Navid Zarrinnal provides a critical analysis of Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of The British World Order and The Lessons for Global Power, arguing that Ferguson’s call for a new overt American imperialism ignores the intrinsic moral problems of imperialism, and betrays an ignorance of the Islamic world.
Modern European colonialism in what used to be the Islamic world dates back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 — a short-lived military occupation identified as the historical origin of Europe’s colonial rule in what is now referred to as the Middle East and North Africa (“MENA”). It took about another eighty years for European imperial control over MENA to become a geopolitical fact. After 1880, the simultaneously competitive, cooperative imperialism of Britain and France, and to a lesser extent Russia, outmaneuvered major Muslim powers, the Ottoman and the Qajar among them, bringing about the former group’s global hegemony. This is the global order that the United States inherited after World War II, eventually outmaneuvering its imperial rival the Soviet Union. The post-Cold War geopolitical condition, with the U.S. as the supreme imperial power, now seems to be shifting in favor of a more multipolar world order, though the U.S. remains an empire, its fragility notwithstanding, and the key player in international affairs.
Writing in 2003 at what seemed to be the height of American global power, Niall Ferguson, the British historian, argues for the goodness of the British Empire and claims that the U.S., in the footsteps of Britain, ought to play a conscious imperial role today. In Empire: The Rise and Demise of The British World Order and The Lessons for Global Power, Niall Ferguson explains the manner in which Britain came to rule the world, also attempting to establish that the British Empire was, on balance, a “good thing.” Ferguson explores the history of the British Empire from its very beginnings, when English pirates as imperial imitators began to seek a fortune in the already-colonized Americas. He then describes global British migrations; British immigrants traveled the world in pursuit of profit, religious freedom, and political liberty, or through compulsion, as slaves and convicts. The empire in its voluntary dimension consisted of missionaries who attempted, often unsuccessfully, to Anglicize and Christianize the world. In its political and military dimension, Britain exercised a minimal political rule through its bureaucracies, superior navy, and standing armies, in collaboration with indigenous elites. The empire fell, Ferguson contends, not so much because of nationalist movements but by rival and far more ruthless European and Japanese empires of the twentieth century, leaving the United States as the most powerful state in the world.
In his conclusion, Ferguson argues that Britain shaped the modern world in a good way because it instituted: 1) liberal capitalism; 2) parliamentary democracy; 3) internalization of the English language; 4) international mobility of labor; and 5) British common law and administration. According to Ferguson, to preserve and perpetuate the goodness of the British Empire, the U.S. should end its imperialism in denial and play a conscious imperial role, which in his judgment, would maximize global security and improve the “backward regions” of the world.
Ferguson’s book is very readable and informative. Its main virtues lie in its accessibility to general readers and its illuminating survey of the British Empire’s economic, religious, political, and military dimensions. Nonetheless, Ferguson’s normative arguments remain embarrassingly incomplete and unconvincing. Thanks to the British Empire, Ferguson claims, “we” (whoever Ferguson’s “we” refers to) have inherited a world in which British institutions dominate — i.e., the world is ordered in a particular manner because of British colonialism. From this is, Ferguson makes a two-fold claim: 1) this dominant world order is morally advantageous, and perhaps more significantly for Ferguson, has unprecedented material benefits for most people; and 2) “we” ought to maintain and spread this morally and materially superior world order through conscious American imperialism.
Absent additional arguments, Ferguson’s two-fold claim remains unjustified. He needs to show, not merely presume that: 1) British-inherited institutions have superior moral and material benefits for the majority of the world’s population; and 2) American imperialism is the most effective way at extending these moral-material benefits. Ferguson’s thin, statistic-driven list of British institutional advantages, even if accepted as true, is grossly unsatisfactory. For example, the only moral-material defense he provides for British common law is that a “recent survey” concluded that this legal system provides the strongest protection for investors. Based on this sole advantage, without addressing objections against British common law and eliminating legal alternatives, Ferguson attaches a moral and material superiority to British law. Similar critiques can be directed against his other presumptive contentions, like the presumed moral and material superiority of liberal capitalism. Ferguson also fails to provide any arguments for why something like the internationalization of the English language is a “good thing.”
Even if we grant the moral-material superiority of Britain’s institutional legacy, Ferguson fails to provide an argument for why it is formal, self-conscious American imperialism that will most effectively grace the world with such superiority, as opposed to less coercive and more informal alternatives, say, funding institutes that promote worldwide liberal-capitalistic education.
Not only is Ferguson’s normative argument for U.S. playing a conscious imperial role unsatisfactory, his ignorance of Muslim and MENA peoples make his call for imperial intervention even more troubling. This ignorance is primarily reflected in the conceptual flaws with which Ferguson approaches these peoples. A serious conceptual problem lies in his treatment of the nineteenth century Sudanese Mahdist Revolt against the British. Ferguson identifies this revolt as an instance of “Islamic fundamentalists,” rebelling against the British Empire and its “native” allies. Aside from his failure to realize that “Islamic” refers to objects and abstract concepts (not an individual or group of individuals — Muslim is the proper referent for persons and groups), Ferguson projects a twentieth-century concept, “fundamentalism,” to a nineteenth-century Sufi order with anti-colonial aspirations. It is a problem in itself to call a non-Christian religious group “fundamentalist” as the concept was coined to describe a particular manifestation of Christianity in the United States (later applied, albeit problematically, to non-Christian religious movements as well). Even if we grant fundamentalism’s universal application, Ferguson anachronistically employs a distinctly twentieth-century concept to describe the nineteenth-century Mahdist revolt, without arguing for a meaningfully set of analogous characteristics between what has recently come to be known, rather problematically, as “Islamic fundamentalism” and the Mahdist revolt. Ferguson’s conceptual confusion, in describing non-Europeans histories with the Mahdist Revolt serving as a major example, makes his final prescription for imperially managing the “backward regions” of the world even less persuasive.
Yet a more fundamental problem lies in Ferguson’s failure to realize that modern imperialism comes equipped with intrinsic moral problems — to name a few: standing foreign armies in one’s territory, civilizational-racial-national hierarchies, and forced assimilation into a political-economic order dictated by the imperial power. Ferguson’s “balance sheet” approach to imperialism ignores the intrinsic moral problems written into the very definition and practice of imperialism. This combined with the conceptual confusion with which he approaches Muslim and MENA populations make his already unpersuasive normative conclusion for U.S. imperial administration even more troubling. A decent understanding of the “backward regions” of the world should be the minimum prerequisite before the imperial flag of arrogance is raised.
Latest posts by CME (see all)
- “Terrorist, plain and simple”? The misleading strategy behind the “terrorist” tag. – October 6, 2015
- Letter Smuggled out of Egyptian Prisons: Esraa El Taweel Speak – July 14, 2015
- We must not forget Abu-Salim – July 7, 2015