An American Empire?

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According to the German economist Moritz Julius Bonn, "the United States have been the cradle of modern Anti-Imperialism, and at the same time the founding of a mighty empire."1 Those words written two years after the Second Word War capture tensions in American policy and public discourse that define the country’s uneasy position in the twenty-first century. America’s role as guarantor of global stability raises the question whether an empire can operate effectively under anti-imperial premises. Unmatched by peer competitors since the Cold War’s end, the United States now faces a very different challenge from great power rivalry that derives from disorder along the periphery of the developed world. Where Edward Gibbon could argue by the eighteenth century that distance and technology provided the West security unknown even to the Romans, globalization now projects distant conflicts and grievances into the heart of Europe and the United States.2 The debate sparked by this new dynamic has revived interest in empire as a way to analyze the problem of international order and America’s role in solving it.

Niall Ferguson’s recently published Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (Penguin, 2004) offers an important contribution to understanding the United States’ role as a global power and the consequent tensions. Building on earlier studies of international finance and the First World War, Ferguson locates the war on terrorism and American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq within a broad historical framework. Indeed, as both polemic and analysis, Colossus expands upon themes he raised last year in a study of the British Empire and its lessons for global power. Britain led efforts to police the global commons in the nineteenth century, stamping out slavery and piracy while joining its European rivals and the United States to impose governmental control over private companies and autonomous tribes whose activities often generated violence. The decline of the Pax

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