Ferguson's book is a competent and thorough analysis of the USA as an empire
of a unique kind: an anti-imperialist empire. Ferguson's thesis is that the USA
is indeed an empire, although different from any other empire that existed
before. Ferguson's second (and perhaps more important) thesis is that the USA
is a good empire: its existence benefits the planet at large. But Ferguson's
third thesis is that the USA is a reluctant empire, and may thus doom itself
before it fulfills its mission. Ferguson goes as
far as to assert that empire is always a good thing, and today more than ever.
Ferguson's previous book, "The Cash Nexus" (2000), was stunningly prescient. That book pointed out that weapons of mass destruction have never been so cheap and widely available; that no state would be so stupid to attack the USA but terrorists might do just so; that civil wars are becoming more common that wars among states; that it is in the interest of the USA to depose tyrants before they can cause harm. It was as if Ferguson had already seen the 2001 terrorist attacks. Thus he has a lot of credibility (unlike 99% of the "experts" who hurriedly published books after the 2001 terrorist attacks).
His theses are defended through hundreds of pages of facts, that start with the founding of the USA and cut through the current crisis in the Middle East. To start with, Ferguson digs into historical documents to show that the founding fathers themselves were imperialists: many of them saw the USA as a nascent empire, destined to conquer a continent if not the world. A forgotten war is the war that the USA fought in the Philippines at the end of the 19th century. While a lot less famous than Vietnam or Iraq, that war employed the same number of soldiers and heralded the future of the USA in that a humble guerrilla managed to stop the advance of the superior USA army. Other examples of USA imperialism were the establishment of the nation of Panama, literally stolen from Colombia, and assorted intervention in Central America. Ferguson correctly points out that all the Latin American countries that remained independent after USA intervention were unfortunate: annexation would have probably been a better outcome for them. Occupation would have also been better, if one considers the cases of Germany and Japan, which are now among the richest and most peaceful countries in the world.
Thus USA imperial ventures have mostly failed. They have failed to annex territory and they even failed to cause significant regime changes.
Ferguson then shows the nature of USA imperialism. Every empire has tried to export its model. The USA exports an anti-imperialist model, but that is, in itself, also an imperialist attitude. USA presidents have repeatedly claimed that the USA should assist democracies and fight tyrants. That is a declaration of imperialism because it means that the USA is bent on exporting its model and imposing it on the rest of the world. Franklin Roosevelt was the quintessential anti-imperialist imperialist. The USA fought alongside the British in World War II, but it had no desire to keep the British Empire alive. Nonetheless the USA was aiming at creating a new world order, that, de facto, was simply a form of imperialism itself.
Particularly revealing was the attitude of the USA at the end of World War II. Legendary general Douglas MacArthur was ready to go to nuclear war against China and the Soviet Union for the simple reason that the USA had the power to win. For a few years the USA had a window of opportunity that may never repeat itself: it could have easily won a nuclear confrontation against the Soviet Union and China. Despite MacArthur's exhortations, the USA did not. It probably never happened before in the history of the world that an empire missed the opportunity to crash its enemy when it had a clear chance to do so. By the same token, the Vietnam war was probably lost because it was fought according to principles that were not the brutal and cynical ones of the traditional empires. The USA gradually responded to Soviet provocation: it did not go for the kill when it could have. Basically, the USA gave the Soviet Union enough time to arm itself and become a peer empire instead of destroying it when USA superiority was overwhelming. The USA also lost in Cuba, that was right next to its coast. USA might could not avoid that the little island fell to the enemies. Something is obviously odd in the way this superpower fights its wars. It actually looks like this is a superpower that is rarely capable of winning a war (Ferguson does not elaborate on the two major victories of the USA, i.e. the two world wars, but both were won thanks to the allies, that sacrificed much more, fought a lot longer and weakened the enemies).
However, there is no question that the USA has been far more successful in fighting empires than in being an empire itself. The USA did succeed in dismantling the British and French empires, and in opposing the nascent Soviet Empire until it self-imploded. Those are no minor achievements, that have shaped the world of the 21st century. The oddity is that the USA did not quite benefit that much from these achievements. In a sense, it created its own rivals (former colonies or Soviet puppet states are now self-ruling nation-states with booming economies).
Ferguson provides an interesting analysis of the recent history in the Middle East. He shows how Israel managed to dictate policy to the USA, and still does so. Somehow the USA seems largely unable to tell Israel what to do. Strategically speaking, this has had disastrous effects because it has not been Israel but the Arabs that have become central to the world economy, thanks to the fact that they own most of the world's oil. The USA invested in the side that was becoming less and less economically relevant, while alienating the side that was becoming more and more economically relevant. This was done in the name of defending democracy (Israel being the only democratic country in the region) and in the name of opposing Soviet expansionism in the region.
Also interesting (although not supported by enough evidence, at least in this book) is Ferguson's belief that the "clash of civilizations" in the Middle East should be viewed as a "civilization of clashes". Ferguson claims that the Middle East has always been characterized by clashes, and that the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian revolution and today's civil war in Iraq are all side effects of a general pattern that was already there. This is an interesting thesis, but Ferguson does not spend enough pages to prove his point. More importantly, he does not show that the historical "clashes" in the Middle East were in any way more important and severe than the clashes, say, in Europe (that originated two world wars) or Asia. The entire planet can be said to have been subject to a "civilization of clashes" since at least the beginning of recorded history.
Ferguson spends quite a bit of time defending the politically incorrect view that imperialism is sometimes a good idea for the nations being enslaved. Self-determination, in his opinion, is not always good news. In fact, decolonization failed throughout Africa and mostly Latin America. He rejects the view that povery and war in these places are the legacy of imperialism. In his opinion, it is just about the opposite: imperialism made them peaceful and wealthy, whereas self-rule made them poor and unsafe. The empire had the infrastructure to provide its subjects with jobsm education and security. The new nation-states had no such capability. In particular, the British Empire was a spectacular example of how an empire can help its subjects become rich. The British Empire achieved widespread wealth distribution through the combination of three factors: free trade, mass migration and low-cost capital.
Therein lies the problem with the USA empire. Ferguson identifies three deficits that are causing the premature decline of the USA empire: a financial deficit (the USA does not have the money to invest in nation building the way the British did), a man-power deficit (the USA does not have the millions of educated Americans willing to "colonize" the world the way millions of Britons were willing to settle in India or Africa) and an attention deficit (the USA public and therefore its elected officials do not have the will to persist in their imperialist ventures).
The USA is an empire without money, without settlers and without the will to be an empire. Therefore it is likely to decline sooner rather than later.
The alternative, though, is not so clear. Ferguson dismisses the European Union as a potential rival empire, seeing its enlargement more as a problem than a solution, and seeing its influence on world affairs as relatively weak. Nonetheless he does see Europe as diverging from the USA, although that would probably be the topic of another book. For example, the USA is a very religious nation whereas Europe is a less and less religious continent. Ferguson also shows that different work ethics explain the economic gap: quite simply, Americans work a lot more hours than Europeans. Thus the West is, de facto, splitting into two factions, that are grounded in wildly different values.