Who is America?

Question: What are the forces that have shaped the United States most?

Niall Ferguson: Well the United States is a fantastic idea with extraordinary resources.  It’s a wonderful combination of the right institutions, the right culture, the right place, the right time. 

And it’s really not surprising that the United States has been so astonishingly successful as an economy, as a society, and as an empire.  We know it’s not surprising because it was predicated before 1776 by many commentators, including disinterested commentators like Adam Smith who understood just what the potential was of this place. 

But we may be living through the end of something.  Not necessarily the end of the United States.  On the contrary.  I think the United States has a huge future ahead of it.  But perhaps the end of the American empire. 

In a book called “Colossus”, I provocatively gave the subtitle “The Rise and Fall of the American Empire.” I made the argument that the United States is a very odd thing.  It’s an empire in denial.  It behaves like an empire.  It does all the classic things that empires do, like invading Afghanistan and Mesopotamia, and it wields tremendous military power. It exports its culture to foreign peoples.  It does the full range of imperial things, except for one. 

It doesn’t celebrate its own existence.  It denies it.  It insists that it’s not engaged in an empire. 

And the only people who say that it is are actually a relatively small marginal group of people on the left. 

So the question I asked was: Was the American empire a bad thing?  And my conclusion was no.  On balance it was better than all the available alternatives.  It was certainly better than the other empires on offer in the mid 20th century. 

But the second question was, well how long can it last in its present form?  And my suggestion was not very long, because as a force for wielding power abroad, it’s constrained by three deficits.  The three deficits are as follows. 

The first is a financial deficit.  This is an empire that relies increasingly on foreign capital to keep its economy going.

It is a manpower deficit.  It cannot deploy at any time more than a quarter of a million troops overseas which is a laughably small number considering how many able-bodied American men there are.

And it has an attention deficit.  And indeed it’s the first empire to have attention deficit disorder because almost every imperial undertaking has to be over successfully within four years or it gets abandoned.  And that’s not a function of some kind of cultural attention span problem.  It’s a function of the American electoral system.  Results have to be delivered very quickly.  And no empire can deliver the transformation of Mesopotamia in a four year timeframe.  I mean nobody could have done that.  It would take you at least 40 years to turn Iraq into something resembling a stable society, and nobody at any point, to my knowledge, has anticipated a 40 year timeframe. 

So we have a paradox.  The American empire is economically stronger than any empire ever.  In terms of its military lead over the competition, it’s out of sight.  It was never a time when Britain was so far ahead of its competition. 

But despite these enormous advantages, it’s very dysfunctional as an empire.  It really can’t direct sufficient financial resources through its imperial undertakings.  It never has enough men where they’re needed.  And above all else, its electorate loses interest in hot, poorer countries almost as soon as they’ve been occupied.  And these are the reasons why I think that the American empire may be on the way down.

There’s a fourth deficit which I hadn’t fully appreciated when I wrote the book, but I’m happy to add it now; and that is the legitimacy deficit.  Empires need, above all else, collaborators. You can’t run an empire on force alone.  You need local indigenous support for it to be viable.  And one of the most interesting failures of this most recent American administration [i.e. the George W. Bush administration] has been its failure to preserve the legitimacy of American power, which has collapsed to the extent the United States is more unpopular around the world than it has ever been, certainly since records began.  And that makes it even harder to be a successful empire.  If everybody hates you, it’s not going to last.


Recorded on: Oct 15, 2007 


An empire in denial.

Related Articles

Human skeletal stem cells isolated in breakthrough discovery

It's a development that could one day lead to much better treatments for osteoporosis, joint damage, and bone fractures.

Image: Nissim Benvenisty
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have isolated skeletal stem cells in adult and fetal bones for the first time.
  • These cells could one day help treat damaged bone and cartilage.
  • The team was able to grow skeletal stem cells from cells found within liposuctioned fat.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise helps your gut bacteria

Gut bacteria play an important role in how you feel and think and how well your body fights off disease. New research shows that exercise can give your gut bacteria a boost.

National Institutes of Health
Surprising Science
  • Two studies from the University of Illinois show that gut bacteria can be changed by exercise alone.
  • Our understanding of how gut bacteria impacts our overall health is an emerging field, and this research sheds light on the many different ways exercise affects your body.
  • Exercising to improve your gut bacteria will prevent diseases and encourage brain health.
Keep reading Show less

Giving octopuses ecstasy reveals surprising link to humans

A groundbreaking new study shows that octopuses seemed to exhibit uncharacteristically social behavior when given MDMA, the psychedelic drug commonly known as ecstasy.

Image: damn_unique via Flickr
Surprising Science
  • Octopuses, like humans, have genes that seem to code for serotonin transporters.
  • Scientists gave MDMA to octopuses to see whether those genes translated into a binding site for serotonin, which regulates emotions and behavior in humans
  • Octopuses, which are typically asocial creatures, seem to get friendlier while on MDMA, suggesting humans have more in common with the strange invertebrates than previously thought
Keep reading Show less