2003 April 28 Monday
Niall Ferguson Says Americans Too Impatient And Uninterested To Be Imperialists

Niall Ferguson, historian and author of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power has written an interesting essay in the New York Times Magazine about the lack of patience of Americans to pursue reshaping of other countries for the amount of time required to make lasting beneficial changes.

The United States unquestionably has the raw economic power to build an empire -- more, indeed, than the United Kingdom ever had at its disposal. In 1913, for example, Britain's share of total world output was 8 percent, while the equivalent figure for the United States in 1998 was 22 percent. There's ''soft'' power too -- the endlessly innovative consumer culture that Joseph Nye argues is an essential component of American power -- but at its core, as we have seen in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, American power is far from soft. It can be very, very hard. The trouble is that it is ephemeral. It is not so much Power Lite as Flash Power -- here today, with a spectacular bang, but gone tomorrow.

Besides the presidential time frame -- which is limited by the four-year election cycle -- the most obvious symptom of its short-windedness is the difficulty the American empire finds in recruiting the right sort of people to run it. America's educational institutions excel at producing young men and women who are both academically and professionally very well trained. It's just that the young elites have no desire whatsoever to spend their lives running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq. America's brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia, but to manage MTV; not to rule Hejaz, but to run a hedge fund; not to be a C.B.E., or Commander of the British Empire, but to be a C.E.O. And that, of course, is one reason so many of the Americans currently in Iraq are first-generation immigrants to the United States -- men like Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse.

Few Americans live abroad and most of those who do live in highly developed Western countries. The best and brightest spend little time learning about the sorts of places that American foreign policy is trying to transform. Most American intellectuals and foreign policy pundits who advocate radical transformation of Islamic countries as a major American foreign policy goal seem to have put little effort into trying to identify all the nuts and bolts elements that would have to be understood and manipulated to successfully transform the target societies. One must understand why Islamic countries are not liberal democracies already and what would be required to change them to make them into liberal democracies. But if one's own ideology is a sort of Liberal Democratic Manifest Destiny (see Fukuyama) which argues that liberal democracy naturally automatically appeals to humans then there is no need to think long and hard about why there is a Clash Of Civilizations.

Ferguson brings up Gertrude Bell whose diaries I've previously linked to. Reading her provides a view into the curious way Iraq was run by Britain and Faisal in the 1920s.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 28 02:11 AM  Reconstruction and Reformation


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