Imperial Denial

Niall Ferguson says we should stop worrying and learn to love the American Empire.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

The Oxford historian Niall Ferguson says the United States is in imperial denial. In his latest book, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, Ferguson argues that America, with its unrivaled political, military, and economic might, is, de facto, an empire — a “liberal empire.” Rather than deny the obvious, he says, the U.S. should embrace its imperial status and work to set up free-market democracies in states stunted by tyranny and anarchy.

Sounds like something Paul Wolfowitz could live with. And, indeed, the London Guardian last year called Ferguson, who strongly supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “the new-found darling of the American right.” But these days, from his latest perch at New York University, Ferguson has been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s prewar planning and its failure, as he sees it, to learn from history. He says that for the American campaign to succeed in Iraq — that is, for Iraq to become a functioning liberal democracy — the U.S. has to commit troops and money there for at least a decade, as did Britain in the early 20th century.

In this interview with, Ferguson talks about Iraq and the lessons of empires past, and why he fears a future where there is no American empire. You call the U.S. an empire. Most Americans don’t think of their country that way. What makes it an empire?

Niall Ferguson: Well, it functions like an empire, in the sense that it projects its military power globally, its economic interests are global, its cultural reach is global. In many ways it’s a more impressive empire than any empire has ever been. The only strange thing about it is that its citizens don’t recognize the fact. That’s odd, because the Founding Fathers quite openly called the United States an empire. Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Washington all used the e-word to describe the United States. You say denial prevents America from running its empire effectively.

NF: Well, I think the condition of imperial denial is a handicap because if you do not recognize that you are essentially performing the functions of an empire, you are incapable of learning from the mistakes of past empires. And most Americans, policymakers, and commentators are trapped in this tunnel of American historical experience and the assumption of American Exceptionalism. So when they occupy Iraq or Afghanistan, they don’t say to themselves: “I wonder how the British got on? Or I wonder what the lessons of Ottoman rule in Mesopotamia might be?” They think the only thing that they have to learn from is the Vietnam War, and that is, of course, a completely irrelevant precedent for what’s going on at the moment. I think that’s one reason why the United States has quite a bad record of making its interventions and its attempts at nation building successful. Why is that President Bush can only think of two good examples of past success — West Germany and Japan after 1945 — whereas I, in my book, can think of at least 10 notable U.S. failures, from the Philippines through Haiti. Why does the U.S. have such a bad record?

NF: One of the things I argue in the book is that compared with the British Empire a century ago, the United States is afflicted by three deficits. One of them is economic. The current account deficit of 5 percent of GDP translates into a huge reliance on foreign capital. Whereas a hundred years ago, Britain was the world’s banker — it exported capital in net terms on a colossal scale and was in a position to underwrite its imperial activities with serious investment. The United States is struggling to find the money for the reconstruction of Iraq. Most of that 125 billion dollars — which is the current price tag — is going straight toward their military occupation costs. Quite a small fraction of it is going on reconstruction. You really struggle to be a successful empire if you are also the world’s biggest debtor.

The second deficit is a manpower deficit. There are no colonists, no settlers willing to leave the United States and go out and Americanize the Middle East, the way that a hundred years ago there were people pouring out of the British Isles, ready and willing to live on the imperial periphery — Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, but also India and the Middle East. The only people out there are military and there aren’t that many of them. The current occupation force in Iraq is about the same size as the British occupation force in 1920, and the population of Iraq of course is much, much larger today.

But the biggest problem, I think, goes back to this issue of imperial denial. Americans want to believe that you can invade, depose the bad guys, hold elections, and come home. They think that it can all be done in maybe 24 months? And this is just fantasy. It’s probably going to take ten years at the basic minimum to make Iraq a stable, functioning market economy with something resembling democracy. And I just think that there is a complete lack of realism about that here because people think, “Oh, this isn’t empire, this is just liberation. And we will be greeted with sweets and flowers when we arrive in Baghdad and they will be so happy to see us, they’ll hold elections, and we can home, you know, for November 2 and vote.” Dream on. You supported the war in Iraq, but you’ve been critical of the occupation. What went wrong?

NF: I did support the war. It seemed to me, back in the later Clinton years, that just firing the odd cruise missile wasn’t going to change anything. And the flyovers and the policy of containment and the weapons inspections — none of this was working. And I think it was obvious, before 2003, that the existing policy toward Iraq was a failure and was impoverishing Iraqis. It was not undermining Saddam, and the U.N. turns out simply to have been funding his regime with the oil-for-food program. So I was in favor of the change of policy and I was in favor of using American military power to overthrow Saddam.

