The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 is a dense and detailed account of half a millennium of world history, with a warning in the final chapter that Americans must adjust themselves to national decline. That such an unlikely book achieved the status of a best-seller is indicative of a kind of lost self-confidence that became prominent in the United States in the latter 1980’s. That attitude was fueled by an ever-burgeoning national debt, a huge trade deficit, the aging of the formerly dominant American steel industry, a growing domestic sense that the country could no longer be the world’s policeman, and the change from an industrial to an information age, with the United States often perceived to have lost the high-technology competition with Japan.

Paul Kennedy, Oxford-educated and a teacher of modern international and strategic history at Yale University, does not claim that the United States “is destined to shrink to the relative obscurity of former leading Powers such as Spain or the Netherlands, or to disintegrate like the Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires,” but he insists that the question is not whether the United States is in relative decline (it is) but how that decline can best be managed. Especially with the rise in the late twentieth century of Japan and the European Economic Community (EEC) as economic forces challenging, and in some cases surpassing, the United States, coupled with the economic growth of China, Kennedy is at pains to emphasize that such decline “is relative not absolute, and is therefore perfectly natural; and that the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.”

This assertion has created intense debate, especially among policy makers in Washington, and has focused attention on Kennedy’s historical methodology. The first seven chapters chart the fortunes of the Great Powers from around 1500 (the beginning of modern times) to around 1980. The eighth (and final) chapter draws on numerous historical precedents to make its case for the shape of world affairs to come. Kennedy is careful in his application, and an air of tentativeness reigns throughout, for he is well aware that real events may soon overtake speculation. Nevertheless, he applies certain historical generalizations derived from his reading of the record, generalizations which emphasize the relative place of a Great Power vis-à-vis the other Great Powers. (A “Great Power” is “a state capable of holding its own against any other nation.”)

In general, then, a causal relationship can be discerned between changes in world trade and productivity and the standing of an individual Power within the global system; thus, the economic importance of the Pacific Rim areas (including Japan and California) may herald a shift in the balance of world power. A Great Power’s economic position in the global balance, whether rising or falling, will, over time, be mirrored in its military position or its capacity to maintain expansive (and expensive) colonies. Yet the obvious connection between a Power’s economic base and its military strength does not run in lockstep: Though strong economically, by the late 1890’s the United States was spending only 1 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on defense. As one of Kennedy’s sources explains, by 1901 when Andrew Carnegie sold out to the United States Steel Corporation, he was producing more steel than all of Great Britain. Nevertheless, that did not necessarily translate into a large American military.

Another example could be seen in Japan in the late 1980’s; an economic giant, it was spending only between 1 and 2 percent on defense, compared with the 3 to 4 percent spent by European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Kennedy also notes that Great Powers in economic decline tend to divert an increasing amount to military security rather than to renewed research and development; this short-term “security” contributes to long-term decline.

Finally, Kennedy suggests that a study of the last five centuries will reveal that “there is a very strong correlation between the eventual outcome of the major coalition wars for European or global mastery, and the amount of productive resources mobilized by each side.” The longer the struggle, the more closely the outcome follows greater economic strength. Kennedy disavows any simplistic economic determinism in this, as well as in his other generalizations, and yet his critics accuse him of begging that very question. Does Kennedy suggest that a plausible explanation of the major upheavals among nations and their empires can be provided solely by an examination of the underlying economic changes? He does not deny that human beings make their own history and that battlefield strategy, troop and national morale, even chance events (unmet time schedules or unfavorable geography), are vital factors in the outcome of quests for hegemony. He does maintain, however, that the most vital constraint is the economic factor. It is simply a fact that victory in long, drawn-out coalition wars has always gone to the side with the greater economic or productive base.

Kennedy structures his work so that the importance of economic factors is clear. For example,Under Bismarck’s astonishingly adroit handling, the Great Power system was going to be dominated by Germany for two whole decades after 1870. . . . Yet as most people could see, it was not merely the cleverness and ruthlessness of the imperial chancellor which made Germany the most important power on the European continent. It was also German industry and technology; . . . it was German science and education; . . . and it was the impressive Prussian army.

For all of his competence, Otto Bismarck, like all other modern world leaders before and after him, was ultimately answerable to economics or productive capacity....

(The entire section is 2456 words.)