Saturday, July 10, 2004

Niall's Headwaters

I've been behind on a lot of my policy-geek reading lately, so it was only last night that I got to a very interesting piece in the last Washington Monthly about the British historian and all-purpose intellectual gadfly Niall Ferguson. Maybe it's because he's a Scotsman, maybe it's that he's a historian, maybe it's his affection for courageously counterintuitive historical theories (e.g. the British entry into World War I was the root tragedy of the 20th century), but I've long had a fondness for Ferguson incongruous with his consistent right-wing leanings. He was ubiquitous during the run-up to the Iraq war last year, and I suppose it's to his credit that he's still out there 15 months later, defending his position, when even war supporters like Bill Kristol and David Brooks have conceded that, in the words of the late Ronald Reagan, "mistakes were made."

Now, Ferguson also concedes that mistakes were made. But instead of taking issue with the theory behind the invasion, his basic position is that the U.S. didn't go in heavy enough. Our major mistake was trying to do empire-building on the cheap:

Had President Bush been willing to see the United States' role in the world as essentially imperial, Ferguson argues, he would have understood the depth of commitment, the hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civil administrators, needed to really turn Iraq into a democracy. The failures in Iraq don't, for Ferguson, mean that the project of American empire was deeply misguided; rather, they affirm that an imperial attitude is the only one that might have done the job in Iraq.

The article notes that when pushed, Ferguson will concede the fundamental implausibility of his project: the U.S. has neither the economic heft (because of the incipient spike in cost for the big elder-focused entitlement programs) nor the political will to really pursue empire along the lines of the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, his model of choice. In fact, he strongly implied as much in a New York Times op-ed I remember reading in early 2003. But it seems he finds this idea so compelling that he still tries to make the case that in some sweeping historical sense, this is the path America should take:

...Ferguson argued that not only was the British empire good, but that a similarly liberal American empire could also play a crucial role in the world today. "Capitalism and democracy," Ferguson wrote, "are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary ... by military force."


When Ferguson says the United States ought to be an empire, he meant precisely that: He wants America to use her might to exercise benign, formal control over other countries. He does not mean a cultural hegemony or a network of economically and militarily dependent regimes, like the United States worked through in the Cold War... [i]f an American empire is going to work, Ferguson argued, it is going to have to look as much like its British predecessor as possible.

This is what I can't quite wrap my brain around. Apparently (and I haven't read the book yet), Ferguson isn't suggesting a mandate-type arrangement of the kind formalized after World War I, when the writing already was on the wall for eventual independence of the former colonies of Europe and the idea was that established liberal states would help guide emerging nations toward sustainable civil societies in the tradition of the Enlightenment west. No, this guy is talking about conquest, open-ended, with power as its own justification. And remaking the internal culture of the United States to bear the burdens of empire, cultivating new bureaucracies to administer our colonies, incurring both mind-bending expense and, inevitably, the ill will of the subjugated along the way.

Not even the most messianically-minded Republican would advocate such a position: the hoary non-intervention stance best articulated in George Washington's farewell address certainly was diluted in the 20th century, but it retains enough validity in the national consciousness that this view would lead to electoral disaster for whichever party advocated it. But I don't even grasp how the logic withstands practical arguments: has there been one long-term occupation in the last hundred-plus years that didn't end in disaster? And what does it say about a people willing to countenance repression, even massacre, in defense of its colonial holdings? Abu Ghraib was horrific, certainly, but it doesn't come close to the British massacre of peaceful Indian protesters at Amritsar in 1919. The logical end point of Ferguson's theory is that mass killing is an acceptable tool of colonial governance, and we should just have the stomach to accept that. If the world community doesn't approve, they can lump it.

The article is interesting for another reason as well, at least to me. It was written by Monthly staffer Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who's 23 or 24, and quickly making a place for himself in the odd club that includes MLK Jr., Trotsky, Mozart, Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly and Ferguson himself, among others: people who accomplished vastly more at a younger age than I have at 31. Wallace-Wells is a versatile writer: his piece in last month's magazine about the popularity of poker among Generation Y types like him was both entertaining and perceptive in its subtly made sociological points. He does resort to some disingenuous writerly tricks in his Ferguson piece, framing it around an interview with the historian but almost entirely omitting the substance of that interview in favor of his own thoughts and observations about Ferguson and probably overdrawing the comparison between Ferguson and Bushista ideologues like Paul Wolfowitz.

But this sure looks like a guy I'll be reading, in different prestige venues, for decades to come. The fucker.

No comments: