Monday, February 18, 2013

Empire: Book Review

Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is much better on the rise than the demise. Also, the so-called Lessons for Global Power are little more than a few paragraphs of moralizing on behalf of an activist or perhaps neocon American foreign policy. Overall, the book betrays its origins in a television series in a rather superficial treatment of many points, especially the loss of the empire.

One cardinal point that deserved more consideration was the inherent contradiction between imperial exploitation and the notions of free trade and self government at the heart of the British ethos. Ferguson blames the post World War II imperial collapse on the financial effects of the conflicts with other empires and especially on U.S. opposition, but I think that's way too simple.

The case of India is probably most instructive. India was the cash cow of Empire and the source of many of the soldiers for its other imperial adventures. The vision Macaulay and some other British had articulated was that after the Indians themselves had learned the virtues of the English system of laws, Britain would stand aside and let them achieve independence. Many Indians took up this challenge, and a large class of those educated in English law and Western science emerged, but Britain failed to carry out its end of the bargain.

The "white" colonies gained a large measure of independence after the English absorbed the lessons of defeat in America, but India and Ireland - the very first colony - were excluded from the deal, as were the newer colonies in Africa and elsewhere.

Ireland is another instructive example which Ferguson discusses only in the most superficial way. The real problem with Ireland was the colony of Protestants that England had implanted there. Before Macaulay had gone to India, he had been key to extension of civil rights to Catholics and Jews in England, but 100 years later Catholics in Ireland couldn't be trusted with the kind of self-government extended to Canadians, Aussies, and New Zealanders. Why not? Because that would have toppled minority Protestant rule. Even now, nearly 200 years later, the colonists are a continuing problem.

We have a somewhat parallel problem today in America's pseudo colony of Israel. Our dedication to its support keeps us sucked into a whole range of problems we really don't need. Of course this is not something Ferguson would notice.

My other posts on Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power can be found here.