Nial Ferguson perd confiance

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Nial Ferguson perd confiance

Lisez ces trois articles, à onze mois de distance, un sur le professeur Niall Ferguson et deux du professeur Niall Ferguson, — historien britannique exerçant une part importante de son temps aux États-Unis. Ils nous font mesurer l’énorme, la considérable déception que les États-Unis ont procurée à leurs plus ardents zélateurs et dithyrambes. Cela est bien plus important que l’extension évidemment ultra-rapide de l’anti-américanisme qui fait gémir tant de commentateurs moralisants car ce sont les meilleurs parmi les zélateurs de l’Empire qui sont frappés.

Dans les trois textes que nous présentons, le premier chronologiquement fait un portrait volontairement polémique du professeur Ferguson avant la guerre d’Irak. Ferguson en fut un farouche partisan. Avant le 19 mars, il donnait des leçons de “patriotisme occidental” à ceux qui hésitaient (mais l’expression “patriotisme anglo-saxon” n’irait-elle pas mieux ?). Ce premier texte est une critique acerbe des positions néo-impérialistes de Ferguson, dans la mesure également où l’argument est d’attaquer la façon dont Ferguson présente et réalise une série télévisée sur l’Empire britannique. Le texte présente bien, indirectement, ce qu’étaient la fièvre et le zèle pro-impérialistes de Ferguson, et par conséquent la faveur qu’il accordait à la poussée impériale américaine, et la confiance qu’il avait en elle.

Le second texte montre un Ferguson soutenant l’effort américain avec un zèle et un enthousiasme dont on comprend, à lire la fin, qu’ils sont devenus plutôt contraints et pas trop encombrés d’illusions. Ferguson espère encore que la dynamique de la puissance américaine qui a été lancée entraînera l’Amérique à être ce que, décidément, elle ne veut pas être, — un Empire. Le troisième texte, paru dans Newsweek ce mois-ci, nous dit tout  : non seulement l’Amérique ne veut pas être un Empire, mais elle ne le peut pas. La déception est à mesure de ce constat.

Dans ce dernier texte, la critique nouvelle du professeur Ferguson est intellectuellement intéressante, de même que la comparaison, un peu méprisante, qu’il fait des intentions impériales des Américains et du héros des films Terminator, entre- temps devenu comme de juste une des vedettes du monde politique US. Les Américains savent casser, se “réparer” eux-mêmes, mais ils ne savent pas établir la paix chez les autres, c’est-à-dire imposer “leur” paix, la fameuse Pax Americana. Ferguson  : « Character flaws: The U. S. can inflict great damage while sustaining none, and is programmed to rebuild itself, but not others. That’s its problem. »

Le “problème” des Américains est effectivement bien résumé par cette expression du professeur Ferguson  : «  America’s imperial anemia. »




False and dangerous

By Jon E Wilson, The Guardian, February 8, 2003

Niall Ferguson is the Leni Riefenstahl of George Bush's new imperial order. Just as Riefenstahl's photography glorified the violence of fascism and sold it to the middle classes, Ferguson's Channel 4 series and book on the British empire presents the acceptable face of imperial brutality.

From hawks within the Bush administration to their cheerleaders on the Mail and Telegraph, the invasion of Iraq is justified in the name of a new benevolent colonialism. Just as the world is preparing for a fresh western war of conquest, Ferguson arrives to convince us that imperialism can be a Good Thing. With its swashbuckling heroes and glamorous locations, his series Empire lends fake historical legitimacy to this new imperial enterprise. But by using Britain's imperial past to justify America's imperial future, Ferguson's arguments are misleading and dangerous. Worst of all, they encourage policy based on a version of the history of empire that is simply wrong. Apologists for the new imperialism argue that Pax Britannica ushered in an unprecedented period of worldwide peace and prosperity. If the US took its global responsibilities seriously, they claim, Pax Americana could now do the same again.

This new imperialism tries to justify itself with a story about Britain's introduction of free trade, the rule of law, democracy and western civilisation across the globe. ''No organisation'', Ferguson says, ''has done more to impose western norms of law, order and governance around the world.'' That story is a fable dreamt up by 19th-century propagandists to sell the benefits of empire to an uncertain public back home.

Instead of enriching the world, the British empire impoverished it. The empire was run on the cheap. Instead of investing in the development of the countries they ruled, the British survived by doing deals with indigenous elites to sustain their rule at knock-down prices.

