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A British Assessment of U.S. Grand Strategy

What does one renowned British historian have to say about the U.S.’ imperial foreign policy?

December 25, 2005

What does one renowned British historian have to say about the U.S.' imperial foreign policy?

Harvard University history professor Niall Ferguson is no stranger to the limelight. Time Magazine ranked the oft-published and outspoken author of "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire" one of the world's hundred most influential people. In this Read My Lips feature, we listen in to what this British-born author has to say about his adopted home the United States – in the contexts of China, the European Union, and imperialism.

What is peculiar about U.S. foreign policy?

“The great thing about the American empire is that so many Americans are so keen to disbelieve its very existence.”
(April 2003)

How is this sentiment visible in U.S. military interventions?

“U.S. interventions have tended to be quite short-term: the Americans are in a hurry to hold elections and go home.”
(January 2003)

Were the British imperialists in such a rush?

“The British didn’t mind living for years in Iraq or India for 100-plus years. Americans aren’t attracted to the idea of taking up residence in hot, poor places.”
(March 2003)

What seems to fascinate a British historian about an aggressive United States?

“If wars cost $20 to $70 billion a throw, the United States could probably fight one a year with no macroeconomic impact if they are won in 21 days.”
(June 2003)

What’s the downside?

“A quick withdrawal would doom Iraq to civil war or theocracy — probably both, in that order.”
(April 2004)

In what area have U.S. strategists failed the most?

“People in Iraq and elsewhere will only feel any affinity with the United States once they see their personal incomes rise.”
(April 2003)

Why does Iraq matter so much?

“There’s a very big difference between declining in the next five years and the next 500 years. I shouldn’t think Americans would like to live through what the British did.”
(January 2005)

What set of policy-prescriptions did the British Empire contribute to modern global politics?

“The policy “mix” favored by Victorian imperialists reads like something just published by the IMF, if not the World Bank: Free trade, balanced budgets, sound money, the common law, incorrupt administration — and investment in infrastructure financed by international loans.”
(April 2003)

Is the United States at fault for deteriorating ties with European Union?

“George W. Bush should not be blamed for the deterioration of transatlantic relations. His much exaggerated ‘unilateralism’ is not why the Atlantic seems a little wider every day. It is Europe, not America, that is drifting away.”
(January 2005)

What is religion’s role in this increasing cultural divide?

“We are witnessing the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic in Europe.”
(June 2003)

How might a religious fundamentalist interpret this trend?

“From an evangelical point of view, Americans are bound for heaven and Europeans for hell.”
(January 2005)

Looking east to other U.S. trade partners, how would you describe the Sino-American economic relationship?

“Though neither side wants to admit it, today’s Sino-American economic relationship has an imperial character. Empires, remember, traditionally collect ‘tributes’ from subject peoples. Today’s ‘tribute’ is effectively paid to the American empire by China and other East Asian economies — in the form of under priced exports and low-interest, high-risk loans.”
(March 2005)

Who benefits within the United States?

“The Bush Administration’s combination of tax cuts for the Republican ‘base’ and a Global War on Terror is being financed with a multibillion dollar overdraft facility at the People’s Bank of China.”
(April 2005)

How about the American public?

“Without East Asia, your mortgage might well be costing you more. The toys you buy for your kids certainly would.” (March 2005)