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America’s Lessons From the Legacy of British Empire

New book explores the good and the bad of empires

By Garrett M. Graff, Crimson Staff Writer

The word “empire” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days. The unmatched world position of the United States has led to comparisons with the great historical empires like Rome and Britain.

The United States spends as much on its military as do the next 12 largest countries in the world combined. As Yale history professor Paul Kennedy has written, “A statistician could have a wild time compiling lists of the fields in which the U.S. leads.” Now, as M1A1 Abrams tanks take up positions on Baghdad street corners, the question is how the U.S. will wield its “big stick.”

One answer to this question comes in Niall Ferguson’s pop-masterpiece, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. The book seeks to restore the word “empire” to its former glory. Ferguson, the Herzog professor of financial history at the NYU’s Stern School of Business and a senior research fellow at Jesus College in Oxford University, offers a reinterpretation of what is commonly seen as a dark chapter in British history. In the last half-century, historians have focused on the racism, violence and exploitation that lay at the empire’s heart and helped Britain to build a colonial network encompassing nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

Ferguson argues that Britain’s imperial development and its subsequent legacy are more complex. By applying late 20th century values to 19th century imperialism, historians distort the growth and advancements that came under Britain’s rule.

“The difficulty with the achievements of empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire,” he writes.

Ferguson’s goal was to reevaluate the roots and ideology of the empire. His easily accessible writing and well-researched anecdotes tell a compelling story of the first developments of the empire right through the fall of the British Empire following World War II.

The themes Ferguson develops are similar to those developed this month by University President Lawrence H. Summers in his three-part Godkin lectures on globalization. Responding to Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents, Summers argued that in the attempt to provide a more “balanced” approach, history books have distorted the history of industrialization and globalization. While the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity and the free exchange of goods, it did so through racist policies, violence and exploiting weaker peoples. Thus, many new textbooks take a neutral view of the Industrial Revolution—sort of good, but sort of bad.

However, Summers argued that industrialization did much good, bringing unthinkable wealth to billions across the globe. Ferguson makes an analogous argument about Britain’s imperial history.

The world today is a product of the British Empire, Ferguson argues. And furthermore, he says, we’re lucky that it is. Britain’s empire brought the world liberty, the first global economy, free exchange of goods, parliamentary democracy, English forms of land tenure, Common Law and English banking practices. It is notable that Ferguson’s list closely parallels the three-point recipe for successful economic development that Summers gave last week: integration into the world economy, sound fiscal and monetary policy and institutions to protect property rights and enforce contracts. Indeed, we see the results of Summers’ recipe in Ferguson’s book. He cites the work of political scientist Seymour Lipset, who showed that countries that are former British colonies had a substantially better chance of achieving “enduring democratization” and economic development than the former colonies of other empires like France, Spain and Portugal. In fact, in almost every case where a former colony of at least a million people has emerged from the colonial era as a democracy, it was a British colony. Other colonial powers did not impart the same strong egalitarian institutions.

Nevertheless, the book is filled with less-than-rosy incidents from Britain’s imperial history. Indeed, Ferguson does not gloss over the exploitation, violence and racism that lay at the empire’s heart. Instead, by offering a wider perspective, Ferguson forces a reconsideration of the empire’s legacy. Although British ships did transport three million African slaves to the New World, it was the British government decided to abolish slavery and “to sweep the…seas of the atrocious commerce.” Brazil, Portugal and Spain all abolished slavery because of British pressure.

In his closing chapters, Ferguson argues that through the two world wars, the British Empire sacrificed itself to halt the rise of the Nazi, Japanese and Italian empires. In a rhetorical flourish, he asks, “Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?”

However, the “sacrifice” of the British Empire was not as altruistic as Ferguson makes it appear. Still, the free world can never repay the awesome sacrifice England made in the Second World War.

Ferguson’s conclusion brings his argument into the contemporary debate over the American Empire. He argues that the worlds needs the steadying hand once provided by the Pax Britannica. Now, the United States alone can provide such a force.

Only the United States with its unmatched legions can undertake the obvious need to “reorder this world around us,” as Prime Minister Tony Blair phrased the task after September 11, 2001. To do so, though, American leaders must move beyond the historical resistance to empire. As Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff wrote in a January New York Times article, the U.S. has acquired its empire “in a state of deep denial.” President George Bush last summer told graduating students at West Point that “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” and five months later he told a group of veterans at the White House that “[w]e have no territorial ambitions. We don’t seek an empire.” Such protestations, Ferguson says, are balderdash.

The U.S. already has an empire, and now must decide how to use its power.

Ferguson says that the U.S. has taken Britain’s role but failed to acknowledge the empire that came with it. Empire, Rudyard Kipling once wrote, is a “global burden.” It is that burden that the United States must now accept and wield—American imperialism has to be about more than the golden arches and Britney Spears.

With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the United States has fulfilled the first half of the British contract. It remains to be seen whether this nation has the will and the commitment to achieve the next, more important step: building of democratic institutions and fostering economic development.

As Ferguson shows, Britain could do it and did. Now so should we. “Empire” is not always a bad thing.

—Staff writer Garrett M. Graff can be reached at

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