Whether in 18th-century India, 19th-century Egypt or 20th-century Iraq, the story is the same. As long as taxes were paid, the British cared little about how they were collected. Far from imposing ''the rule of law'', they turned a blind eye to Indian landlords who extracted rent by coercion or white planters who evicted their African neighbours by force. Despotic repression was fostered where it protected British interests. Many of those petty despotisms are still with us today. The feudal lords now massacring villagers in the Indian state of Bihar were created by British land policy. The northern Nigerian emirs who sentenced Amina Lawal to death for adultery last year owe their existence to the dubious practices of British imperial rule.

Ferguson's defence of the new imperialism is based on a view that the west is always best. Those who insist that the US should take on a yet more assertive global role don't believe that Asians, Africans or Arabs can create prosperity and order on their own behalf. Without western imperial order, so this argument goes, the world would be a nasty, brutish place. Muslim countries are singled out as being particularly incapable of looking after their own affairs.

Such views are based on a woefully inaccurate version of the history of the non-European world. Take India, for example. Ruled by Muslims before the British, India was a prosperous, rapidly commercialising society. The Jagat Seths, India's biggest banking network, rivalled the Bank of England in size. Ferguson argues that the British built useful things - opulent viceregal palaces and machine guns, perhaps. In contrast, Indians wasted money on conspicuous consumption. Does he mean the Taj Mahal?

Far from being backward and uncivilised, Mughal India exported high quality manufactured goods to Britain's fashionable society. Aristocrats had Indian chintz on their walls and Indian cloth on their tables. British manufacturers often labelled poorer quality British imitations as ''Indian'' to dupe customers into buying their own shoddy goods. After all, why were the British interested in trading with Asia at all? It was to make money out of a wealthy society - not to invest and civilise.

British rule pauperised India. The British restricted Indian weavers' ability to trade freely and the result was a drastic drop in living standards. Dhaka, now the capital of impoverished Bangladesh, was once a state-of-the-art industrial city. Its population fell by half during the first century of British rule. In 1750, Indians had a similar standard of living to people in Britain. Now, average Indian incomes are barely a tenth of the British level in terms of real purchasing power. It is no coincidence that 200 years of British rule occurred in the intervening time.

When not subject to western intervention, the non-European world is of course more than capable of looking after its own affairs. The argument that Africans, Arabs and Asians need to be ''civilised'' by force has repeatedly ended up being used to justify oppressive regimes. The British extinction of the aboriginal population of Tasmania or the barbaric penal colony on the Andaman Islands (the early 20th century's Guantanamo Bay) were justified in the belief that the ''natives'' couldn't expect any better.

Empire is always counter-productive. Imperialism creates weak rulers who demand further cycles of imperial violence to stay in power. British colonial power could only be sustained by the large-scale use of brutal force across four continents. In the dying days of imperial rule, the British maintained their rule by acts of terror like the Amritsar massacre and the frenzy of colonial violence that followed the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. In neither case does one find much sign of the ''rule of law''.

The story that Ferguson tells is typical of the arguments liberal imperial propagandists made during the 19th century. After all, even John Stuart Mill (an employee of the East India Company) regarded imperialism as benign. But based on a version of British history last taught well over half a century ago, these kinds of arguments are not taken seriously by historians today. Until recently, it seemed that 19th-century liberal orthodoxies about ''progress'', ''order'' and the benefits of British colonial rule had become the marginal province of the fogeyish fringe of the Tory right.

But now Ferguson's retro chic defence of the new imperialism has alarmingly seeped out of the confines of its conservative redoubt into the mainstream. Jack Straw should be lauded for having had the courage to suggest that political instability in the Middle East, Asia and Africa has something to do with the legacy of British rule in places like Zimbabwe, Palestine, Iraq and India. But his belief that the wrongs of imperial violence in the past can be righted by a further wave of imperial violence now is based on the same arrogant mistake.

The new liberal imperialists believe the west has the power to remould the rest of the world in its own image. It doesn't. Instead, imperialism creates a cycle of violence and poverty that advances the short-term interests of a few by impoverishing us all in the long term. If policy-makers are going to take history seriously, they should base it on something more sophisticated than Niall Ferguson's glossy glorification of imperial violence.

