Is America the new world empire? Presidents from Lincoln to Bush may have denied it but, as Niall Ferguson's brilliant and provocative book shows, the US is the greatest military and economic colossus of all time. What's more, it always has been an empire, with its founding fathers battling westwards for territory and their successors spreading freedom across the world - at gunpoint if necessary. Yet is the US really equipped to play Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on its shoulders? America, Ferguson reveals, is now an empire running on empty, backing away from the crucial imperial commitments of time, money and manpower - and resting on perilous financial foundations. When the New Rome falls, its collapse may come from within. Unlike the majority of European writers who have written on this subject, I am fundamentally in favor of empire. Indeed, I believe that empire is more necessary in the twenty-first century than ever before. The threats we face are not in themselves new ones. But advances in technology make them more dangerous than ever before. Thanks to the speed and regularity of modern air travel, infectious diseases can be transmitted to us with terrifying swiftness. And thanks to the relative cheapness and destructiveness of modern weaponry, tyrants and terrorists can realistically think of devastating our cities. The old, post-1945 system of sovereign states, bound loosely together by an evolving system of international law, cannot easily deal with these threats because there are too many nation-states where the writ of the "international community" simply does not run. What is required is an agency capable of intervening in the affairs of such states to contain epidemics, depose tyrants, end local wars and eradicate terrorist organizations. This is the self-interested argument for empire. But there is also a complementary altruistic argument. Even if they did not pose a direct threat to the security of the United States, economic and social conditions in a number of countries in the world would justify some kind of intervention. The poverty of a country like Liberia is explicable not in terms of resource endowment; otherwise (for example) Botswana would be just as poor. The problem in Liberia, as in so many sub-Saharan African states, is simply misgovernment: corrupt and lawless dictators whose conduct makes economic development impossible and encourages political opposition to take the form of civil war. Countries in this condition will not correct themselves. They require the imposition of some kind of external authority. There are those who would insist that an empire is by definition incapable of playing such a role; in their eyes, all empires are exploitative in character. Yet there can be—and has been—such a thing as a liberal empire, one that enhances its own security and prosperity precisely by providing the rest of the world with generally beneficial public goods: not only economic freedom but also the institutions necessary for markets to flourish. In this regard, Americans have more to learn than they are prepared to admit from their more self-confident British predecessors, who, after the mid-nineteenth-century calamities of the Irish Famine and the Indian Mutiny, recast their empire as an economically liberal project, concerned as much with the integration of global markets as with the security of the British Isles, predicated on the idea that British rule was conferring genuine benefits in the form of free trade, the rule of law, the safeguarding of private property rights and noncorrupt administration, as well as government-guaranteed investments in infrastructure, public health and (some) education. Arnold Toynbee's view of his Oxford tutorial pupils destined for the Indian Civil Service was clear: ‘If they went to India they were to go there for the good of her people on one of the noblest missions on which an Englishman could be engaged.’ Let me emphasize that it is not my intention to suggest that Americans should somehow adopt the Victorians as role models. The British Empire was very far from an ideal liberal empire, and there is almost as much to be learned from its failures as from its successes. The resemblances between what the British were attempting to do in 1904 and what the United States was trying to do in 2004 are nevertheless instructive. Like the United States today, Great Britain was very ready to use its naval and military superiority to fight numerous small wars against what we might now call failed states and rogue regimes. No one who has studied the history of the British campaign against the Sudanese dervishes, the followers of the charismatic Wahhabist leader known as the Mahdi, can fail to be struck by its intimations of present-day conflicts. Yet like the United States today, the Victorian imperialists did not act purely in the name of national or imperial security. Just as American presidents of recent decades have consistently propounded the benefits of economic globalization—even when they have deviated from free trade in practice—British statesmen a century ago regarded the spread of free trade and the liberalization of commodity, labor and capital markets as desirable for the general good. And just as most Americans today regard global democratization on the American model as self-evidently good, so the British in those days aspired to export their own institutions—not just the common law but ultimately also parliamentary monarchy—to the rest of the world. Americans easily forget that after the blunders of the late eighteenth century, British governments learned that it was perfectly easy to grant ‘responsible government’ to colonies that were clearly well advanced along the road to economic modernity and social stability. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and (albeit with a restricted franchise) South Africa all had executives accountable to elected parliaments by the early 1900s. Nor was this benefit intended to be the exclusive preserve of the colonies of white settlement. On the question of whether India should ultimately be capable of British style parliamentary government, Thomas Babington Macaulay was quite explicit, if characteristically condescending: ‘Never will I attempt to avert or to retard it [Indian self-government]. Whenever it comes it will be the proudest day in English history. To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a tide to glory all our own.’ Not dissimilar aspirations were being expressed in some quarters last year on the subject of democratizing the Arab world. Speaking at the United Nations in September of last year, President Bush himself made it clear that this was one of his objectives in invading Iraq. As we shall see, however, the Americans were not the first Anglophone invaders to arrive in Baghdad proclaiming themselves to be ‘liberators’ rather than conquerors.