Due to an editing error, Daniel Davidson's review of Niall Ferguson's 'Empire' (Book World, March 30) mistakenly attributed a 19th-century quotation about the abolition of slavery to Ferguson. In Peter Dizikes' review of Barbara Toffler's'Final Accounting: Greed, Ambition, and the Fall of Arthur Andersen' (Book World, March 30), the Andersen consulting business was mistakenly identified with the management consulting and technology firm Accenture, which does not perform public accounting services of any kind. (Published 4/6/03)
The Rise and Demise of
The British World Order and
The Lessons for Global Power
By Niall Ferguson
Basic. 392 pp. $35
Over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling, the greatest poet of imperialism, exhorted the United States to "take up the White Man's Burden" in the Philippines and send "the best ye breed" to serve "your captives' need."
During the 20th century, the appeal of empire -- incompatible as it was with democracy and liberty -- faded. In 1918, the British Empire, improbably, encompassed a quarter of the globe and its population. A recent entry on a BBC Web site, apparently aimed at schoolchildren, encapsulated the current conventional wisdom: "The Empire came to greatness by killing lots of people less sharply armed than themselves and stealing their countries. . . . [It] . . . fell to pieces because of various people like Mahatma Gandhi, heroic revolutionary protester."
Niall Ferguson, an eminent professor of political and financial history at Oxford and New York universities, brilliantly challenges the simplistic focus on racism, violence and exploitation. He asserts that on balance the British Empire was a good thing. Indeed, it played an essential role in making the modern world.
An example of the complexity of drawing a balance is Gandhi himself, on the outbreak of World War I telling his people that "we are, above all, British citizens of the Great British Empire," with the clear duty to support the British "with our life and property." More than 1 million Indians served overseas in that war.
The problem in reaching a judgment is exemplified by slavery. British ships transported millions of slaves to the New World. But while the ships of many nations carried slaves, the British, at the urging of what we would now call NGOs, determined, in Ferguson's words, "to sweep the . . . seas of the atrocious commerce." They abolished the slave trade and employed the Royal Navy to patrol the seas with officers collecting bounties for every slave they liberated. Spain, Portugal and Brazil (but not the United States) were bullied into accepting the prohibition. More or less simultaneously, that same navy opened China to the Indian opium trade.
The bulk of Empire is a concise and lucid exposition of the history of the British Empire. Ugly aspects, such as the practice in the earliest colonies in North America of what "today is known as 'ethnic cleansing,' " are not slighted. Ferguson argues that these evils are outweighed by achievements: the triumph of global free trade, the Anglicization of North America, the internationalization of the English language, the export of the rule of law, and above all the survival of representative democracy, which, he notes, "far worse empires were poised to extinguish in the 1940s."
For better or worse, Ferguson concludes, the world we live in today is the product of Britain's age of empire. He compares that empire with the actual empires with which it competed -- Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, German, Japanese and Soviet. He states that Britain sacrificed her empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. With trumpets blaring he asks, "Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire's other sins?"
The world will forever owe Britain a huge debt for facing the dictators. But the country did so to preserve its independence; it made no conscious decision to sacrifice its empire. Furthermore, despite Ferguson's position that the foundations of the empire were economic and were simply eaten up by war costs, the zeitgeist had simply changed. Surely, even if Britain had come out of the war financially healthy, today there would be no British Empire.
Reversing Dean Acheson's insight that Britain had lost an empire but failed to find a new role, Ferguson remarks that America has taken over Britain's old role but refuses to face the reality that an empire comes with it. He believes that today's debate about America's global role can only be enriched by a proper understanding of how "the last great Anglophone empire functioned."
He recognizes that the parallels are inexact. Britain's empire was largely formal, under direct rule. Britain exported people and capital; America tirelessly absorbs both. American power is vastly superior to that of its predecessor, but America is more vulnerable. The Mahdi, whom Ferguson calls "in many ways a Victorian Osama bin Laden, a renegade Islamic fundamentalist," could not have sailed a boat up the Thames and devastated London. America lacks a culture supporting imperialism; indeed, it "will always be a reluctant ruler of other people." Britons lived in and governed their empire. America's approach has too often been to rush in, perhaps hold an election and "get the hell out." Haiti is one recent example, Kosovo another; Afghanistan and, he might have added, Iraq may yet follow that approach.
Empire, a companion book to a TV series, is popular history at its best. The scope is so vast that there is an occasional lapse. For instance, no "article seven" of the American Constitution "explicitly envisioned" the incorporation of Canada. Despite such minor flaws, this splendidly illustrated volume is readable, reliable and well worth pondering. *
Daniel I. Davidson, a Washington lawyer, regularly reviews books for the Economist.