But things have gone wrong, and I have been pointing them out for more than a year now. The first of them was the unrealism about how easy the peace would be. This time last year — in fact, right at the very beginning of the war — I said: “The war will be easy, the regime will collapse, but the peace will be really difficult.” And there was this strong constituency in Washington that did not want to hear that — that had persuaded itself that there would be a very easy peace; so easy that it did not need to be planned for. The State Department had a complex plan for post-war Iraq. It was burned in the bin by the Defense Department. I think that’s inexcusable.

I think the other thing that has gone wrong has been that the justification for the war that was put forward first and most explicitly by Vice President Cheney and then by President Bush, and then ultimately even by Secretary Powell that there really, definitely were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — definitely, categorically — was a lie. And it was an unnecessary lie. If they had said it’s a precautionary measure, we are acting preemptively, we just don’t know, the guy has not cooperated with the weapons inspectors, we just can’t be sure, I think the case would have been stronger.

The other big one is diplomatic. I think one has to admit that the Bush policy towards the U.N. last year was almost schizophrenic. One half of the administration thought the U.N. didn’t matter and could be ignored, and the other half — principally the State Department and of course, America’s British allies — wanted the U.N to be on board. Now, when you have a schizophrenic policy like that, you end up, inevitably, with the worst possible outcome. The worst possible outcome was the U.N. Security Council refusing a second resolution and appearing, in effect, to veto the legitimate international sanction for the invasion of Iraq. You either had to go with U.N and mean it or you had to ignore the U.N. and mean it, but trying to have it both ways was really a very unsatisfactory strategy. There’s a lot of talk now of “internationalizing” the Iraqi occupation, but you’re skeptical about a U.N. role. Why?

NF: Well, I think that [United Nations special envoy to Iraq Lakhdar] Brahimi, so far, has not exactly covered himself in glory. There was a mechanism for transition of power in place, there was a Governing Council, and the CPA has set a date for winding up the occupation. Why bring in Brahimi? It was a desperate kind of volte face by Bush to turn to the U.N. and say, “Actually, you choose an Iraqi government.” Brahimi then proceeded to heap vilification on Israel and make it clear that he wanted what he called a “technocratic” Iraqi government. Well, we all know that that’s code for some kind of Sunni, rather than Shiite, some kind of pan-Arab, rather than authentically Iraqi, regime. And I don’t think that its done anything other than delegitimize, even further, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council.

It’s too late now to turn around and say: “Oh please U.N., could you sort this mess out?” Especially since the U.N. can’t deliver what is most urgently needed — namely, substantial peacekeeping troops. There aren’t enough troops in Iraq and American support for the campaign is slipping – so what are the alternatives?

NF: I think there is no alternative to pressing on. If the U.S. were to withdraw now, then Iraq would plunge into civil war and the consequences, not only for Iraq, but for its neighbors, would be unforeseeable, but certainly dangerous. There are reasons to be — not optimistic, but not wholly pessimistic about Iraq. We must keep sight here of the fact that resistance is relatively isolated; it certainly represents a relatively small percentage of population; its quite regionally specific. Economically, things are unquestionably improving. In fact, I would say that the economic situation in Iraq is a lot better than it was in West Germany and Japan fourteen months after the end of World War Two. Therefore, there is some reason to think that the occupation will, by the end of this year, be looking a lot more secure. Economic recovery is the key. If young men have jobs — or the prospects of jobs — they are less likely to take up arms, they are less likely to join the resistance.

So it’s not over yet. Nor is it hopeless to train up Iraqi forces. Ultimately, you have to get police and army to function in Iraq, and that’s going to be a key priority for the Americans not only up to, but beyond, June 30th. The U.S. has got to face the fact that it absolutely has to create institutions with which it can collaborate after June 30th. And people who believe that we’ll all be better off if the U.S. troops came home at this point are kidding themselves. The reality is that you would be handing a victory to the forces of terrorism, not to mention the old Baathist elements. A victory that would send signal right the way through the world: America can be beaten. Just stick it out, fight dirty, and they’ll loose their nerve. You say the world needs a “liberal empire” and that the U.S. can fill the role. What do you mean?