Jon E Wilson is a lecturer in history at King's College London. He is writing a book on British rule in Bengal

Jon E Wilson




The 'E' Word : America is an empire

By Niall Ferguson, The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2003

We may now be witnessing the most radical reshaping of the Middle East since it acquired its modern form (and many of its modern problems) in the wake of World War I. What the British Empire began, the American Empire may be about to finish.

Most of us are compulsively pessimistic about the Middle East; too many ''road maps'' have led over cliffs. But this time there's a real chance it could be different. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been the mother of all wake-up calls. Unlike his predecessors, who thought peace could be brought by touchy-feely peace talks, Mr. Bush has grasped that military power is key: the magical spear that heals even as it wounds. By showing them just how easily Saddam could be overthrown, Mr. Bush has made it transparent to Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia that Saddam's fate could befall them too.

I don't believe anyone in the Pentagon wants to stage another invasion soon; their hands are full. The aim is to put the frighteners on the region's Muslim powers. And it's working. When five Arab leaders met Mr. Bush on Tuesday, they pledged, with manifest penitence, that they would henceforth actively fight ''the culture of extremism and violence.'' Not just al Qaeda: Hamas and Hezbollah too. And that is precisely why, to the astonishment of many, Ariel Sharon seems ready to make the concessions without which no peace is conceivable. For the first time in his life, he has acknowledged that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been under Israeli ''occupation.'' He has pledged to ''evacuate unauthorized outposts.'' And he has agreed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state with ''territorial contiguity'' (the week's key word). None of this would be happening if Mr. Bush had not established his credibility in the region by force.

So what's the catch? It lies in the paradoxical nature of American power. In 2000, Mr. Bush talked as if he wanted to diminish America's military presence overseas. But Sept. 11 led to a 180-degree turn in his thinking. His administration produced a National Security Strategy that stated an intention to extend the ''benefits of freedom'' to ''every corner of the world,'' and asserted the right to pre-emptive military action against any threat to America's security.

Many critics have seized upon this ''Bush doctrine'' as a dangerous, even revolutionary departure from post-1945 U.S. practice. I am not so sure. For one thing, it is eminently desirable that free markets, the rule of law and democracy should be introduced in countries currently languishing under rogue regimes. For another, regime changes of the sort we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq are an indispensable element of the war against terrorism. Terrorists are sustained by dictatorships and flourish in conditions of anarchy. The terrorist threat will never be contained if the U.S. does not eradicate breeding grounds. And a strategy of global containment is not really a major departure in policy.

The radical aspect of the doctrine is not the theory but the practice. When Mr. Bush says he is prepared to fight terror in ''every corner of the world,'' he really can. And he really does. If this isn't imperial power, I don't know what is. But here's the paradox. Vast though America's military power has become, the idea that the U.S. has become an authentic empire remains entirely foreign to the majority of Americans, who uncritically accept what has long been the official line: that the U.S. just doesn't ''do empire.''

''America has never been an empire,'' Mr. Bush declared during his election campaign. ''We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused.'' Speaking on board the Abraham Lincoln, he echoed that: ''Other nations in history have fought in foreign lands and remained to occupy and exploit. Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home.'' Days earlier, Donald Rumsfeld had been asked by al-Jazeera if the U.S. was engaged in ''empire-building in Iraq.'' ''We don't seek empires,'' shot back Mr. Rumsfeld. ''We're not imperialistic. We never have been.''

The Victorian historian J.R. Seeley famously joked that the British had ''conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.'' The Americans have gone one better. The greatest empire of modern times has come into existence without the American people even noticing. This is not absence of mind. It is mass myopia.

Unfortunately, this myopia is one of the things that makes the American empire very different from--and, I believe, less effective than--the last great Anglophone empire, the British one. Americans have no qualms about sending their troops to fight in faraway countries. But they expect wars to be short and the casualty list to be even shorter. Since the war in Iraq officially ended, 40 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives, some as a result of terrorist attacks. Already there is a queasiness about this. When can our boys come home?

The realistic answer is: not for at least five years, the minimum duration of occupation that will stabilize Iraq. And if the British experience of governing Iraq after World War I is anything to go by, 40 years might be more realistic. Alas, nobody in Washington is willing to contemplate a military presence on that time scale. The U.S. may be a ''hyperpower,'' the most militarily powerful empire in history. But it is an empire in denial, a colossus with an attention deficiency disorder. That is potentially very dangerous.

