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"Colossus: The Price of America's Empire" by Niall Fergusson, Allen Lane/Penguin, 384 pages, $20

Is the United States an empire? Americans would, of course, deny this, although their country's critics (in Europe, the Third World and even on the American left) accuse it of imperialism, which, in their view, is a pejorative term. British historian Niall Fergusson - a conservative in his outlook and a nonconformist by nature - breathes fresh air into the debate and adds a little spice to it. Yes, he says, America is an imperialist power and that is a good thing. In his opinion, America's problem is that it does not have the political will or the readiness to bear the burden - economic, humane and moral - involved in empire-building. The alternative to a world with one superpower and to American hegemony is not a world with many superpowers, but rather global chaos, because no one, certainly none of the world's weak societies, will derive any benefit from such an alternative.

Because of America's political failure in Iraq, which followed on the heels of a stunning military victory, Fergusson's unconventional positions also have ramifications for the contemporary international situation, and it would be a good idea to read them on the eve of the American presidential elections. Fergusson should be applauded not just for his broad historical perspective - he knows how to incorporate lessons not only from the history of the British empire, but also from that of the Carolingian empire and from the chronicles of Byzantium - but also for his willingness to slaughter sacred cows.

It has been a long time since we have seen a book that is so critical of the U.S., but which displays so much sympathy for, and appreciation of, America. Fergusson cannot be accused of gloating over America's failures. Rather, he is deeply concerned that the world could be plunged into chaos if the U.S. fails. Even those who disagree with him should at least consider his unusual arguments.

Desire for power

First - is the U.S. an empire? Fergusson manages to get some red herrings out of the way: Contrary to what the left - and not just the left - may think, an empire need not be based on economic interests alone. The imperialist thrust is driven by a desire for power. Not every empire is rapacious and exploitative; empires can also be liberal and humanitarian. And, last but not least, an empire does not always mean the wielding of direct control and the annexation of territories.

The last point is important because conventional American ideology argues that the U.S. is not an empire because it is uninterested in territorial acquisitions or in direct control. Fergusson derives immense pleasure as he presents a seemingly endless number of quotes, from President Woodrow Wilson to President George Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who essentially repeat, irrespective of the phrasing they use, the same commonly accepted mantra that, after becoming involved in a war or initiating one to liberate an oppressed people, Americans always "come home."

After providing a wealth of quotes in that spirit, Fergusson notes (it is easy to imagine the gleeful, devilish smile in his eyes as he does so) that, even before the war in Iraq, the U.S. had, according to his count, 752 installations in some 130 countries; 55 years after World War II ended, 70,000 American soldiers were still stationed in Germany and another 40,000 in Japan; nearly 50 years after the Korean War, 36,000 American GIs are still based in South Korea; and after the war in the Balkans of the 1990s, there are today thousands of American military personnel in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Fergusson's view, empire means control, presence, hegemony and, last but not least, preventing anyone else from taking control. During the Cold War, Americans were resolved to prevent the Soviets from taking control. (Here is how the author explains America's Middle East policy: What dictated Washington's policy, at least since the 1950s, was neither Arab oil nor the Jewish lobby, but a determination to prevent Soviet penetration of the region.)

However, Fergusson's argument goes much further: Although the term "empire" had still not been sufficiently analyzed by the end of the 18th century, the founders of the U.S. had no qualms about referring to an "empire of liberty" that would encompass the entire North American continent. In this spirit, Fergusson analyzes the continental expansion of the U.S. westward: It was not the wars against weak Indian tribes that guaranteed the U.S. control from coast to coast, but rather the cautiously managed purchase of lands on the North American continent: from France, Spain, even Mexico (after the fighting had ended), and finally from Russia (Alaska) and even Denmark (the Virgin Islands). Only 8 percent of American territory today was occupied by the 13 colonies that declared independence in 1776. No other country in modern history has ever been created in such a manner.