NF: A lot of Americans think that “liberal empire” is a contradiction in terms, and people on the left always get very indignant and say “how could empire be anything other than exploitative, and wicked, and dreadful and you are an apologist for empire.” But there is a critically important historical point to be made here. In the mid-nineteenth century, the British Empire changed, quite dramatically, in its approach to governing foreign territories. It embraced free trade, it embraced the idea that its business was to create the rule of law and to build the foundations of representative government throughout the empire. Not that it was perfect. Not that it did not have its racist culture. But the model of creating a global economic system with political stability as its underpinning was well established by the late nineteenth century. And I think that that’s what the U.S., rather unwittingly, is trying to do today in the early 21st century: to create a political underpinning for a globalized economy. To make sure those parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, that are economically important, don’t descend into anarchy or don’t languish under hostile dictatorships.

Iraq wouldn’t have become a democracy by itself. Under Saddam it was mired in a permanent and horrific tyranny. And no serious liberal — no really committed liberal – can regard the status quo prior to March 2003 as legitimate or something that could be tolerated. And there about a dozen regimes in the world that are either such evil and horrific tyrannies or such completely defunct failed states that they just can’t fix themselves. That’s where empire comes in. Empire provides stability. It provides the option of improving institutions in countries where they failed and, in that sense, it is not such a contradiction in terms to say that an empire can be liberal. And when it works, it really does work: Germany after 1945, Japan after 1945 had been in many ways, up until that point, the worst rogue regimes of all time. Today, they are exemplars of free societies — economically and politically. And that’s because the United States took a long view, stayed the distance. Americans troops are still in those countries. American money was invested in the reconstruction of those countries. It took American intervention to achieve that transformation. But most Iraqis now want the Americans out. What to do?

NF: All empires have depended on local legitimacy and local collaboration; they are not based primarily on coercion. An imperial rule that relies wholly on coercion can’t endure. It’s too expensive. So the question of how you get local support is absolutely vital. I do think that was misjudged last year. The first opinion polls that came out of Baghdad and other places where polls were conducted last year showed real support for the occupation, and you have to ask yourself why that has fallen away as fast as it has? I think part of the reason is that there is not much of an incentive to collaborate with something like the Coalition Provisional Authority when it explicitly says to you: “We are gone on June 30th, 2004.” Collaboration is risky. If it fails, if the occupation is wound up prematurely and the bad guys come back to power, you might find yourself in some serious trouble. So incentives weren’t very strong to collaborate with [Paul] Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority precisely because it was so obviously provisional.

Then of course you got the catastrophe of prisoner maltreatment [at Abu Ghraib], and I don’t think anybody can understate the damage that’s been done with the obvious and systematic flouting of the Geneva Conventions. That has dented American legitimacy not only in Iraq but all around the world, and indeed in the United States, too. So you have to say to yourself, how do we get our credibility back? Well, one obvious thing is to make it very clear that the United States is not going to pull out and let the Iraqis fight it out for themselves. The other thing we have to do is make it clear that if the American presence abuses its power, if individuals within the American military think its OK to humiliate and torture prisoners, perhaps even to beat prisoners to death, those people are for the high jump. If it’s simply going to be a case of court-martials for privates and maybe sergeants, than everybody in the world is going to just say: “This bunch are not serious in their rhetoric about human rights.” We have to see some people far, far higher up the chain of command taking responsibility for this. And I do think that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld — who did signal that the Geneva Convention no longer applied — has to carry the can here. And if not him, — and I don’t really think he will; it doesn’t seem Bush’s style — then we need to see some senior officers taking responsibility for what happened in that prison. The people the U.S. did collaborate with in Iraq, especially Ahmed Chalabi, don’t have much credibility with Iraqis?

NF: Well, I think, to give Bremer his due, he quite quickly realized that Chalabi and the other exiles alone would not constitute a legitimate Iraqi transitional regime. And I think the Governing Council was quite a well-designed institution, broadly based, certainly more broadly based than originally planned. I think also Bremer understood that Sistani had to be listened to, that his legitimacy as the religious leader of the Shiite community was pretty much sacrosanct. I think the Iraqi Governing Council has been a success. After all, this council came up with the constitution for Iraq — that was a tough assignment. And Bremer has not, I think, been sufficiently recognized for his achievements in getting them all to agree to something: a basic document on which the transition from occupation to sovereignty could be based.

