In This Review

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Its Lessons for Global Power
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Its Lessons for Global Power
By Niall Ferguson
392 pp, Basic Books, 2003

This big volume on "the rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power" is really two books in one. The first (superbly illustrated) is a history of the British Empire and of the way in which it fostered what is now called globalization. This is a sweeping, partly analytic, partly anecdotal account that frequently shows the brutalities of empire and the inseparability of realpolitik, exploitation, greed, a sense of superiority, and a rhetoric of mission from the imperial enterprise. Much here is familiar, but the author's clear writing, his gift for narrative, and his way with words (such as the "Toryentalism" of Lord Curzon) make reading this ambitious synthesis a pleasure. The second book is more troubling. It is a defense of the British Empire for its contributions to world order -- largely from the viewpoint of the imperialists -- and as a lesson for the United Kingdom's mighty successor: the United States. Ferguson may be right in stressing how much British rule facilitated the spread of liberal capitalism around the world, how much worse other empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries turned out to be, how much the United Kingdom did for free trade, and so on. But the reasons why anticolonialism developed abroad and also at home are singularly absent from the picture. As for the British imperial example, Ferguson himself, in one paragraph, recognizes that "on close inspection, America's strengths may not be the strengths of a natural imperial hegemon": the United States "will always be a reluctant ruler of other peoples." Moreover, the miserable condition of millions in decolonized countries does not mean that they would prefer to live again under foreign rule. There are really two Fergusons here, just as there are two books. One is a brilliant economic historian. The other is a political writer who provokes his readers with very dubious theses -- that the United Kingdom should have stayed out of World War I and that the British Empire should serve as a model for the new imperial America.