Niall Ferguson’s Colossus

ColossusI was thirteen when the Towers fell. Math class was cancelled. Instead of doing algebra, we sat huddled on the classroom floor, watching the destruction on a small screen, too uncomprehending to feel real fear, but old enough, still, to understand that something had irrevocably changed. The immediate manifestation of that change was an interruption in the television schedule. Instead of The Simpsons or whatever else I was watching at the time, I was bombarded with talking heads: analysts, historians, economists, pundits of the left and right, and all of them angry, hurt, animated by a rediscovered patriotism. Perhaps even more so than Pearl Harbor, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 punctuated the comfortable illusion of security that we North Americans live under. Terrorism’s real triumph isn’t measured in lives lost; it’s in the sinister suspicion it imbues in even the most quotidian of chores – from flying on a plane to taking the metro. Fourteen years have passed since that day, and still we have not escaped its consequences, from widespread government surveillance – intended, of course, to keep us safe – to renewed turmoil in the Middle East.

Niall Ferguson’s Colossus, published in 2004, one year after the United States invaded Iraq, takes the contrarian position that America’s harshest critics and most ardent defenders are both wrong and both right: pace the defenders, America is an empire, and has been since its inception, and, despite what the critics believe, American empire is a good thing, or at least has the potential to be. Ferguson’s first task is to prove that America is indeed an empire, albeit a “reluctant one,” and for this task he marshals an impressive array of statistics on its military and economic might, both relative and absolute, that leave little doubt of America’s preeminence. To wit:

On land the United States has 9,000 M1 Abrams tanks. The rest of the world has nothing that can compete. At sea the United States possesses nine “supercarrier” battle groups. The rest of the world has none. And in the air the United States has three different kinds of undetectable stealth aircraft. The rest of the world has none.


In 2002, American gross domestic product, calculated in international dollars and adjusted on the basis of purchasing power parity, was nearly twice that of China and accounted for just over a fifth (21.4 percent) of total world output – more than the Japanese, German and British shares put together.

Ferguson even devotes chapters to assessing the two main rivals to U.S. hegemony, the European Union and China, and finds both wanting. Europe, Ferguson contends – in an argument that, ten years later, seems eerily prophetic – is too old, too troubled by internal conflict, to muster the unity of purpose needed to seriously challenge America’s might, and China’s economy, mighty though its progress has been, is too dependent on America. One of Ferguson’s more prescient arguments concerns potential threats to European stability, from massive immigration to fiscal imbalances between member states. Consider this baffling fact Ferguson provides: “According to German budgetary data, the total amount of unrequited transfers from Germany to the other member states some years ago exceeded in nominal terms the celebrated 132 billion marks demanded of Germany by the victorious powers after the First World War.” Ferguson terms these payments “tacit reparations,” a vast sum of money that nonetheless does not contribute to giving the average German any greater say in the affairs of Europe than the Greeks, Italians and Spaniards who are the beneficiaries of this largesse.

Ferguson models his ideal empire on the best aspects of the British reign, and does a remarkable job showing how Britain’s colonies fared prior to foreign rule, during foreign rule and after independence, and the results are disheartening, to say the least. Lawlessness, political instability and rapacious dictators stifle growth and condemn whole countries to poverty.

One study of thirty sub-Saharan African countries calculated that total capital flight for the period 1970 to 1996 was in the region of $187 billion, which, when accrued interest is added, implies that Africa’s ruling elites had private overseas assets equivalent to 145 percent of the public debts their countries owed.

To make matters worse, technological innovations such as low-cost automatic weapons make it easier than ever for a minority to subjugate a people and quell populist uprisings. In such situations, is there not room for an American empire, one that “underwrites the free international exchange of commodities, labor and capital but also creates and upholds the conditions without which markets cannot function – peace and order, the rule of law, noncorrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies – as well as provides public goods, such as transport, infrastructure, hospitals and schools”?

The final chapters warn of internal threats to the American empire, its “feet of clay,” and these, Ferguson argues, are strictly internal. If the American experiment is to perish, he contends, it will not be by the hands of a foreign power or multi-celled terrorist organization. More likely, American domestic instability will exacerbate its problems abroad, and gradually cripple its effectiveness in nation-building. He points, particularly, to the looming fiscal crisis created by our unchecked Social Security and Medicare spending (“By the time they [baby boomers] are all retired…the United States will have doubled the size of its elderly population but increased by barely 15 percent the number of taxpaying workers able to pay for their benefits”) as issues requiring immediate attention.

Colossus does its best to make the case for American empire, first by demonstrating the effectiveness of historical precedents and then by showing their disastrous alternatives, but Ferguson’s arguments are so far-reaching and his eagerness to anticipate his opposition’s objections so great that he often loses sight of his goal or, worse still, ends up weakening his position. At the end of the chapter on American finances, for example, he is less than optimistic that America and its politicians will face their fiscal crisis head on. You cannot found an empire on such doubts. This uncertainty infects the book’s structure, to such an extent that it feels more like a collection of essays haphazardly assembled under a larger argument than a coherent defense of an idea. The result is wonderful reading, replete with interesting scholarship, but insufficiently convincing.