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Friday, July 9, 2010

Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire

Most Americans Don't Want to Remake the World

It’s always easy to spend other people’s money. Unfortunately, some people have an equally easy time spending other people’s lives.

Over the last decade, the United States has routinely, even frivolously, attacked countries, overthrown regimes, and intervened in civil strife where few or no American security interests were at stake. Particularly striking is that two successive administrations that were filled with people who avoided the draft in Vietnam or chose not to volunteer in succeeding years were so enthusiastic in making war.

Equally striking has been the overseas cheerleading. Other countries long have urged America to defend them even if they don’t do much for themselves. Now comes foreign enthusiasm for American empire. The United States has the wealth and power. Why don’t its citizens want to fight endless wars and patrol endless hellholes around the world?

British historian Niall Ferguson is the latest foreign intellectual to generously suggest squandering American money and lives to advance his vision of global social engineering. Americans, he writes, “should try to do a better rather than a worse job of policing an unruly world than their British predecessors.”

Still, Ferguson’s book is as interesting as it is irritating. He begins by asking: Is America an empire? Yes, he responds. Indeed,“it always has been an empire.”

U.S. power is extraordinary. Ferguson details America’s stunning military dominance, economic strength, and other forms of “soft power.” The first Americans believed in limited government, but had grand ambitions for the nation. Notes Ferguson: “there were no more self-confident imperialists than the Founding Fathers themselves.”

America expanded through a combination of brutal warfare and generous expenditure. Domestic expansion was later supplemented with overseas imperialism. But in contrast to European colonialism, Ferguson writes, the United States “could instead use its economic and military power to foster the emergence of ‘good government’ in strategically important countries,” such as the Philippines. Alas, good government seldom showed up in practice. Today, more than a century later, the Philippines exhibits little “good government.”

But it was the world wars that turned America into a global power. Coming out of World War II, the United States manifested what Ferguson terms “the imperialism of anti-imperialism.” The result, ironically, was an empire. He writes: “even as Americans pledged themselves to make war against the empires of their allies and enemies alike, all unacknowledged, their own empire grew apace.” Since Washington was not consciously attempting to rule the world, its efforts were more inadvertent than planned.

The refusal to consciously do more irritates Furguson. Cold War was always expensive and sometimes bloody, but Washington was cautious. For instance, the Truman administration refused to attack China after it intervened in the Korean War.

In just two paragraphs—a surprisingly superficial discussion in a generally enlightening book—Ferguson suggests that the United States should have deployed tactical nuclear weapons against China. He attributes the war’s two-year bloody stalemate to the failure to go nuclear.

Ferguson’s blithe willingness to have Washington inaugurate global war then matches his belief that the United States should patrol the planet now. He advocates that America do so even though he recognizes that intervention helps spawn terrorism. After all, the latter “is the continuation of war by other means—by those who are too weak to wage proper war in pursuit of their political goals.”

That’s not the only cost that he suggests America bear. Although the price of military empire is lower than today’s wildly irresponsible domestic spending, the combined total is formidable. And for some reason, Americans “like Social Security more than national security,” he fusses.

Unfortunately, in his view, the biggest problem is an “attention deficit.” Most Americans just don’t want to be imperialists. There is in the United States “the absence of a will to power.”

How true and how wonderful.

The world is filled with tragedy. The temptation to try to reach out and manipulate other societies is great. But while a British academic might be willing to treat U.S. soldiers as gambit pawns on a global chessboard, the American government is responsible for and to its servicemen and women, just as it is to its other citizens.

Equally important, most Americans don’t want to remake the world, engage in global social engineering, or create an empire. Instead, they want to spend time with their families and friends. They want to earn money, enjoy the bounty of the world’s most creative and productive society, and leave the problems of the world behind. And they want the patriots who join the military to be able to do the same at any time other than during a genuine emergency.

Americans do lack “a will to power”. That is a testament to their greatness.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.
  • Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. A prolific writer specializing in finance, economics, and international history, he is the author of many best-selling and acclaimed books, including Civilization: The West and the Rest and, most recently, the first volume of the authorized biography of Henry Kissinger entitled Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist.