Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Niall Ferguson on the Decline of British Empire and the Rise of a New Empire

Empire: The Rise And Demise of The British World Order And The Lessons For Global Power

Niall Ferguson

Was the British Empire brutal and destructive or was it a good thing? Niall Ferguson persuasively argues that the empire enhanced global welfare by facilitating the spread of parliamentary institutions, growth in literacy, and the recognition of the virtues of the minimal state, and rule of law. In other words, the empire was a good thing.

He contends that today’s globalization is the result of the integration of the world that the British Empire achieved before 1914. He says that the leftists hate the British Empire mainly because it led to globalization which they regard as “no more than the latest manifestation of a damnably resilient international capitalism.”

However, Ferguson is not an apologist for imperialism. He also describes a few of the British Empire’s negative consequences — the racism, violence, and exploitation. He talks about the exploitation of slaves: the concentration camps where thousands died following the Boer Wars; the brutal treatment of political opposition in the colonies; the pseudo-science of eugenics that was used to legitimize white supremacy; the corruption; and the famines.

But he insists that the British Empire did much more than spreading the suffering, and he provides a comprehensive account of what he sees as the Empire’s positive contributions. He contends that the Empire pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labor, and it led to global peace. He points out that the British Empire achieved so much even though it had a small government.

“The British Empire was the nearest thing that has ever been to a world government. Yet its mode of operation was a triumph of minimalism. To govern a population numbering hundreds of millions, the Indian Civil Service had a maximum strength of little more than a thousand.”

Yet the empire was not a British invention—in fact, the British were late entrants to the field that was dominated by European powers like the Spanish and Dutch. The British began as pirates, and traders, but to their own surprise they soon found themselves to be the owners of a substantial chunk of the planet. "They had robbed the Spaniards, copied the Dutch, beaten the French and plundered the Indians. Now they ruled supreme."

The book draws comparisons between the British imperialists and other empires, and it reaches the conclusion that the British were much more humane. Ferguson argues that the Belgian rule in Congo was much harsher than the British rule in other parts of Africa. He points out that the Japanese imperialists committed the worst atrocities because they had no conception of human rights, and they “regarded the alien races as no better than swine.”

It is clear that Empire is a history book written with the agenda of inspiring the rise of a new empire, one that is led by the United States. Ferguson rejects the idea that the exercise of global power is a bad thing. He asserts that the time has now come for the United States to play a wider role in world affairs. He believes that only an empire backed by the military and economic strength of the United States can ensure world peace and provide the framework for the spread of efficient and corruption-free governance.

In the book’s last chapter, in a section that is aptly titled “Bearing the Burden,” Ferguson states that “the most successful economy in the world — as Britain was for most of the 18th and 19th centuries — can do a very great deal to impose its preferred values on less technologically advanced societies.”

He points out that “in 1899 Rudyard Kipling, the Empire’s greatest poet, addressed a powerful appeal to the United States to shoulder its imperial responsibilities”:

Take up the White Man’s Burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons in exile
To serve your captives need;

In context of Kipling’s poem, he accepts that no one would use such politically incorrect language today. However, he points out that the “reality is nevertheless that the United States has— whether it admits it or not — taken up some kind of global burden, just as Kipling urged. It considers itself responsible not just for waging a war against terrorism and rogue states, but also for spreading the benefits of capitalism and democracy overseas.”

The suggestion that imperial rule by United States is the only way of improving life in less advanced countries is a contentious argument. It begs many questions. For instance, why can’t all countries develop the ideas of liberty, capitalism and better governance by their own efforts? Why should people in the advanced countries sacrifice their life and wealth to spread civilization? Why should the people in underdeveloped countries accept the hegemony of the United States?

While the idea of the United States developing into a global empire and accepting its global responsibilities is quite unpersuasive, the historical perspectives that Ferguson has presented on the British Empire cannot be outrightly dismissed. The book offers an informative and sobering account of the history of the last 400 years, and it is worth-reading.  

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