A Review of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson

For those interested in the debates surrounding whether the United States of America should project itself as an empire à la the British empire of old can find in Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson the argument for the pro side. (The argument also appears in The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 by the same author). Ferguson is interested in challenging myths about the British Empire, such as that it was conceived in an absence of mind, that it did nothing but repress its subjects abroad, and that it collapsed because of nationalist insurgencies. Ferguson instead argues that the British Empire's growth from the outset was a planned affair, that the net impact of Britain on the peoples it ruled was a positive one, and that not only were its primary threats competing empires, but those competing empires (especially the German and Japanese empires) of the early 20th century were the worse alternatives to British rule. The price of victory over these empires was, ironically, the loss of the British Empire (a price Ferguson says was worth paying), because the debt it owed to fight the wars—especially the debt owed by its former colony, the United States—meant that Britain would have to focus on domestic matters instead.

The illustrations of the book are, in a word, beautiful. There are dozens of photographs, paintings, maps, and graphs which provide an excellent visual aid to the text that surrounds them. If there was one reason to buy the book, that would suffice. The writing style can be seen in a typical paragraph from the book, which talks about the cost of defending the empire (p. 245):

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about all this [i.e. the British Empire in the early 20th century] was how cheap it was to defend. In 1898 there were 99,000 regular soldiers stationed in Britain, 75,000 in India and 41,0000 elsewhere in the Empire. The navy required another 100,000 men, and the Indian native army was 148,000 strong. There were barracks and naval coaling stations, thirty-three of them in all, dotted all over the world. Yet the total defence budget for that year was just over £40 million: a mere 2.5 per cent of net national product. That is not much higher than the relative burden of Britain's defence budget today, and far less than the equivalent percentage spent on the military during the Cold War. Nor did the burden rise significantly when Britain boldly modernized her entire fleet by building the first Dreadnought, a ship so advanced – with its 12-inch guns and its revolutionary turbines – that it rendered all existing battleships obsolete the moment it was launched. Between 1906 and 1913, Britain was able to build twenty-seven of these floating fortresses at a cost of £49 million, less than the annual interest charge on the national debt. This was world domination on the cheap.

Ferguson also relies heavily on primary sources. Most memorable was when Ferguson quoted from Charles Dickens' remarkable review of the memoirs by the even more remarkable David Livingstone. The following is Dickens' text:

the effect of it [Livingstone's book] on me has been to lower my opinion of my own character in a most remarkable and most disastrous manner. I used to think I possessed the moral virtues of courage, patience, resolution and self control. Since I ahve read Doctor Livingstone's volume, I have been driven to the humiliating conclusion that, in forming my own opinion of myself, I have been imposed upon by a false and counterfeit article. Guided by the test of the South African Traveller, I find that my much prized courage, patience resolution and self control turn out to be nothing but plated goods.

Throughout, Ferguson punctuates a point by turning to diaries, magazine articles and even novels of the periods in question to find the tenor of debate surrounding the politics of the Empire. Ferguson also makes sure that the lesser-known but still important points in well-known speeches get highlighted.

A minor—if lengthy—criticism of the text, which will help to make a related political point of mine, is that the graph that appears on p. 79, while technically accurate, looks on the surface to be misleading. It shows the “Chances of dying in different parts of the British Empire: mortality among British soldiers c. 1814-1838. The mortality rate for Britons was fifty times higher in Sierra Leone than in New Zealand.” That statement is accurate. (In fact, a higher proportion of stationed troops died in Cape Coast than in Sierra Leone in that same period.) The problem with the graph is that it looks, at first glance, to show that New Zealand had the higher death rate, when in fact the graph—which, it's important to note, is labelled correctly—shows an inverse number. By means of buttressing Ferguson's point, Peter Burroughs wrote in 1980 that “On the balance sheet of imperialism the debit side is heavily weighed by the sacrifice of the common soldier, not only those killed in action, but the many thousands more ravaged by sickness and decimated by temperate as well as tropical climates. [...] The story of Britain's imperial legions is indeed as much a record of callous indifference to human suffering, incompetence in high places, and the wanton waste of expendable cannon fodder as of bravery and honour, glory and self-sacrifice.” The political point? Today in Iraq, American soldiers are being killed in action, and people can legitimately argue that soldiers dying in action is not a price worth paying. They cannot, however, legitimately argue that they are being sent to the same kind of deathtraps that British soldiers were sent to in the Victorian age.

By way not so much of criticism as of warning, Ferguson's biases are towards the military and financial history of the British Empire primarily from a British—and, importantly, Scottish—point of view. He's also a contrarian by nature, seeking explanations sans cliché. (Regarding the Boston Tea Party, he says that it “was organized not by irate consumers but by Boston's wealthy smugglers, who stood to lose out. Contemporaries were well aware of the absurdity of the ostensible reason for the protest.” p. 90.) He makes no apologies for these biases, but it's still important to consider that, same with all histories of large subjects, you won't be getting the full story. The book, in the conclusion, argues that the United States is an empire in everything but name, and that significant differences—a founding policy of suspicion towards "entangling alliances" and current net imports of people and capital (in the British empire people and capital were net exports)—exist between the British Empire of old and the American empire of new.