The chapter on America's continental expansion (and on the circuitous way in which it seized control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and, for a brief period, even Cuba) is one of the most fascinating parts of "Colossus." In this context, Fergusson reminds his readers that Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, "The White Man's Burden," did not refer to the British empire, but was in fact written to encourage the U.S. in 1899 to annex the Philippines. These issues are generally not mentioned by conventional American historians or by their emulators (in Israel as well, without any need for specifying names).

`American denial'

Fergusson calls attention to the inherent tension between the consolidation of this control - initially continental and later global - and the American value system. This is what he calls the "American denial": The American values of liberty and equality should ostensibly prevent involvement in wars. Yet, on the other hand, the universal nature of these values has repeatedly led the U.S. to intervene in other countries in order to safeguard liberty and equality - in both World Wars, in the Cold War, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq.

Fergusson does not stoop to simplistic positions that hold that these statements are expressions of a hypocrisy that conceals economic interests. What American economic interests could possibly have been served from involvement in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan? Involvement in such places costs money and generates no revenue for either the U.S. government or the American economy. However, hegemony and Pax Americana - the use of military might to prevent a rival superpower from attaining a senior position in the world - are compatible with the basic values of American society and thus political support for them can be mobilized in the domestic arena.

On the other hand, this involvement is, of course, not altruistic: Fergusson is not naive. In this respect, he is following in the footsteps of German historian Leopold von Ranke, who, like other realists in the field of international relations, sees the balance of power as the chief factor in the shaping of the map of relationships between countries. This is the play of forces in zero-sum games, not the result of satanic strategems of either individuals or organizations. Thus, when all is said and done, American presidents who were so different from one another - like Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt - adopted strikingly similar policies at critical junctions during the past century.

Toward the end of "Colossus," the polemic element is introduced. America's critics - domestic and external - would like to see limitations imposed on the hegemonic power of the U.S. In principle, Fergusson sees nothing wrong in a multi-polar world; however, he presents a practical question: Who today can mobilize an alternative to America's hegemonic power? Since he is also an economic historian, Fergusson argues in the book's final chapters that there are no candidates for such a task: Even after the European Union's expansion, Europe is not capable of mobilizing the required economic resources. (What leader of any European country would dare to propose an increase in the national defense budget - as a percentage of the gross national product - on a scale similar to that of the U.S.?) Furthermore, Europe is aging and, over the next few years, will be faced with the need to trim its generous social services budgets. Japan's economic experience is not an astounding success story today and we can already see the beginning of an economic crisis for communist China, which has developed impressively over the past few decades.

No poles at all

Fergusson fears that the U.S. - as it has done in the past, for example, after World War I - today lacks the political will and the stamina to bear the burden of empire. The failure of its grandiose plans for democratization in the Middle East has led many Americans to adopt a neo-isolationist stance. Most Americans consider social security more important than national security. American society is extremely sensitive to body bags and appears not to be ready to sacrifice its sons and daughters in far-off lands. Furthermore, the U.S. is today an international borrower on a scale that exceeds that of any previous empire (in the 19th century, the British were the world's chief lenders). In short, Fergusson fears an American isolationism that, in his view, will leave the international arena without anyone in control.

As Fergusson sees things, the alternative to a unipolar world is not a multipolar one, but rather a world without any pole of power whatsoever. He presents historical examples, from the disintegration of the Roman and Carolingian empires, to the era of American isolationism that stretched from 1920 to 1940. A period lacking any international hegemony is one of endless wars that never reach a decisive conclusion. It is a period characterized by economic and political havoc and is more reminiscent of Hobbes' state of nature than Kant's eternal peace.

In a situation lacking a pole of power, who will in future prevent the sort of genocide that might have been initiated in Kosovo? Who will be able to push ahead a peace process in the Middle East? Who will be able to contend with a murderous fundamentalist Islam? Will the French be able to do so by preventing Muslim females from covering their heads in French public schools?

These are obviously contentious issues and Fergusson on purpose presents them in a somewhat exaggerated manner. However, those who are unhappy about the unbridled saber-rattling sometimes heard in Washington cannot afford to ignore them.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri is coeditor, together with Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell, of a collection of essays entitled "Europe's Century of Discontent" recently published by the Magnes Press.