The Triumphant Return of the British

A fascinating conversation was on Now with Bill Moyers last week; If by chance there’s a rebroadcast made of it, be sure to catch it, as it was extraordinairy. You can see a full transcript of the interview
(about a third of the way down the page), but it loses something in text.

Moyers interviewed two historians, both British, both living in the United States. Niall Ferguson teaches at New York University, and is a senior fellow at Oxford. His most recent book is EMPIRE: THE RISE AND DEMISE OF THE BRITISH WORLD ORDER AND THE LESSONS FOR GLOBAL POWER.

Simon Schama was the other guest. He teaches at Columbia University, and wrote the multi-volume A HISTORY OF BRITAIN, and is the star of the BBC television series of the same name.

There’s something about the perspectives of two British academics, living in the US, watching history as it unfolds. They have a unique perspective — they are not from, here, so they bring an outsider’s perspective — but just barely so. The English are outsiders, not in the way the Chinese or Russians or even the French are — the Brits are just barely outsiders. They are enough removed so that they can see the forest for the trees, but not so distant as to view the US as an alien landsape.

Here are some of the highlights:

On the suspension of critical analysis in most of American politics in media today:

FERGUSON: I don’t think there’s enough competition between the newspapers in this country. One of the things that is very striking to me as a relative newcomer to the U.S., is the extraordinary dominance of a small number of broadsheet newspapers. And the small number of influential broadcasters.

But they don’t compete with one another in the way that, for example, the broadsheet papers in London do. Ferociously for a very volatile readership. And they compete, partly by looking for scoops. And the best scoops of all are scoops that show the Prime Minister has misled the House of Commons.

Now there isn’t the same competition here. And the NEW YORK TIMES, of course, embodies the problem. It’s a complacent institution that grew so complacent it almost self-destructed by dropping journalistic standards through the floor.

SCHAMA: It’s a kind of a church. You know the whole business of actually, you know spending page after page on the misdemeanors and crimes of one of its own staff was like, you know the story of the de-frocking of a cardinal or something. I don’t want to know. Get on with your business.

FERGUSON: All of this was going on in the midst of a major political crisis in the Middle East and indeed in the world. Extraordinary.

On why Tony Blair is suffering so much more politically than George Bush:

MOYERS: But two thirds of Britain said in a recent poll that they believe Blair misled them. Most Americans, our surveys show, still believe Bush waged the war in good faith. How do you explain the difference in public attitudes?


MOYERS: 9-11.

FERGUSON: Simple as that.

SCHAMA: Right.

FERGUSON: The British public has not has the experience that the public of the United States had in September 2001. And after 9-11, a great deal more slack was cut to the American government than has been cut for decades.

SCHAMA: But I would also say that when, Bill, you say, “Well, you know, large majority still believes the war was carried out in good faith,” I don’t disagree with that view. A distressingly large majority in the opinion poll I seem to remember reading, still believe that Iraqis were primarily responsible for 9-11, for the attack on the World Trade Center.

It wasn’t exactly a hard sell to say, “Look, there is a connection between what we must do in Iraq and what happened to us on 9-11,” a connection which still remains to be proven.

On the realities of rebuilding Iraq:

SCHAMA: America, as we’ve both said, is in terrible denial about what the time scale, the costs. You can’t have run this kind of empire of political change on a kind of, you know, Wal-Mart basis. You can’t… a tax cut empire is an oxymoron.

MOYERS: What do you mean you… we have a tax cut empire?

FERGUSON: Well, I think the point is that this whole thing has been done on the cheap. It seems to me that many, many people in this country have been deeply shocked by two pieces of news this week. One, that the cost of occupying Iraq currently runs at around about $4 billion a month. Two, that this year’s federal government deficit is going to be going on for $500 billion. Now these figures are, by no means, unrelated. They tell us a very important story. Because if that is the cost of the military occupation of Iraq, what will the cost be of the economic reconstruction of Iraq? So far, nobody has put a figure on that in the administration. And if that isn’t achieved, if there’s no economic reconstruction in Iraq, then it will simply become a kind of God forsaken Haiti on the banks of the Tigris.

SCHAMA: I’ll tell you why that hasn’t happened, because it’s actually a gigantic, you know, piece of schizophrenia going on in the current administration. Doing Iraq properly, democratically and economically, is a maximilist enterprise.

MOYERS: A what?

SCHAMA: A maximilist…It’s a big government enterprise. There’s a big… remember those words? Big government? . . . But, I mean, that’s what it is. It requires people, money, commitment, for a long time on a large scale. That runs counter to every instinct in the present American administration, which is minimalist, which is no government is good government. I mean I don’t know how you possibly square that circle.

On Afghanistan:

FERGUSON: My greatest concern is that the timeframe is unrealistically short, and the resources are not being committed to, quote unquote, “nation building.” Let me give you an illustration of just how serious this problem is. We’ve all forgotten about Afghanistan. One and a half years on, we’re supposed to be nation building in Afghanistan for one and a half years. Do you know how much money the American government has given to the government that it installed in Kabul? The answer is $500 million.

Now $500 million does not go very far when you’re trying to transform a country like Afghanistan. And it seems to me that is a measure of the completely negligent way in which this government is approaching the project of nation building. It’s criminally irresponsible. When Al Qaeda came from Afghanistan, it came from anarchy in Afghanistan to perpetrate the crime of 9-11. And yet, we’re allowing Afghanistan to slide back into anarchy just one and a half years after military intervention. That…

On why WMD was hyped:

SCHAMA: I just find it… …inconceivable that actually if properly and honestly and truthfully and comprehensively educated about what this imperial burden means, it could ever be sold to the American electorate. There’s something about Jeffersonian America, something about deep America in the heartlands, that does not want to be in that imperial position.

