The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

by Paul Kennedy

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The title of Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, with its echoes of Gibbon, seems to eschew recent trends in historiography, as it describes the inexorable arc of empire from the seventeenth century until the present from the perspective of world leaders. His fundamental thesis is simple: once a national power has attained hegemony, retaining that power becomes a precarious balancing act between the preservation of economic strength and the desire to expand its range of territory and influence through military means. The latter imperative tends to ultimately exhaust its economic strength.

He begins with the Spanish Empire of the sixteenth century, which committed precisely the mistakes he outlines. Although the dominant force on the world stage in that period, the refusal of its wealthy classes to levy taxes on themselves sufficient to maintain the nation's hegemony led to its inevitable decline.

France, which had suffered from a similar period of maladministration, was able to wrest power from Spain in the following century by virtue of a greatly improved system of military management, which allowed it to fully leverage its economic strength. However, like its predecessor, France fell victim to its desire for colonial expansion. The last of its military adventures was its involvement in the American Revolutionary War, which would lead to bankruptcy and the French Revolution. The series of Napoleonic Wars were, in reality, campaigns of plunder, urgently necessary to refill the nation's empty coffers.

After defeating Napoleon, it was Great Britain that was able to dominate the European landscape. Boasting a thriving economy, as the birthplace of the industrial revolution, it also possessed the world's most formidable navy. Yet, as the decades of the nineteenth century wore on, it was the global omnipresence of the navy that began to drain the British treasury. Thus, when challenged by the rising power of Germany during World War I, Great Britain was forced to turn to the United States both as an ally and source of financing.

Despite the onerous World War I reparations imposed by the Versailles Treaty, Germany still had the economic wherewithal to regain its dominance of continental Europe in the Weimar years, and its downfall can only be attributed to political ineptitude. Rather than seek diplomatic solutions to political conflicts, under Hitler the nation embarked on a series of national invasions similar to the looting expeditions of Napoleon. However, having initiated a second world war based on a racist, deeply irrational sense of manifest destiny, Germany found itself decidedly ill-matched against the United States and the Soviet Union, two global power with far greater economic and military resources.

For the brief post–World War II era of the Pax Americana, with many of its competitors engaged in rebuilding their shattered economies, the United States enjoyed a brief period of global dominance, during which it endeavored to extend its geopolitical influence. But within a few decades, with the economies of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan regaining their competitive edge, the hegemony of the US gradually waned.

At the same time, the United States, in a haunting repetition of the behavior of now numerous former hegemons, has continued to pour a substantial proportion of its resources into what has become the most powerful military in history, thereby weakening its economy. Further, as with the Spanish Empire, the wealthiest classes have refused to tax themselves to achieve this might. Instead, the United States has chosen to become seriously indebted to the nation Paul Kennedy views as the next likely global hegemon: the People's Republic of China.

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