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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Colossus - The Price of America's Empire

In a concentrated effort I finished my next book for my master thesis in two days. Colossus - The price of America's Empire by Niall Ferguson. I wanted to get a different outlook on power, empire and hegemony than the ones that Arrighi relied on and that Wallerstein (whom I will look into soon, some dumbass borrowed the book from Davis library though, and the second one is missing) apparently invented (World Systems Theory).

Ferguson makes an argument for a liberal American empire being needed. He thus criticizes the USA not on account of its invasion of Iraq but rather condemns it for not being willing to stay long enough, for not devoting enough financial assets and manpower. Even while he, justly, considers the US the biggest military power of all times (even in relative terms, the absolute numbers are just mind-boggling), he argues that the US is a weaker empire (he refutes the usage hegemony as a self-deception on behalf of the Americans) than Britain was one. This, for three reasons: its economic deficit (resulting in an American reliance of capital lent to it by the rest of the world), its manpower deficit (due to a lack of commitment in sending soldiers (who might die) and highly-educated civil servants abroad) and finally its attention deficit (the phrasing of this argument positively cracked me up as I have been preaching this mantra continuously ever since I got here) with which he is referring to the Americans' lack of commitment to their foreign interventions. He makes a very solid case for this third argument (his main one), as he shows how long-term commitments historically tended to result in economically and stable democracies (West Germany, Japan and South Korea (with the latter's democratization obviously having coming very late)), unlike the short-term ones in Central America, which did nothing to improve people's lives in those countries.

The main problem with his argument to me is, that it is based on a perception of colonialism as a historical asset for the better of the colonized countries. His examples for this mostly are the white British colonies of the 19th and 20th century (Australia, Canada, South Africa). Yet, he himself mentions India, which barely grew over its period of colonization, and Egypt (which suffered the same plight). He argues that in India a rapid population growth was to blame, while for Egypt he enumerates positive developments (education, political stability among others) to then claim that it also did not 'experience an economic disaster, which the fiscal irresponsibility of successive Egyptian rulers might well have caused. The question we need to ask is what Egyptian incomes would have been' without British control. His implication of course being that Egyptian governments would have performed worse. This, to me, is pure speculation and while I can offer no proof for this (not knowing enough about British colonial governments), but it seems at least odd that all the white colonies developed more or less rapidly, while the non-white ones did so poorly. I would think that countries settled by expatriate Britons received preferential treatment. His argument then of course still could have validity for colonization of, for example, Liberia by the United States, if these possible colonies were treated in the same manner the British Dominions were. I have my doubts about this. Realpolitisch an American government would have a hard time justifying increased spending and devotion to these countries to which (unlike say Canada and the UK) no special 'blood'-relationship exists (arguably of course there is one to Liberia, but it seems questionable in how far the American electorate would agree to this).

All in all then, Ferguson thus offered some interesting ideas, even if his main argument is not one I would agree to.

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