Pax Americana

The Atlantic interviews Niall Ferguson, the British historian who is the latest and loudest advocate of American empire and the healthful effects of its expansion. Like journalist and scholar Max Boot, Ferguson takes the opposite tack of Leftist ideologues who see American imperium as a rotting golem, ready to undo the world. Taking care to distinquish between empire and exploitation — “Americans, he says, would rather build shopping malls than nations” — Ferguson explains why the reconstruction of Iraq is the most vital enterprise of our age.

This term you use, "liberal empire," seems sort of oxymoronic. Can you explain the contradiction?

Well, it certainly didn't seem oxymoronic a hundred years ago when there were self-proclaimed liberal imperialists in Britain, liberals who saw the British Empire as a means of spreading liberal values in terms of free markets, the rule of law, and ultimately representative government. There was an important and influential faction within the Liberal Party who saw empire as an instrument for globalizing the British liberal model.

Globalizing Britain?

To these people, globalizing the British model was synonymous with globalizing liberalism. They looked around and said, Well, not many people have our combination of institutions. What we need to do is plant the seed of this system in as many places as we can and make the world suitably Anglicized. It's only a contradiction in terms if you define "liberal" in a rather early-twenty-first-century American way, meaning that you like to hug trees, or you have a fit if somebody fires a gun in anger. My sense of liberal is the classical sense. Liberalism stands for creating the institutions of political, economic, and social freedom. And it's very obvious that in a dozen or more countries in the world, there is absolutely no chance of those institutions developing autonomously. These countries are either so under tyranny, or so completely anarchic, that it's never going to happen.

Like Somalia?

Right. Zimbabwe would be on the list, too. The list isn't endless, but it would have to include North Korea. There are countries that are not going to reform themselves, and the function of a liberal empire is to deal with that...

Democracies have enough trouble fighting for themselves. Can the Pax Americana, beset by self-recrimination and doubt nourished by a Vietnam-obsessed and sensationalist media, survive the rigid and unreflective Bush administration and its uninspired opposition?

Posted by John-Paul Pagano at June 27, 2004 11:04 PM