Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Niall Ferguson

Timing is everything. In the spring of 2003, Niall Ferguson was known among historians as an astonishingly prolific scholar who had published important books on the German hyperinflation of the 1920s, the House of Rothschild and World War I, and was the impresario of a school of "counterfactual" writers who took seriously the amateur historian's favorite question: What would have happened if ...?

Then his book Empire — originally written to accompany a British TV series — was published in the U.S. The book's central thesis was a defense of the "liberal imperialism" that Britain purported to practice toward the end of its time as a great power. Moreover, Ferguson argued that the U.S., whether it wanted to admit the fact or not, had become an imperialist power itself. Rather as Rudyard Kipling had done a century before (though he is careful to say that Kipling's language is that of a bygone age), Ferguson invited Americans to take up the white man's burden that the tired British had perforce laid down.

Imperialism had already made its intellectual comeback in the U.S. by the time Empire was published, but since it hit bookstores just as the U.S. Army was triumphantly entering Baghdad, it was an instant success. As it happens, Ferguson, a Scot (and proud of it), now 40, doesn't think the U.S. has done a very good job in Iraq. It was, Ferguson says, "very clear" that there would be a Shi'ite rebellion in Iraq, as Americans would have known if they had studied the history of the British there. And in his new book, Colossus, he worries that the U.S. may not have the will or the wallet to stick at its imperial mission long enough to make a difference.