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Embracing Empire
by Ryan Winger
February 2, 2005

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Review of Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, by Niall Ferguson (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004) 384 pp. 

It is true what Aristotle wrote about the “powers of speech”: “a man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.” Myriad philosophers, social scientists, and linguists have since commented on the great influence that politically motivated rhetoric, spoken or written, can command over the human intellect. History provides ample evidence that rhetoric was integral in the expansion of the European colonial powers and their imperial conquests. Shrewdly crafted rhetoric also fueled the flames of fascism during the First and Second World Wars. And, for a time, it helped legitimize the atrocities of the racist National Socialist Movement in Germany. Even in contemporary times, the White House supplies the public with a consistent flow of powerful rhetoric to support intervention in the internal affairs of “rogue states,” whether they are termed part of an “axis of evil” or a mere “outpost of tyranny.” Powerful rhetoric is an indispensable aid to power politics.

It is this gift of rhetorical ability -- what Joseph Conrad simply calls “a voice” -- that author Niall Ferguson is certainly endowed with. In his latest book, Colossus, Ferguson demonstrates that he understands not only its power but its utility when, through various rhetorical techniques, he attempts to convince the reader of the validity of his neoconservative argument. His polemic challenges the traditional truism which denies that America has been, is, or ever could be an empire. Ferguson asserts that empire is not to be denied, but instead desired. Ironically, because of his astute rhetorical tactics, he manipulates the reader with a superficially convincing, yet disappointingly illiberal argument for a “liberal American empire.” With further reflection, his argument is textually unsatisfying simply because it manipulates the reader. It is also logically unsatisfying; in spite of its sprawling range of discussion, it overlooks serious practical obstacles and moral dilemmas implicit in the pursuit of the empire Ferguson envisions.

When analyzing such a text, which consists primarily of a retelling of historical events with economic facts and making suggestions for the future, deliberate attention should be paid not just to the facts per se, but also to the chosen words, their implicit meaning, and the cultural assumptions embodied by that meaning. In this way it is possible to understand more than Ferguson’s argument; one can also gain insight into his innermost assumptions and motivations. He uses at least two distinct rhetorical techniques -- reverse psychology, and ideologically loaded figures of speech -- to convince the reader of his perspective. This analysis will focus primarily on the way in which Ferguson, an accomplished historian, relates his message, and secondarily on the practical aspects and the contradictions in his proposals.

Aside from a brief introduction and conclusion, Ferguson’s book is split into two parts, “Rise” and “Fall?”, each comprising four chapters. He establishes his thesis in his introduction when he calls for an “agency” (namely the United States government) capable of interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states with the intent to “contain epidemics, depose tyrants, end local wars and eradicate terrorist organizations.” (24) In the chapters that follow, Ferguson details the rise of American empire from the time of the Founding Fathers and Westward expansion to the nation-building efforts underway in the Middle East today. The latter half expands upon his case for liberal empire, with an added emphasis on current economic insight -- one of Ferguson’s specialties. Ferguson concludes that although America has the capability to impose its will globally, it lacks the determination to do so.

Rhetorically speaking, Ferguson recurrently contrasts America’s weakness to its power. His indictment against the Colossus is that he considers it an “empire in denial,” causing it to appear weak, although economically muscular, impotent, although unsurpassed militarily. (62) He says that Americans prefer the “irresponsibilities of weakness” to the “responsibilities of power” and is quick to invoke loaded terms like “appeasement” to reinforce his point. (100, 91) He often chooses terminology that expresses overtones of disapproval, sometimes outright shame or even pity for America. For example, when citing the Clinton administration’s hesitance to get involved in reshaping the world through intervention, he calls it “American impotence”, saying that they “lack[ed] the guts to do it.” (128, 301) He assumes what can be construed as a tone of ridicule again in a rare show of support for US policy as he talks about America’s “new self-confidence” to carry out covert operations in Central America during the 1980s. In this example, Ferguson deceptively describes an immensely mighty nation as one might an awkward teenage boy. Perhaps most impressively, he even calls America “a kind of strategic couch potato” before commencing a denunciation of obesity in America. (295) In fact, Ferguson is ingenious to use this sort of tone to elicit a response from his audience. He willfully prods an impressionable reader with a steady barrage of minute rhetorical attacks on America’s record of imperial pursuits and foreign affairs, while entirely ignoring, for example, the morality of such actions, not to mention the vast latent effects of even “half-hearted” American interventions.

