Thursday, June 26, 2008

Colossus - Book Comments

My friend Adam lent me the book "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire" by Neill Ferguson. I just finished reading it, so I thought I'd write a little about my thoughts. I can't claim to be the most educated person about foreign politics, so as I learn more I reserve the ability to change my mind. I'll include page numbers in some spots for others who have read the book.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting book with some good points. His general thesis is that America is an empire in denial. The term empire is defined broadly as having influence outside your national borders, which the U.S. does - if not through military action, than through its pervasive culture, companies, and NGOs. He then argues that because the United States won't admit (to itself or others) and that it is an empire, it does a poor job when it decides to interfere with other countries. Rather than take a long-term view and accept the job as re-builder (as we did in Germany in Japan), he argues, we tend to think we can take quick military action and then step back and leave the nation-building to the citizens there, which doesn't seem to work in practice.

There are some interesting general issues he brings up. First is the question of how (if its possible) you can successfully cause a regime-change in a country. He argues that the (long) process of nation-building must be carefully and determinedly taken on - you can't plan only for the military action and not what follows, and you can't expect this type of action to come to a quick conclusion. This seems pretty likely to me, and maybe a more realistic understanding of what was going to be involved when we invaded Iraq would have made people less frustrated at our continued presence now (it also might have meant many less people would have supported it in the first place). It's definitely an interesting question to consider.

Another general issue (pg 293) is what America's obligation to the world is, and what kind of role we ought to take on as the only superpower. Should we ever interfere with other nations? Should we be using our power to overthrow more dictators and oppressive regimes? I think this is a question that is very difficult to answer. A nation that feels it knows what is best for the rest of the world and unilaterally goes around using its military to change regimes it regards as oppressive, seems like it could easily get out of hand. Similarly, if the only nation that has the people and money to take action refuses to ever step in, that could seem irresponsible. If you do believe that the United States (or the world) in general should take action in some cases, then the question is when should we take action, and who gets to decide? What about Sudan, where thousands were being killed by the government? Or in Myanmar, where thousands died because the government wouldn't allow aid after the cyclone? Or Zimbabwe, which is being torn apart and bullied by Robert Mugabe? What about Turkmenistan where the political system is a presidential republic, but only one political party is legally allowed, and any non-sanctioned political gatherings are illegal? There are lots of non-democratic countries around the world, and it's not clear what justifies unilateral or multilateral action by the world.

Some might think intervention is only an option if the people within the nation want outside intervention, but this seems impractical to me, since there are always going to be mixed reactions to any type of action. I think this was one of the things that confused Americans about the Iraq war, there was an idea that all Iraqis would be greeting us with a warm welcome, and though I believe some did, many did not - while this was unexpected to some, it seems inevitable to me.

A few other intersting issues: In the book (pg 152-157) Ferguson addresses the path from 9/11 to Iraq, but doesn't discuss why Iraq was chosen in particular, except to say "there had been elements within the Republican Party who yearned for a settling of accounts with Saddam Hussein." Also, it seems to me that the rationale for war he gives in the book is not quite the same as what was put forth in the popular media.

One thing I thought was missing from the book was an acknowledgment of all the negative effects of colonialism on the former colonies. Ferguson discusses the benefits in infrastructure and other areas that he believes colonies received, but seems to gloss over the extreme inequities and violence that occurred during this time. Regardless of the economic arguments, the moral issues need to be addressed as well. Similarly, he says (pg 175-176) that de-colonization did not lead directly to economic growth, as was predicted, but he also does not show that de-colonization had a negative effect. I would have liked to have had more information about the changes caused by de-colonization, as well as the likely progression that would have occurred with a plan of non-interference.

He argues that one of America's problems in successfully re-building Iraq was in the public's non-interest in actually going to Iraq. In Britain in the early 1900's, he argues, many Cambridge and Oxford grads were eager to get involved in the colonial authority in other nations. American Ivy League grads would rather go to Wall Street. He quotes some statistics about the low numbers of Americans who choose to live and work abroad in general. I thought this was an interesting comment, and am curious exactly what has driven this change.

On page 101, Ferguson says that it was not the general public that was against imperialism, but the elite and the academics. I'm curious if that is still the case now. Is that state of affairs a good thing or a bad thing? Why does it occur that way?

On page 139, Ferguson talks about Clinton's policy, and argues that Clinton's main goal was to avoid getting soldiers killed. In the book, Ferguson doesn't seem to think this is much of a policy, but to me it seems like an acceptable goal - preserving American lives seems like a good thing to keep in mind. Clinton still took military action, but in a way that minimized danger to our troops. I wish he had included more information about this policy and what he thought were the negative aspects.

This has turned into a pretty random collection of thoughts on this book, but maybe it will be somewhat interesting and possibly spark some thought and discussion! Overall, I'd recommend the book - an interesting read and a unique opinion.

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