It’s absolutely vital that, after June 30th, the Americans aren’t just stuck in camps as targets. They have to have some meaningful power after the formal transition to Iraqi independent government. That’s a lesson from British history. The British made quite rapid steps to create an independent Iraqi government in the ’20s, after the 1920 revolt, created the Hashemite monarchy, and Iraq was formally independent within a matter of years. But the British troops stayed on and British advisors stayed on to make sure that what happened under an Iraqi independent government was not inimical to British interests. Can the U.S. afford its imperial commitments or is it in danger of overstretch?

NF: Well, in a way, the idea of imperial overstretch tends to conjure up images of excessive military expenditure and imperial commitments that can’t be sustained. In fact, the truth about America’s current military commitments is that they are much, much cheaper than, say, the Cold War was to fight. American military expenditures is now maybe 4 percent of GDP at most. It was projected to be 3.5 percent of GDP and its crept naturally because of the rising cost of Iraq, but that’s nothing. The Cold War was routinely averaging 7 percent of GDP. In a sense, if you like, the war against terror is still a hell of a lot cheaper than the war against communism.

The problems on the fiscal side are domestic. The real big gorilla of a problem is Medicare and I am afraid the Bush administration has done nothing to make that problem better. Essentially, the costs of medical provisions for the retired have been running ahead of inflation for enough long time and when the baby-boomers start retiring over the next few years and the decade to come, the system is simply going to break down, and that makes the costs of the war in Iraq pale into insignificance.

The problem is when the domestic overstretch kicks it, when a future president is looking at red rink on a scale that we can scarcely imagine, it will be very tempting to say: “You know, these expeditions to places like Iraq and Afghanistan are costing us money. Maybe it would be easier to just cut back on them.” Defense is always vulnerable when welfare costs spiral out of control and I think that’s likely be the scenario that undermines the nation-building project. In some ways, its already under-funded. I would say a Marshall Plan for the Middle East would be a very desirable next step for the United States. The trouble is, I don’t think the money is there. What are the alternatives to an American Empire? What about the European Union?

NF: The European Union is a very long way from being a real federal state. It’s a very, very, very long way from having any credible military capability. I do think that as an economic power, the European Union is now the only equal that the United States has in the world. So that in trade negotiations, the U.S. has got to accept that its in a bipolar world. And I think one has to give credit to the European Union: it expanded by roughly a third an extent since the early 1970s. So it’s clearly big and getting bigger, but it’s still basically a confederation of nation-states who, when it comes to foreign policy, pursue their own national interests. That’s something that became abundantly clear last year. There was no European foreign policy. Each of the European states did its own thing, and more than half of them supported the United States. It was just that the big, influential European states — France and Germany — didn’t, and that made it look as if Europe was opposing the American policy. In fact, it was not at all. I think it is now — the European public mood has turned quite hostile to the United States. But that was less, I think, less clear early last year, and it was certainly not true after 9/11 when there was immense pro-American sympathies in Europe. So we are looking at American empire — hegemony — for how many years?

NF: Well, it could be for a very short-time indeed. One of the nightmare scenarios that I have been thinking about a lot recently is that there is simply a world without hegemony in which the United States goes: “Oh dear, this is too nasty and morally compromising, we are going home.” The Europeans are entirely taken up with their own problems of demographic, aging, and immigration. Out in Asia, the big issue is essentially economic development for the hinterland of China. Nobody wants to play the role of empire in mid-twenty-first century history and that’s a perfectly plausible scenario, and its not a very comforting one.

Those of my critics who say “empire is always bad, we should never have empire,” have not looked at the historical alternatives to empire. Throughout most of recorded history there have been empires. Empires, essentially, create order. In their absence, you don’t end up with lots of happy, little nation-states full of people sitting around campfires singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What you end up with is civil war, anarchy. You end up with — say in the 9th century — the Vikings who were quintessential beneficiaries of the collapse of empire. They were able simply rampage around Europe looting and pillaging cities. But that scenario — what I would call the “Dark Age” scenario — is a much scarier one in the 21st century than in the 9th century. Technology gives the Vikings of our time the possibility of dirty bombs. In that sense, empire is to be preferred to the available alternatives. That’s why I want the United States to keep its nerve, to go the distance, to recognize that the alternatives to empire are worst, not better. And in that sense, my arguments for liberal empire or whatever you want to call it — hegemony, primacy, you name it – are really activated by a sense that the alternatives involve more violence, more repression, more hardship, especially for the people of the Middle East.



We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.