I began on a note of optimism, pointing out just how much has been achieved by the war against Iraq. If Saddam's overthrow marks the beginning of a sustained attempt to build peace in the Middle East, we will have cause to celebrate the advent of this American empire. But if Iraq is just another ephemeral military adventure, then I am filled with foreboding. For the moment America loses interest in what it has initiated, the cycle of terror will resume.

Nial Ferguson

Mr. Ferguson is author of ''Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power'' (Basic Books, 2003).




American Terminator

By Niall Ferguson, Newsweek International, 8 January, 2004

The United States is now an empire in all but name — the first case in history of an empire in denial. That may explain why a country which accounts for nearly a third of total world output now has such surprising trouble getting what it wants. The last great Anglophone empire ruled over a quarter of the world’s land surface and population, despite the fact that Britain accounted for less than a tenth of global production. Yet the United States has spent recent months struggling to control just two foreign countries: Afghanistan and Iraq. If it is indeed an empire, it seems a strangely feeble one.

America’s imperial anemia takes some serious explaining; it is not enough simply to blame its troubles on the Bush administration’s alleged diplomatic ineptitude. To understand what has gone wrong this past year, it is necessary to rethink what we mean by power. For all too often we confuse that concept with other, quite different things: wealth and weaponry, influence and appeal. It is quite possible to have a great deal of all these things, yet to have only limited power. That is the American predicament.

The United States has an enormous economy: in current dollar terms, its gross domestic product is 30 times bigger than Russia’s, 20 times bigger than India’s, eight times bigger than China’s, more than two and a half times bigger than Japan’s and 22 percent bigger than the European Union’s. Its military capability is unrivaled: it spends more on its armed forces than the next dozen or more countries combined, and produces weaponry so much better than that of any conceivable competition that talk of “full-spectrum dominance” does not seem exaggerated.

Yet look at the record of recent months. Establishing law and order in Iraq has proved to be beyond the capacity of America’s armed forces, even with British assistance. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein raised hopes that America just might be able to break the deadlock in the Middle East, but by the autumn, Yasir Arafat had reasserted control over the Palestinian administration and Ariel Sharon was building a replica of the Berlin wall around the Palestinians. Meanwhile, a repulsive tin-pot dictator in North Korea was defying American hyperpower with impunity, openly restarting his nuclear-weapons program and threatening to “open the nuclear deterrent to the public as a physical force.”

Some pax Americana. The United States even hesitated before sending a tiny force to the one basket-case country in Africa for which it can be said to have any historical responsibility, Liberia. In August three ships, carrying about 4,500 sailors and Marines, were sent to Liberia after repeated requests for American intervention. In all, 225 Americans went ashore, of whom 50 contracted malaria. Two months later the Americans pulled out. This halfhearted African adventure exemplifies the limits of American power.

But how are we to explain these limits?

The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California offers an important clue to the nature of American power. In his most recent film, “Terminator 3,” Schwarzenegger plays an almost indestructible robot programmed to protect a young man who is destined to save the world. In the climactic scene, the Terminator’s operating system becomes corrupted: instead of saving the future savior, he comes close to killing him. As his original program battles this contradictory command, the word abort flashes in big red lights in his head, finally preventing him from doing anything.

In three distinct ways, “T3” is a perfect metaphor for the deficits that constrain American might. Though he has the body of a man half his age, Schwarzenegger himself is, in fact, just four years short of his 60th birthday. His determination to remain forever Mr. Universe typifies the determination of an entire generation never to grow old, though grow old they must—with important economic consequences. As he contemplates the finances of the state of California, the real Arnold Schwarzenegger now confronts just a fraction of the huge economic deficit that is the first real constraint on American power.

The Terminator is also a very American hero for the simple reason that there is only one of him. In this he personifies the chronic manpower shortage that constrains American nation-building. Above all, the Terminator exemplifies the American attention deficit. Less than a year after the invasion of Iraq, a growing number of Americans have already got that five-letter word flashing in their heads: abort.

Let’s first take a closer look at the fabled $10 trillion U.S. economy. The lion’s share of the annual output of the American economy is, in fact, accounted for by private consumption. That share has risen from about 61 percent in 1967 to 70 percent in 2002. As they have consumed more, so Americans have saved ever less: the savings rate averaged about 10 percent between 1973 and 1983; at its low point, in 1999, it touched 1.6 percent, and it has risen only slightly to 3.6 percent in 2003. The only way that the United States has been able to achieve such rapid economic growth in the past decade has been by financing investment with the savings of foreigners. As a result it has gone from being the world’s banker to being the world’s debtor: the country’s net international-investment position was about 12 percent of GDP in 1980; in 2002 it was close to minus 25 percent.