The reader, if not equipped with a substantial knowledge of US foreign policy, will undoubtedly accept Ferguson’s analysis and advice more readily out of a mixture of feelings: embarrassment, culpability, or perhaps even sympathy for America. The irony is that, in a sense, Ferguson has very little moral ground to stand on. Although he makes mention of altruistic motives for empire, he reserves higher praise for the wholly utilitarian motives involved in Realpolitik. For example, he argues that the “fatal mistake” of Vietnam was not the war itself as most now concur, but the defense secretary’s “refusal to send more troops” and the decision to halt bombing “in hopes of starting talks.” (100) In another example, Ferguson suggests that there is “ample raw material” to expand the military. (292) The raw material he is speaking of consists of “the illegal immigrants, the jobless and the convicts.” (292) In another display of unadulterated realism, he informs the reader that, “it is possible to occupy a country for decades, while consistently denying that you have any intention of doing so.” (222) Again, he states that hypocrisy is “something to which liberal empires must sometimes resort.” (222) He repeatedly advocates militarization and a more regular use of force in dealing with threats in this “unruly world.” (302) There are ample sources for such examples of illiberal, if not illogical suggestions.

Naturally, since Ferguson presents a thinly veiled Machiavellian argument that amounts more or less to a “might makes right” approach, his moral appeal is negated by much of what he says. The essence of his argument could rightly be called Nietzschean. He deliberately borrows F. Nietzsche’s term when he says that, “the absence of a will to power” may lead to the demise of the American empire. (29) Historically, Nietzsche’s philosophy, which coalesced with nationalism, “scientific” ideas of racial superiority, and burgeoning fascism, played an integral role as propaganda as well as philosophical backing for the National Socialist Movement in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. That is not to sentimentally align Niall Ferguson with Adolph Hitler, but to illuminate a worrisome undercurrent in the ethos of the former. In Ferguson’s twenty-page conclusion, he uses the word “power” 28 times. The maintenance of power seems to be his main objective. Accordingly, those with the will to power would deal in raw power concepts as the author encourages, regardless of morality. 

Ferguson’s rhetoric reaches greater heights of arrogance and insensitivity when speaking about foreign peoples and governments. His language is never subtle, yet it seems to grow more inflammatory and become less moderate as his argument progresses. In fact, the rhetoric becomes so harsh that it seems intentionally exaggerated to prove a point. He calls Iraq a “sun-scorched sand pit,” and refers to “wretched” Liberia as “a basket case country,” while managing to condemn the entire Arab world, calling it a “civilization of clashes” and labeling it’s culture “dysfunctional”. (204, 199, 288, 120, 106) These value judgments, which implicitly elevate Western (particularly American) culture and degrade the rest of the non-Western world are little more than symptoms of what Edward Said famously dubbed “Orientalism.”  Ferguson even appeals directly to a common Christian cultural heritage of the West by designating terrorism the “original sin of the modern Middle East” (112). What makes this rhetoric acceptable and allows it to pass unnoticed by many readers today? It is as Conrad said: Ferguson possesses “a voice” -- a rhetorical voice -- resounding with authority. And although substance, tact, or even cohesion may be lacking, the rhetorical charisma of the writer shines through brilliantly.

Practically speaking, Ferguson seems to ignore almost any of the cultural or human consequences that an Imperial America might incur. He spends an inordinate amount of time detailing historical facts which support his case, while giving little attention to serious issues that many people inside and outside of the Unites States care about, like human rights. He also downplays global resentment that the US will, no doubt, experience long in to the future -- especially if it continues imperial expansion in an insensitive and disorderly way.  There are several other practical contradictions in his argument, not the least of which is the fact that that he argues in favor of a goal -- a powerful, liberal American empire -- which he never ceases to cast doubt on. He writes in his closing paragraph that, “though the barbarians have already knocked at the gates… imperial decline in this case seems more likely to come, as it came to Gibbon’s Rome, from within.” (302)

Nevertheless, Ferguson succeeds in many ways simply because he engages his audience and presents his case in grand language. Through effective rhetorical methods, he appeals primarily to emotion rather than reason. Perhaps to distance himself from the rhetoric of empires passed, which he clearly identifies as manipulative, sanctimonious, and racist, Ferguson includes several imperialist quotations. One such quotation seems particularly prescient both for its historical era, and for its inclusion in the book; Herman Melville wrote that, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people…we bear the ark of liberties of the world.” (60)  When Ferguson says so, as he has, people listen.  

Ryan Winger is an undergraduate student of International Politics at Pepperdine University in California. He can be reached at: