Niall Ferguson’s Empire

America’s abrupt pullout from Afghanistan, completed on August 30, 2021, was anticipated by the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson almost 20 years ago. America invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to oust the Taliban after 9/11. Soon after, Ferguson began speculating about an imminent American withdrawal from the country. American intervention in a crisis is routinely followed by a hasty withdrawal, he says in his book, Empire, first published in 2002.

He compares the British Empire with America. Is “the American informal empire — the empire of multinational corporations, of Hollywood movies and even of TV evangelists… so very different from the early British Empire of monopoly trading companies and missionaries?” he asks. A “map showing the principal US military bases around the world looks remarkably like a map of Royal Navy coaling stations a hundred years ago,” he adds. “Even recent American foreign policy recalls the gunboat diplomacy of the British Empire in its Victorian heyday, when a little trouble on the periphery could be dealt with by a short sharp surgical strike. The only difference is that today’s gunboats fly.”

Then he goes on to point out the differences:

On close inspection, America’s strengths may not be the strengths of a natural imperial hegemon. For one thing, British imperial power relied on the massive export of capital and people. But since 1972 the American economy has been a net importer of capital and it remains the favoured destination of immigrants from around the world, not a producer of would-be colonial emigrants. Britain in its heyday was able to draw on a culture of unabashed imperialism which dated back to the Elizabethan period, whereas the US will always be a reluctant ruler of other peoples. Since Woodrow Wilson’s intervention to restore the elected government in Mexico in 1913, the American approach has too often been to fire some shells, march in, hold elections and then get the hell out — until the next crisis. Haiti is one recent example; Kosovo another. Afghanistan may prove to be the next.

In the event, Afghanistan turned out to be America’s longest war ending only in 2021, after 20 years.

Ferguson in Empire, first published only a year after the US invasion of Afghanistan, stresses the need for America to be active abroad. Recalling how Kipling urged America to take up “the White Man’s Burden” in a poem with that name in 1899, Ferguson writes:

No one would dare use such politically incorrect language today. The reality is nevertheless that the United States has — whether it admits it or not — taken up some kind of global burden, just as Kipling urged. It considers itself responsible not just for waging a war against terrorism and rogue states, but also for spreading the benefits of capitalism and democracy overseas.

America has to be more engaged abroad for its own security, says Ferguson, adding:

But it is an empire that lacks the drive to export its capital, its people and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security.

Ferguson, whose relatives lived or worked in various parts of the British Empire, says the empire had its benefits. It ensured law and order, built cities, roads and railways, and brought about globalisation. He observes:

As I travelled around that Empire’s remains in the first half of 2002, I was constantly struck by its ubiquitous creativity. To imagine the world without the Empire would be to expunge from the map the elegant boulevards of Williamsburg and old Philadelphia; to sweep into the sea the squat battlements of Port Royal, Jamaica; to return to the bush the glorious skyline of Sydney; to level the steamy seaside slum that is Freetown, Sierra Leone; to fill in the Big Hole at Kimberley; to send the town of Livingstone hurtling over the Victoria Falls — which would of course revert to their original name of Mosioatunya. Without the British Empire, there would be no Calcutta; no Bombay; no Madras. Indians may rename them as many times as they like, but these vast metropoles remain cities founded and built by the British.


English education was welcomed by Indians, he points out.

Though the British themselves were at first dubious about offering natives Western education, many Indians — particularly high-caste Bengalis — were quick to discern the benefits of speaking the language and understanding the culture of their new masters. As early as 1817 a Hindu College had been founded in Calcutta by prosperous Bengalis eager for Western education; offering European history, literature and natural sciences, it was the first of many such institutions…. In 1835 the great Whig historian and Indian administrator Thomas Babington Macaulay — son of the abolitionist Zachary — spelt out exactly what could be achieved this way in his famous Minute on Education:

“It is impossible for us , with our limited means, to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intellect.”

By the 1870s, Macaulay’s vision had been in large measure realised. Six thousand Indian students had enrolled in higher education and no less than 200,000 in Anglophone secondary “schools of the higher order”. Calcutta had acquired a substantial English language publishing industry, capable of turning our more than a thousand works of literature and science a year.

But the English-speaking Indians in the end turned against the Raj. In time, these people naturally aspired to have some share in the government of the country and, when denied that, chafed against British rule. “The reality then was that Indian nationalism was fuelled not by the impoverishment of the many but by the rejection of the privileged few.,” says Ferguson. The Indian freedom movement was notably led by men — Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas Bose — who had an English education.

Foreign debt

India became independent in 1947 and most of the other imperial possessions too gained freedom in the 1960s. The empire crumbled under a mountain of debt. Britain ceded ground not only to freedom fighters but to pure economics. London could no longer afford an empire after the Second World War (1939 -1945). It was too costly. Ferguson writes:

Once Britain had been the world’s banker. Now she owed foreign creditors more than $40 billion. The foundations of empire had been economic, and those foundations had been simply eaten up by the cost of the war.

Meanwhile, the 1945 Labour government had ambitions to build a welfare state, which could only be afforded if Britain’s overseas commitments were drastically reduced. In a word, Britain was bust — and the Empire mortgaged to the hilt.

Exhausted by the costs of victory, denied the fresh start that followed defeat for Japan and Germany, Britain was simply no longer able to bear the costs of Empire. Nationalist insurgency and new military technology made imperial defence more expensive than before. Between 1947 and 1987 British defence expenditure had amounted to 5.8 per cent of gross domestic product. A century before, the proportion had been a mere 2.6 per cent. In the nineteenth century Britain had financed her chronic trade deficit with the income from a vast overseas investment portfolio. That had now been replaced with a crushing foreign debt burden, and the Treasury had to meet the much larger costs of nationalised health care, transport and industry.

US opposition

Ferguson, who wrote Empire when he was at Oxford but is now at Stanford, also hints at another reason for the dissolution of the British empire: American opposition.

Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during the Second World War whose mother was an American, spoke of a “special relationship” with America.

But the US President Franklin Roosevelt was “deeply suspicious of Churchill’s unreconstructed imperialism”, says Ferguson. “As the President saw it: ‘The British would take land anywhere in the world even if it were only a rock or a sand bar. ‘ What Roosevelt wished to see instead of colonies was a new system of temporary trusteeships in the colonies of all the European poets, paving the way to their independence.”

Ferguson observes:

The American war aims were in many ways more overtly hostile to the British Empire than anything Hitler had ever said. Article III of the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, which acted as the basis for the Western Allies war aims, appeared to rule out a continuation of imperial forms after the war, in favour of “the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”. In 1943 an American draft Declaration on National Independence went even further: as one British official lamented, “the whole tenor of it is to look forward to the ideal of the dissolution of the British empire”.

The British empire wilted under the combined pressure of foreign debt and the Cold War, according to Ferguson. He notes:

Just as Hitler had predicted, it was rival empires more than indigenous nationalists who propelled the process of decolonisation forward. As the Cold War entered its hottest phase in the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union vied with one another to win the support of independence movements in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. What Harold Macmillan called “the winds of change” when he toured Africa in 1960 blew not from Windhoek or Malawi but from Washington and Moscow. Tragically, they often blew away colonial rule only to replace it with civil war.

Ferguson, who clearly believes the British Empire was better than others, writes:

Thus it was that the British Empire, which had effectively been on sale in 1945, was broken up rather being taken over, went into liquidation rather than acquiring a new owner. At its height it had covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and governed around the same proportion of its population. It took just three decades to dismantle, leaving only a few scattered islands — from Ascension to Tristan da Cunha — as mementoes.

Back in 1892 the young Churchill had been all too right to expect ‘great upheavals” in the course of his long life. But by the time of his death in 1965 it had become clear that his hope of saving the Empire had been no more than a schoolboy fantasy.

When faced with the choice between appeasing or fighting the worse empires in all history, the British Empire had done the right thing. Even Churchill, staunch imperialist that he was, did not have to think long before rejecting Hitler’s squalid offer to let it survive alongside a Nazified Europe. In 1940, under Churchill’s inspired, indomitable, incomparable leadership, the Empire had stood alone against the truly evil imperialism of Hitler. Even if it did not last for the thousand years that Churchill had hopefully suggested it might this was indeed the British Empire’s “finest hour”.

Yet what made it so fine, so authentically noble, was that the Empire’s victory could only ever have been Pyrrhic. In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?

There may be a difference of degree, but who remembers? It’s a different world today. Thank God for soccer, cricket, pop music and the English language, though. The empire was not all bad!

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