Foreign lending also underwrites the American government. Some 46 percent of the total federal debt in public hands is now held by foreigners, and the bulk of the most recent purchases have been made by Asian central banks, particularly the Japanese and the Chinese. The fact that the financial stability of the United States today depends on the central bank of the People’s Republic of China is not widely known. Yet the significance is great. A debtor power can’t possibly exert the same leverage as a creditor power, and U.S. deficits look likely to grow as the baby-boom generation approaches retirement, because only a minority will have made adequate provision for the idleness and illness of old age. One recent estimate of the implicit “fiscal imbalance” between future spending and tax revenue arrived at the mind-boggling figure of $45 trillion.

That’s not the only troubling U.S. deficit. As has become obvious in Iraq, the United States does not have an especially large pool of combat-effective troops on which it can draw. With about 130,000 personnel required for active service in postwar Iraq, the Pentagon admits that it is at full stretch. Since the end of the cold war, service-personnel cuts have lowered the number of Americans troops abroad to little more than 200,000 at any one time. The rest are, or expect to be, at home. Foreign postings are expected to last six months, or at most a year.

This manpower deficit is compounded by the attention deficit: to be precise, a reluctance on the part of voters to tolerate prolonged commitments of American forces in hostile territory. It took about three years—from 1965 to 1968—and more than 30,000 men killed in action to reduce popular support for the Vietnam War by 25 percent. Between April and September 2003, by contrast, there was a comparably large drop in the popularity of the war in Iraq. Yet in that five-month period, little more than 300 U.S. service personnel lost their lives, a third of whom were the victims of accidents or sickness. Small wonder the Bush administration has felt compelled to promise the swiftest possible transfer of power to the Iraqi people.

Of the three deficits that eat away at American power, this last is the most serious. The economic deficit need not be fatal. Why shouldn’t the Japanese and Chinese fund American consumption indefinitely if Americans are happy to consume their products rather than those produced by American manufacturers? The manpower deficit may also be solvable. Why shouldn’t the United Nations help the United States create a peacekeeping force big enough to provide an effective constabulary for Iraq?

But the attention deficit is the real source of American weakness. For the creation of stable economic, legal and political institutions in a country like Iraq simply cannot be achieved in a 12-month time frame. The shorter the life of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the more difficult it will be to elicit the collaboration of local elites on which all imperial power must ultimately rely. Why would anyone want to collaborate with foreign occupiers who will soon, by their own admission, be gone?

If the United States is not quite as strong as it looks, the knee-jerk response of “realist” analysts of international relations is to look for signs that another power may be rising. Some point to the European Union. Others point to China. Yet there are good reasons to doubt whether either can be regarded as a credible rival—the EU because it is too economically sclerotic and politically fragmented, China because it is too economically volatile and politically centralized. In any case, the United States, the EU and China have more reasons to cooperate than they have to compete, whether the enemy is terror, AIDS or climate change.

The paradox of globalization is that as the world becomes more integrated, so power becomes more diffuse. The old monopolies on which power was traditionally based—monopolies of wealth, political office and knowledge—have been in large measure broken up. Unfortunately, thanks to the proliferation of modern means of destruction, the power to inflict violence has also become more evenly distributed—so that a poison dwarf like North Korea can resist the will even of the American giant.

Power is not just about being able to buy whatever you want; that is mere wealth. Power is about being able to get whatever you want at below the market price. It is about being able to get people to perform services or deliver goods they would not ordinarily offer to sell at any price. Yet power diminishes as it is shared. One country with one nuclear bomb is more powerful, if the rest of the world has none, than a country with a thousand nuclear bombs, if everyone else has one. And this brings us to the final respect in which America resembles the Terminator.

The United States has the capability to inflict appalling destruction while sustaining only minimal damage to itself. There is no regime it could not terminate if it wanted to—including North Korea. Such a war might leave South Korea in ruins, but the American Terminator would emerge more or less unscathed. What the Terminator is not programmed to do is to rebuild anyone but himself. If, as seems likely, the United States responds to pressure at home and abroad by withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan before their economic reconstruction has been achieved, the scene will not be wholly unfamiliar. The limits of American power will be laid bare when the global Terminator finally admits: “I won’t be back.”

Niall Ferguson



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