With his good looks and mellifluous accent, historian Niall Ferguson has a made a big impression on British housewives with the television adaptation of his book Empire. The 38-year-old, who is presently teaching M.B.A. students at New York University, spoke with PW about his sixth book—a history of the British Empire.
PW: Why do you think Americans need to read about the history of the British Empire?
Niall Ferguson: America is a product of the British Empire. People read American colonial history without realizing America is part of a much bigger story about British global empire, and the U.S. today is undergoing a transition from formal to informal empire that the British went through in the 18th and 19th centuries. The red coats are now worn by Americans.
PW: While the typical discussion of empires is in terms of colonization and social impact, you write about empire primarily in terms of business.
NF: The book is designed to give a cost/benefit analysis of Anglo-globalization. Britain is a wee group of islands, and America is poised to be a bigger, stronger empire than Britain ever was. But the U.S. has weaknesses: it's not a great exporter of capital or people; it borrows more than it lends. If you want to understand the risks, you need to read this book.
PW: Can an American global empire be avoided?
NF: I don't think it'll be possible for an even partial isolation because globalization has transformed economic and political life, but America is ambivalent to global power. September 11 brought that to the forefront of public consciousness. Politicians are downright hostile to empire, and it's very hard for Americans to accept that they are now an empire. Americans' default setting is to focus on domestic issues.
PW: Why can't we just ignore the rest of the world?
NF: The instinct about 9/11 is to look away from the rest of the world. But what 9/11 proved is they'll come to you if you ignore them. The rogue states are even more threatening than they were in the Victorian Age. It's more difficult for us to turn our back on political issues. It was only under huge threats from Nazi Germany and Japan that America came out of its shell. The U.S. intervened in WWII, but FDR was overtly hostile to the British Empire and the caveat for intervention was that the British Empire would not remain intact. It was only as the Cold War unfolded that strategists realized this was a mistake and the empire represented a potential partner for the U.S.
PW: The word "empire" has been much maligned. Are you trying to redeem it?
NF: It's been pretty effectively discredited by generations of left-wing historiography. I don't think I can save the terminology, but I can make the case that the British Empire set out to achieve economic and legal order, and one can make the case this is a benign force. We can no longer talk about empire-building, but can talk about nation-building. Interestingly, things now need to be done in the name of the "international community." We don't talk about "mandates" or "protectorates"; we talk about "transition economies," "provisional governments" and "safe havens." We can come up with as much Orwellian newspeak as we like. We can call these things whatever makes us feel good.
PW: Speaking of feeling good... what do you think of all the emphasis in the British press about your good looks?
NF: It's superbly embarrassing. My biggest worry is that people will stop taking me seriously because they've now seen me on TV. I have no interest in becoming the Hugh Grant of history.