Tuesday 1 June 2004

An empire of denial

The US is choosing to ignore the fact that it is to blame for the stifling of global democracy

by George Monbiot

George Monbiot No one could have called ours a raucous household. The passions of our first two years at university were spent, and we were now buried in our books. My work, as usual, was quixotic and contradictory (studying zoology by day, writing a terrible novel by night), Niall's was focussed and unrelenting. He was charming, generous-spirited and easy to live with, but I think it is fair to say that everyone was frightened of him.

It's not just that my housemate knew his subject better than his contemporaries, and knew where he wanted to take it. He also knew how to do it. While the rest of us were fumbling with bunches of odd-shaped keys, trying to jam each of them into the lock in turn, the doors kept swinging open for him. Niall Ferguson is now professor of history at New York University, and rapidly becoming one of the most celebrated intellectuals in the United States.

After university we retained an occasional friendship, during which we never quite engaged with each other's politics. I haven't seen him for three or four years, and I'm not sure what we'd talk about today. Our views, which were never close, have now polarised completely. We find ourselves on opposite sides of what will surely be the big fight of the early 21st century: global democracy versus American empire.

His new book and television series, Colossus, is an attempt to persuade the United States that it must take its imperial role seriously, becoming in the 21st century what Britain was in the 19th. "Many parts of the world," he claims, "would benefit from a period of American rule." The US should stop messing about with "informal empire", and assert "direct rule" over countries which "require the imposition of some kind of external authority". But it is held back by "the absence of a will to power".

Colossus, like all Niall's books, is erudite and intelligent. The quality of his research forces those of us who take a different view to raise our game. He has remembered what so many have chosen to forget: that the United States is and has always been an empire - an "empire in denial".

He shows that there was little difference between the westward expansion of the founding states and the growth of "the great land empires of the past". He argues that its control of Central America, the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Middle East has had long had an imperial character. He makes the interesting point that the US found, in its attempt to contain the Soviet Union, "the perfect ideology for its own peculiar kind of empire: the imperialism of anti-imperialism".

But he asks us to remember only in order to persuade us to forget. He seeks to exchange an empire in denial for an empire of denial.

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