September 16, 2009

Niall Ferguson

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — By any historical definition, the United States was and remains an empire, but it is an empire with "structural flaws" that could mean another world force soon will take its place, Niall Ferguson, a professor of history and economics and award-winning author, told an audience Tuesday night, kicking off this semester's Bucknell Forum.

"The United States is an inherently dysfunctional empire," Ferguson said. "The United States suffers from a manpower deficit, an attention deficit and most crucially, a financial deficit. ... These three deficits make it highly likely that the project will fail."

U.S. leaders have long asserted that the United States is not an imperial force, but evidence, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, show otherwise, argued Ferguson, a Harvard University professor and author of numerous books, including Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), which asserts that empires have existed throughout time and that empires are not always bad.

Ferguson's talk: "Is the United States an Empire? Should It Be?" was the fall kick-off event for the continuing Bucknell Forum speaker series, "Global Leadership: Questions for the 21st Century." The talk will be broadcast on WVIA-TV at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21, with encore presentations at 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3; noon Sunday, Oct. 4; 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 12; 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18. Check local listings for more information.

Award-winning author
A prolific author and regular contributor to television and radio on both sides of the Atlantic, Ferguson has published numerous award-winning books on history and economics, including The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008), which predicted that too much credit would fuel a global financial crisis, including a subprime mortgage meltdown. It has been the subject of a recent four-part PBS documentary.

Ferguson's other books include Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2003), a bestseller in the United Kingdom and the United States that accompanied a six-part history of the British Empire for U.K. television; and The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), which received critical acclaim. In 2004, TIME magazine named Ferguson one of the world's most influential people.

'Imperial denial'
During his talk, Ferguson asserted that the United States has long taken a position of "imperial denial," which, he said, was not a bad strategy.

"Imperialism has itself a bad reputation," Ferguson said. "Empires are not always and everywhere a bad thing. ... It's hard to think of a worse empire than Hitler's Third Reich, but there were empires capable of withstanding the challenge with their own empires. The only thing that stood between Hitler and the British empire was the British empire."

Citing a famous scene from "Monte Python's Life of Brian," in which John Cleese's character Reg asks, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" aside from roads, public order and the aqueduct, Ferguson challenged the audience to ask the same question of nations like the United States.

Three major 'deficits
The United States might be more successful, Ferguson said, if it were not for its "manpower deficit," which he attributed to Americans being unwilling to live for long periods in developing countries or for its "attention deficit" evidenced by a collective impatience with the comparatively short military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. The British empire, by contrast, was in Iraq for 40 years, a short occupation compared to the average of 200 years, he said.

Ferguson asserted that the United States, which has financed its debt largely through its economic and industrial rival, The People's Republic of China, and other foreign allies, may soon give up its position because of that financial deficit.

"The United States is an intriguing empire," Ferguson said. "It appears to be in hock to one of its chief rivals in economic debt. ... Once your rivals become your bankers or creditors, they do have a certain leverage over you."

As the nation becomes more indebted to China, Ferguson said, China will become more powerful.

"The question (for this talk) is not, 'Is America an empire and should it be?'" Ferguson said. "It is, 'Was America an empire and should it have been?' And now, 'Is China an empire and should it be?'"

Ferguson has conducted research and taught in Hamburg, Berlin, and Cambridge, and in 2000 was appointed professor of political and financial history at Oxford. Two years later he was named the Herzog chair in financial history at New York University's Stern Business School before moving to Harvard University in 2004. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and the William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1964, Ferguson was awarded a demyship at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with First Class Honors in 1985. Other demyship recipients at Magdalen include Oscar Wilde, Lewis Gielgud and T.E. Lawrence.

The Bucknell Forum
The latest Bucknell Forum series, "Global Leadership: Questions for the 21st Century," runs through spring 2010. On Oct. 21, Howard Gardner, a Harvard University scholar who pioneered the multiple intelligences theory and has published a series of books, will give a talk, "Leadership that is Ethical: Promises and Pitfalls."

On November 10, founder and Bucknell alumnus Doug Lebda will deliver a talk, "Lead or Fail: The New Challenges of a New Economy."

On Feb. 2, environmental lawyer and bestselling author Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will kick off the spring series with a talk, "Globalization and the Green Economy: A New Vision for American Leadership and Strength."

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