MOYERS: But we’re a business society now. And business exists to spread, to grow. We’re a commercial society. Doesn’t that make a difference? When…

SCHAMA: Kellogg, Brown and Root cannot build a… It can build a road, it cannot build a democracy.

FERGUSON: Nor can Wal-Mart and that certainly grew a third. But it does seem to me that the project is not a wholly unrealistic one, despite admittedly, the lack of a firm basis in the American network foreign nation building for a quasi imperial project. It still seems to me to be absolutely crucial that the United States makes this work. If it’s serious about the war against terror. Because terrorism breeds in failed states and situations of civil war. And in tyrannies and despotisms. And if we allow countries like Afghanistan and Iraq to remain failed states, and worst of all, worst of all to remain failed states with American military occupation as a kind of veneer of nation-building, then we’ll end up with the worst of all worlds.

We’ll end up with a situation which there are breeding grounds for terrorism, which nevertheless can be described as American colonies. It’s an awful combination.

On the American Empire:

FERGUSON: The American economy is the biggest economy in the world. It accounts for around about 30 percent of world’s GDP. Even under… even if it’s very high, Great Britain’s economy accounted for no more than 10 percent of world output. You’re vastly richer than we ever were. Your military advantage are far greater over your rivals than Britain’s ever was. It ought to be possible, surely, to successfully launch a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, a Marshall Plan for Iraq. You did it for West Germany, you did it for western Europe after the Second World War with huge success. Also for Japan. American troops remain in those countries to this day. It’s not as if America hasn’t successfully brought about nation-building, transformation, democratization in rogue states in the past.

SCHAMA: Germany had a democratic parliamentary and constitutional past before the Third Reich. Iraq doesn’t.

FERGUSON: Well, I don’t think that that necessarily precludes a successful transition in Iraq. Iraq has not always been under Saddam Hussein. He’s only been in power… was only in power from 1979 under British rule a constitutional monarchy which was not a model democracy. But nor was it a despotic planned economy. In fact it was a market economy.

MOYERS: What are the consequences of an imperial role for America on democracy at home?

SCHAMA: Well, I don’t think they’re necessarily baleful but I think they’re not particularly auspicious. Again in terms of how you make it work fiscally. If you’re going to commit the kind of resources actually, which go way beyond even, you know, five billion dollars, four billion dollars amount for what we’re talking about. Obviously, and the deficit is just gonna become, you know, balloon astrally even by Ronald Reagan’s standards.

Something has got to give. And we’ve already had a seriously degraded infrastructure. States… all the problem and pain has been shoved off on some states really. They’re having real trouble fixing the potholes, paying the teachers, putting enough cops on the street, doing all that kind of thing. It’s weird in a way because when you mention the Roman Empire, one thinks of there being a natural fit, a natural match between prosperity and power at home in Rome and the kind of projection of that prosperity, power, education, engineering abroad. Here we’re, I think, in more painfully zero- sum game. The more we actually are prepared to transfer those resources the more the struggle to actually keep our sense of a well-managed society at home will be.

On entertainment spectacles and the “Wag the Dog” scenario:

FERGUSON: I think it was no coincidence that the movie GLADIATOR was such a hit when it came out, what was it? Last year? Russell Crowe’s great line, “Are you not entertained?” seems to me very appropriate here. The American public is entertained. It’s more entertained than any populace has ever been in all history. It’s entertained by multiple television channels. By an endless stream of movies. By sports, more or less 24/7. And yet, while that entertainment goes on in the great coliseum of the American media, American soldiers are out there on the imperial borders, waging pretty thankless wars against the barbarians. Does anyone back home in the Coliseum give a damn about the guys on the front line? I don’t know in the end whether that disjunction between entertainment at home and peripheral border wars is not a very Roman disjunction.

MOYERS: Empire is entertainment?

FERGUSON: Well, no. In a sense the entertainment is there to distract the populace from the Empire. To distract it from the problems of the imperial frontier.

On U.S. budgetary problems:

FERGUSON: This is the bottom line of American politics. In the end the real over-stretch that the American, quote unquote, “empire” faces is not the cost of policing Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s not the over-stretch that my good friend Paul Kennedy predicted back in the 1980s. It’s over-stretch at home. The over-stretch of the Medicare budget. Of the Social Security budget. As the “baby boomers” retire, there is going to be a hole in federal finances of the order of 44 trillion dollars. So I think the real problem is not actually got much to do with America’s overseas adventures. It’s got everything to do with domestic finance.

SCHAMA: We were sitting here at the beginning of summer, deep into the summer. This is the debate that we must actually have in the coming electoral campaign.

MOYERS: You are debating these issues in Britain. We’re not debating these. How do you explain that?

FERGUSON: This is precisely what Tony Blair should have been saying this week. He should have been saying not, “We were right about WMD” and soaking up the applause like a pet poodle at a pet show. It seems to me what he should have been saying is, “Look, we’ve begun something here in Iraq, but how are we going to finish it? Are you in earnest about nation building, Mr. Bush? And if you are not, when are you going to get serious?”

Niall Ferguson co-wrote an article (with Laurence Kotlikoff) for the Financial Times (7/14/03) discussing many of the same issues; Its mirrored at NYU: The Fiscal Overstretch That Will Undermine An Empire

Now with Bill Moyers Niall Ferguson (New York University, senior fellow at Oxford), and Simon Schama (Columbia University)
July 18, 2003

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