barak Obama.

5 out of 5 five stars.

Next week: Clandestine, by James Ellroy.

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