Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: A Review

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is one of those magisterial overviews of five centuries of world history. Paul Kennedy does a very good job and takes a quasi-Marxian approach to this, in that economics do in large part determine the trajectory of nations (e.g., a materialist explanation). The macroeconomic state of a nation – its accounts payable, its gross national product, its collective receipts – are, to Kennedy, inextricably linked to its place on the world stage. The correlation is obvious, but is the causation there?

While Kennedy admits that earlier history is not his area of expertise, he does a decent job explaining how the “East” fell behind, given the increasing insularity of Ming China and the internecine struggles in South and East Asia that consumed resources and attention. It’s not a wholly convincing explanation but other historians have done a fairly good job examining this; I am reminded mainly of Kenneth Pomeranz’s alternate history essay in Unmaking the West , “Without Coal? Colonies? Calculus?: Counterfactuals and Industrialization in Europe and China.” (One of Pomeranz’s points is that in the United Kingdom, coal deposits were mined in relatively close proximity to waterways and also the metropole; in China, much of the coal is to be found far in the northwest hinterlands, far away from a means of transportation and major population centers.) In Kennedy’s telling, it is the governance failures of China and the Mughals – and in the case of the latter, an increasingly rapacious program of taxation, offering nothing by way of return to the tax base – coupled with a lack of industrialization that can explain their relative early fall.

Kennedy has written a remarkable qualitative history based on ballpark quantitative statistics, which is an approach I can very much get behind. Relative national “incomes” in the seventeenth century, for instance, are exceedingly difficult to find data for, much less calculate (part of the reason Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was so celebrated was its painstaking collection and analysis of detailed financial records dating back centuries – one of the first times it had been done). And yet Kennedy manages to paint a convincing picture of ebbs and flows in currencies and commodities, in relative power balances and military expenditures, tracing continuities in national approaches towards almost the present day.

It is here, on the doorstep of the present, that perhaps reviewers have, with the benefit of hindsight, come to blame Kennedy for his failure of prescience. Indeed, he comes close to an accurate prediction in terms of the overall trajectory of Russia, but in the specifics (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union), he just misses the mark:

On the other hand, the Soviet war machine also has its own weaknesses and problems … Since the dilemmas which face the strategy-makers of the other large Powers of the globe are also being pointed out in this chapter, it is only proper to draw attention to the great variety of difficulties confronting Russia’s military-political leadership – without, however, jumpting to the opposite conclusion that the Soviet Union is therefore unlikely to ‘survive’ for very long. [Emphasis in original]

Kennedy was writing in 1987, just two years before the overthrow of Communism in much of eastern Europe, and four before the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. But despite failing to predict its collapse, he nevertheless successfully identified a downwards socioeconomic and geopolitical trajectory for Russia that has since been proven accurate. Similarly, Kennedy’s prognosis for the United States seems, especially now, to have been borne out, almost frighteningly so:

Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ problem in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it…is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments had been made decades earlier … In consequence, the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what roughly might be called ‘imperial overstretch’.

And though he never quite describes it as a future strategic competitor (and, to be fair, it is only in the past fifteen years that the contours of Sino-American relations have really begun to solidify), it is clear to Kennedy that the eventual rise of China is perpetually lurking in the background. “The most decisive” international fissure of the Cold War, he writes, “was the split between the USSR and Communist China,” which served to make even that era less of a totally bipolar system than is typically conceived of. China is one of five extant or emerging power centers he identifies, and sees a gradually strengthening power with some of the highest growth rates on Earth – this towards the tail end of Deng’s rule, before it really took off.

And so, what then for the United States? In keeping with his theme of “imperial overstretch,” Kennedy points out that the United States in 1987 had “roughly the same massive array of military obligations across the globe as it had a quarter-century [prior], when its shares of world GNP, manufacturing production, military spending, and armed forces personnel were so much larger.” All the military services will inevitably demand more resources and cry poverty, yes, but that is because what passes for American “statecraft” in the 21st century manages to avoid any hard decisions, any downscaling of commitments, and any meaningful reassessment of available ways and means – with an eye towards determining commensurate ends.

Here again, Kennedy is prescient: “an American polity which responds to external challenges by increasing defense expenditures and reacts to the budgetary crisis by slashing the existing social expenditures, may run the risk of provoking an eventual political backlash.” We’ve almost certainly watched that unfold in the years since 2001. In keeping with the rest of Rise and Fall, the United States is in fact headed for decline, but in a relative sense, one that is manageable if approached reasonably. This doesn’t single out the country; instead it might be seen (and is by Kennedy) as a reversion to the mean:

It may be argued that the geographical extent, population, and resources of the United States suggest that it ought to possess perhaps 16 or 18 percent of the world’s wealth and power, but because of historical and technical circumstances favorable to it, that share rose to 40 percent or more by 1945; and what we are witnessing at the moment is the early decades of the ebbing away from that extraordinarily high figure to a more ‘natural’ share.

Kennedy also offers a warning: “the task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore…is a need to ‘manage’ affairs to that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.” This is wise counsel for the years ahead, as the unipolar moment continues to rapidly fade. But if this is the predominant challenge to the United States in the 21st century – a superpower in decline – than so far we have surely failed to meet it.

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