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THESE are the days of Empire, and revisionist histories. No wonder, ever since the dissolution of the Soviet ‘socialist’ experiment, theorists have been predicting the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama) or a ‘clash of civilizations’ (Huntington). But few trends in historiography have excited as much attention as the re-working of the once discredited notions of colonialism and imperialism.

Not surprisingly, this project of rewriting history attends to both the past and the future. On one grid lie books like Empire by Niall Ferguson, Professor of Political and Economic History at Oxford University, also made accessible to those unwilling to plough through a fat tome as a TV series by Channel Four. Ferguson focuses on the British Empire – its hesitant and reluctant beginnings in the 17th century, the days of its primacy in the Victorian era when Britain governed a quarter of the world’s land and peoples and dominated all its seas, and its eventual demise in the middle of the last century.

Working through the rich and fascinating details of the processes – intellectual, ideological, technological and material – which fashioned the imperium over three centuries, the impression created is not one of rapacious destruction but of gains in global welfare. High in his list of positive legacies is the growth of liberal capitalism and free trade, the institutions of parliamentary democracy and, not the least, a global lingua franca in the English language. Without seeking to underplay the underside of the enterprise, in particular the inability to live up to its own ideals of individual liberty (slavery) and the transportation and ethnic cleansing of ‘indigenous peoples’, Ferguson not only favourably compares the British empire to other European and Asian empires, but argues that but for it we might today be living under Nazi and Japanese fascisms.

Much to the dismay of nationalist ideologues from erstwhile colonies, the drain theorists, he asserts that ‘the notion that British imperialism tended to impoverish colonized countries seems inherently problematic.’ Even more that particularly in countries with thin populations and weak indigenous cultures, ‘the imposition of British style institutions has tended to enhance a country’s economic prospects.’ He characterizes the British administration as ‘remarkably cheap and efficient’ and ‘remarkably non-venal’, ‘its sins’, if any, ‘of omission not commission’. No wonder, so few were able to rule over so many for so long.

If so much good came of the imperium, why did it collapse? Again a revisionist formulation. Not, as we are led to believe, because of the strength of anti-colonial protest (a vast majority of subjects, he argues, were indifferent if not willing collaborators), but because a persistent under-investment in military security left the Empire vulnerable to inter-imperialist rivalry and ambitions. In short, the rulers lost the will to rule.

If Ferguson’s take on the past will dismay many given his challenge to so many ‘politically correct’ formulations which have acquired the status of common sense, his prognosis for the future too is unlikely to win him new admirers. The collapse of earlier empires (decolonisation) was accompanied by a proliferation of new nation states, many very small and unviable, often emerging as a result of civil war within an earlier multi-ethnic polity. A consequence has been a growth of fragmentation and civil strife, ethnic particularism and intolerance. Without explicitly stating so, one suspects he traces many of the current problems – terrorism, the rise of militant Islam, proliferation of WMDs and the presence of rogue states – to the collapse of global order.

Is this an oblique case for a new empire, a pax-Americana, akin to Robert Cooper’s thesis of a new defensive imperialism, one based on human rights and cosmopolitan values, a voluntary association to deal with impending chaos and introduce order and organisation? The parallels with the moral evangelism of the Bush-Blair project, the civilizing mission for the new millennium, are striking. More so, since Ferguson like many others remains convinced that the US alone has the economic and military muscle to forge the needed imperium. What it lacks is the will to convert an ‘informal empire’ into a formal one, given its proclivity to intervene and then seek an escape route, not stay on to complete the task.

This is a compelling though disturbing thesis, one which might well be realised unless we, the subjects, can both set our own individual houses in order and advance alternative rules of engagement for an inter-dependant and globalized world. The current multilateral arrangements based on the sacred selfishness of countries and the defence of their self-interest have possibly run their course, notwithstanding the assertions of Kofi Annan or the Chirac-Putin compact to the contrary. How we rethink the old world order will decide whether or not we are in for a spell of a fore closed future.

Harsh Sethi