American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1253-1261
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Twilight of the Gods:
Britain, America, and the Inheritance of Empire
"If the Guinness Book of World Records ever added a category for 'most productive historian,' Niall Ferguson would have to be a leading candidate for the honor"—thus begins a blurb on the back cover of Ferguson's seventh book, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire.1 Productive he surely is for someone in his early forties. His Paper and Iron (1995) was short-listed for the History Today Book of the Year Award, and The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (1998) won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and was short-listed for other awards.2 Touted as "probably the most talented and easily the most industrious British historian of his generation," Ferguson has produced international best sellers that have been translated into several languages.3 Over the last few years, his articles, editorials, and interviews have appeared in magazines and journals as diverse as the Opinion Journal (WSJ.com), Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Chronicle Review, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, New Republic, National Interest, and Newsweek, among others. Recently, in Empire and Colossus Ferguson urges America to put on the mantle of the British Empire in the name of civilization and modernity. Far from becoming a new empire, the United States should acknowledge its history of empire so that it can affirm and propagate the blessings of empire to the world: "It [America] is an empire, in short, that dare not speak its name. It is an empire in denial."4
The contemporary urgency of Ferguson's ideas is worth noting. At the time of this writing, the United States, the only global superpower, is involved in a worldwide war on terror and its troops are occupying Afghanistan and Iraq [End Page 1253] while trying to rebuild their societies. When a historian of Ferguson's stature and credentials appeals to the United States to extend the benefits of empire in the world through diplomacy and military force, the historical and ethical principles on which such appeals are made deserve close examination. Empire, to Ferguson, has its good and positive affects, and it is in America's best interests to institute and maintain a new world order. His use of a comparative methodology to examine the dynamics of empire building may explain to a large extent why his ideas have gained popularity. To better understand why Ferguson's ideas have such contemporary resonance, we need to acknowledge his project of translating empire. But what does it mean to "translate" empire?
Over the last fifteen years, the transnational turn in American studies scholarship has critiqued the role of empire in the founding, expansion, and maintenance of the U.S. nation-state, as evident in the work of Donald Pease, Amy Kaplan, Paul Giles, Robyn Wiegman, Walter Mignolo, Djelal Kadir, John Carlos Rowe, and Rob Wilson. Arguably, the critique of empire has meant a singular focus on Western colonialism, its forms of socialization, its Orientalist projections, its epistemes, and its discourses, in order to examine the conflictual dynamics that informed empire.5 For Ferguson, to translate empire means going beyond the focus on Western colonial practices; it means moving beyond a Eurocentric or America-centric model to examine the impact of empires on world history, particularly the impact of the British Empire. Rather than simply compare, for example, Spanish and British empires, Ferguson examines how the British Empire became entangled with already existing empires and colonial structures in different parts of the world. Once we acknowledge such entanglements, it becomes difficult to view the British Empire as a homogenous, all-invasive form of colonial power, both in the colonies...