us 'is an empire in denial'

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    Historian accuses Washington of failing to face the facts

    Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent
    Monday June 2, 2003
    The Guardian

    The United States is a "danger to the world" because of its denial that it is a military and economic empire, according to Niall Ferguson, historian and new-found darling of the American right.

    Prof Ferguson is author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the book whose tie-in TV series controversially concentrated on the liberalising latter days of the British empire. He said that America's refusal to admit to "what it was" meant it risked never learning the lessons of British expansionism.

    "The United States is the empire that dare not speak its name. It is an empire in denial, and US denial of this poses a real danger to the world. An empire that doesn't recognise its own power is a dangerous one."

    Prof Ferguson passed up a dinner invitation from the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, to address the Guardian Hay Festival.

    He told his audience that, with military bases in three-quarters of the countries of the world, and 31% of all wealth, America made the British empire at its zenith in 1920, when a quarter of the globe was pink, look "like a half-baked thing".

    But he warned that America was too much of a military empire to last, too fond of short-term interventions in Haiti, Lebanon and now Iraq that lacked "sustained commitment to the dirty work of rebuilding".

    "As Iraq is showing, military commands cannot create law and order. Their job is to kill people. The British empire learned that the military must be subservient to civilian power if you are to build civil administrations."

    America's critical weakness, however, was its fatal lack of self-knowledge, he said. "When you talk to Americans about empire they say, 'but we came into existence to fight imperialism.'

    "US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously told al-Jazeera 'we don't do empire'. But how can you not be an empire and maintain 750 military bases in three-quarters of the countries on earth?" He argued that "Britain had an amazing capacity for self-criticism, even when the empire was at its height.

    "The Americans simply don't believe they are there. But since they annexed the Philippines in 1898, they have acted as an imperial power."

    Furthermore, he insisted, the people who were "now in charge of the defence department have grabbed September 11 as a chance to push through the imperial agenda". But only a few, on the neo-conservative right, were prepared to use the e-word publicly.
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