On Schoolboys and Empire


Sore hands. That is all I could think about when I watched US President George Bush deliver his State of the Union address at the beginning of this month. The assembled Republicans clapped and clapped. They were, I think, ecstatic that the President was keeping to the script and not wandering off into folksy sentences with no ending and no beginning; sentences that seem to walk gimp-like into traps set by Bush himself.

It was as if each correctly delivered sentence truly was worthy of an ovation I almost stood up myself. Or perhaps they were clapping because Bush promised two basic things: to bring liberty to the world and to cut social security.

Listening to Bush, I couldn’t help but detect the influence of famous British historian Niall Ferguson, the chap who has a turn-of-the-century schoolboy interest in Empire. He’s sad that Britannia no longer rules the waves. He wants to make sure the Americans continue to do so.  

Let’s get personal. There are plenty of reasons not to like Ferguson: he is annoyingly clever at making dangerous ideas sound intelligent, and he’s handsome (just look at his website). He writes books that reach large audiences, despite his scholarly tone. And he has been described by Time magazine as ‘one of the world’s 100 most influential people.’

Ferguson, who has a good gig going at both Oxford and Harvard Universities, also does the ‘wife bit’ at the end of the acknowledgements pages in his books. This is when the male author apologises for his unforgivable neglect, but assures the loved wife she was the inspiration behind the work. This broadly translates as: ‘I was a thorough shit, but without putting you through hell the book wouldn’t have happened.’

I wish Ferguson’s wife had been a little less tolerant and insisted he stay human; then we might have been spared his recent tragic eulogy to the United States, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (Penguin 2005)

Ferguson’s previous work has included a study of Empire in general, and it seems that the archival dust set off an itch to play imperial counsel, a modern-day Rudyard Kipling to the Bush Administration.

And this brings me to the real reason not to like Niall Ferguson. In Colossus, he argues that the United States ought to have declared a willingness to use the nuclear option during the Korean War and this is where the book has laxative qualities he now seeks to influence US foreign policy.

Regarding Vietnam, Ferguson is strictly in the gung ho camp, arguing that a more ruthless approach ought to have been taken. He favourably quotes Admiral Moorer that the US in Vietnam, ‘should have fought the enemy in the north, where everyone was the enemy, where you don’t have to worry whether or not you were shooting friendly civilians’.

This is not just a history lesson, of course, nor is it just a good illustration of the Rumsfeldian ‘unknown unknowns’ who knows what might have happened had we just shot everyone, we just don’t know. The point of the history lesson (Ferguson is pedagogical to the point of self-righteous pedantry) is to rally the US to stay the course in Iraq. And not just there.

He wants the US to realise its potential as a liberal empire, unleashing a wave of freedom and markets across the world. This will require more occupations, and presumably more wars. If he takes out US citizenship and consorts in the right company (the luminaries who populate his acknowledgements pages suggests he’s already been doing that) then it’s time to take cover.

Ferguson is for an empire that takes root. Before freedom, comes order and trusteeship. Instead of short-termism and heading home after a war, the US should commit to stay (wherever) and embed new norms over a generation, if necessary. The US should, in short, declare and proudly embrace its empire and invite applications for membership from worthy supplicants.

Ferguson identifies a flaw in his own argument. It’s kind of big: the American people don’t like Empire very much. This is actually the major point for him it’s as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist. The American masses, he argues, need to acquire a new political culture, or the ‘will to power’: the desire to dominate. Without this, when US body bags pile up they’ll pressure the government to pull out. Also, America should start nurturing its elite youth to the task of Empire. He’s not sure they are up to it.

Also, problematically, while ‘Americans like security … they like social security more than national security’. Like any good fiscal conservative, Ferguson wants to see a readjustment of entitlements to ensure that the American Empire stays on its feet and doesn’t fall as a consequence of the fiscal ineptitude entailed in lavishing the poor and retired with care. It won’t be the barbarians that bring down the Empire but the unwell, aged and lazy, Ferguson avers.

So can the Americans pull it off? Can they sort out the internal mess and then rule benightedly over a world eager for its civilising influence? On this, Ferguson moves to his comical Blimpian conclusion:

Writing in the dying dies of the Clinton Administration, I concluded that ‘the greatest disappointment facing the world in the 21st century [is]that the leaders of the one State with the economic resources to make the world a better place lack the guts to do it.’ Little did I imagine that within a matter of nine months, a new president … would embark on a policy so similar to the one I had advocated. The question has ceased to be about guts, it is now about grit.

I imagine Ferguson’s tea cosy verily shook as he typed these lines. On that point,   Ferguson brings to mind that other pagan-worshipper of US power, Greg Sheridan, from The Australian newspaper. Oh, the burden of the White man

Now since Osama bin Laden has obviously been doing some reading, having cited William Blum’s Rogue State as a good reference for students of American Empire, it would not surprise me if his next pronouncement draws insight from Ferguson. What one dangerous extremist gives, another can take.

It would, I imagine, go along these lines:

The infidel Ferguson, zealot of Empire, has laid bare the limits of US ambition and control. We now lay down our weapons knowing that the fast food nation has no will to power: its citizens’ indigent need for social security will bring down the mighty imperial Big Mac. May you drown among a rising tide of pension cheques. Handrails will not save you. We thank the infidel Ferguson for showing us the way. Now we will wait for the rotting zombie carcasses of the baby boomers to feed on the flesh of your crusader youth. We can wait, this cave is going nowhere.

Now to follow recent standards in American political debate, we can deduce from Ferguson’s insights that those who oppose social security cuts in the US, including the League of Geriatrics opposing pension reform, really are the fifth column in the ‘War on Terror.’ There are probably al-Qaeda agents infiltrating such movements.

Perhaps our own Prime Minister can lend Dubya a hand by sending him a copy of the sedition laws?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.