Niall Ferguson on British Empire and U.S. Hegemony

Niall Ferguson the Harvard financial historian has a fascinating article in Foreign Affairs some time ago in which he discusses at length the British Empire and U.S. hegemony. Just a sample below. The first two quotes are from a British General on Iraq and the second by George W Bush. The second quote discusses the U.S. penchant to claim that they are not imperial at all. In some ways this is correct in that often they do not directly occupy and rule countries, although certainly in some cases they do occupy them and attempt their best to set up compliant regimes. Of course this does not always work out as planned! This is from Foreign Affairs.

Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. ... It is [not] the wish of [our] government to impose upon you alien institutions. ... [It is our wish] that you should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science, and art, and when Baghdad city was one of the wonders of the world. ... It is [our] hope that the aspirations of your philosophers and writers shall be realized and that once again the people of Baghdad shall flourish, enjoying their wealth and substance under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws and their racial ideals.

-- General F. S. Maude to the people of Mesopotamia, March 19, 1917

The government of Iraq, and the future of your country, will soon belong to you. ... We will end a brutal regime ... so that Iraqis can live in security. We will respect your great religious traditions, whose principles of equality and compassion are essential to Iraq's future. We will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens. And then our military forces will leave. Iraq will go forward as a unified, independent, and sovereign nation that has regained a respected place in the world. You are a good and gifted people -- the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity.

-- President George W. Bush to the people of Iraq, April 4, 2003

Nevertheless, whereas the British were generally quite open about the fact that they were running an empire, few American politicians today would use the "e" word as anything other than a term of abuse. As the military analyst Andrew Bacevich has noted, this goes for both Democrats and Republicans. Speaking in 1999, Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, declared that the United States is the "first global power in history that is not an imperial power." A year later, then candidate George W. Bush echoed his words, arguing, "America has never been an empire. ... We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused." Reverting to this theme aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1 this year, President Bush insisted, "Other nations in history have fought in foreign lands and remained to occupy and exploit. Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home." A few days previously, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had picked up the refrain in an interview with al Jazeera, when he claimed, "We're not imperialistic. We never have been."

Americans, in short, don't "do" empire; they do "leadership" instead, or, in more academic parlance, "hegemony." That is the concept that needs to be employed, therefore, to make any systematic


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