The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

by Paul Kennedy
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Last Updated on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was written by Paul Kennedy and published in 1987. Born in the United Kingdom in 1945, Kennedy grew up as the once-great British empire disintegrated. Kennedy's book argues that economic power is the foundation for a nation's military power. In the long run, a nation's dominance depends on its economic prowess.

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Kennedy analyzes the relationship between economic production and military might, but he also understands the importance of other factors such as geography and technology. His view is Eurocentric, because the post-1500 world was dominated by Europe and its view of empire. Although the book is a work of history, it is also of interest to political scientists and followers of current events. Kennedy seeks to explain why history unfolded the way it did.

Great powers have always faced a conundrum, according to Kennedy. If they intervene too frequently in too many places, they risk economic exhaustion. Failure to intervene, on the other hand, brings a risk of irrelevance.

Kennedy's chronology—covering five hundred years—is vast. The year 1500 is his start date, as this period marked the beginning of European expansion, colonialism, and domination. Other states, such as Ming China, were not able to keep up with Europe over the next few centuries.

He covers the Habsburgs' attempts to dominate Europe from 1519 to 1659. The Eighty Years' War and an overextended empire ultimately doomed the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs had made too many economic mistakes. They expelled productive Jews and erected trade barriers, and these moves badly damaged their productivity. Despite the gallantry of the Spanish infantry, the Habsburgs could not sustain their preeminence.

Five new great powers emerged by 1700: Austria, France, Britain, Prussia, and Russia. In their competition, Britain and Russia had geographical advantages because there were fewer ways to invade them.

His analysis of the world wars of the twentieth century is convincing. Kennedy argues that Allied victory in World War I was ensured by the entry of the United States because it gave them a decisive economic edge. World War II marked the end of many great powers that wore themselves out economically during the long conflict.

The demise of older powers like Great Britain meant that the post-1945 world would be a bipolar one. The Cold War was an ideological competition between the United Sates and the USSR. Interestingly, Kennedy believed that Moscow's military spending was weakening it, but he did not foresee its collapse a mere four years after the book was published.

The last few chapters, which cover the 1980s, have been the most-discussed and controversial section of the book. In these pages, Kennedy writes that the US is in decline.

Today, many analysts believe Kennedy was right about America. They believe the US has overspent on unnecessary wars and weakened itself by having too many international commitments. In addition, the economic collapse of 2008 showed that the American economy was not as robust as many had thought.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2456

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. Economics does not determine the coalitions that will arise among the Great Powers and their allies, yet such coalitions must be subservient to relative economic or productive strength.

Just before Adolf Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, Kennedy notes, Great Britain and Germany were locked in seemingly interminable combat, with neither side able to achieve a decisive victory over the other. The Soviet invasion in June and the American intervention in December tipped the balance of resources in favor of the Allies. Though simple industrial productivity alone could not guarantee battlefield effectiveness, the forces of the Grand Alliance (Sir Winston Churchill’s expression) were nevertheless backed by such overwhelming matériel support that the Axis powers were doomed. Again, the lesson is that in the end, economics makes the difference.

Yet if a productive base and concomitant military strength can be seen in retrospect to have been decisive in the outcome of the great wars in the last five centuries, that still does not explain the genesis of such conflicts in the first place, nor does it explain the changes in status during peacetime (such as the United States’ change from creditor to debtor nation status within a matter of years in the post-World War II era). In considering these changes, Kennedy refers to a “dynamic.” Early in his book, “technological change and military competitiveness” are themselves called a dynamic, but later that is somewhat modified. “Because of man’s innate drive to improve his condition,” writes Kennedy, “the world has never stood still.” In fact, he says,The argument in this book has been that there exists a dynamic for change, driven chiefly by economic and technological developments, which then impact upon social structures, political systems, military power, and the position of individual states and empires.

Thus, while Kennedy skirts any exploration of the “innate drives” of those who fall within his study, such drives are for him reified in the force of economic and technological might. It is in the tracing of these dynamics that The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers excels, and it is in their terms that Kennedy explains how the world of 1500 (with Ming China, the Ottoman and Mogul empires, Muscovy, and Tokugawa Japan in the ascendancy and the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs soon to “bid for mastery” of much of Europe) became the world of 1980 (with the Soviet Union and the United States in comparative decline, though still strong, and with China, Japan, and possibly a “united” Europe in ascendancy).

Four hundred years of change are surveyed in the first two hundred pages; the remaining 340 pages of text are dedicated to an exploration of the twentieth century. From the sixteenth century to the close of the nineteenth, Kennedy notes, the Great Powers were essentially European. An entrepreneurial spirit prevailed in Europe that was lacking in the centrally controlled Muslim and Chinese worlds, and this dynamic spirit produced an expanding economy and eventually fueled technological innovation and a pluralistic society ripe for a game of king of the hill. By the end of the nineteenth century, with France, Austria-Hungary, and Italy in decline, and the United States and Russia on the upswing, the essentially Eurocentric Great Power system was becoming antiquated. By 1900 even Great Britain was discovering how expensive the maintenance of a worldwide empire could be. As Great Powers rose and fell, it was evident that the world—as far as power centers were concerned—was multipolar.

Yet a kind of anomaly arose in the mid-twentieth century: a bipolar world. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their characterization as superpowers, was a product of two world wars which, despite the desire of Great Britain and France to stay powerful and that of Germany, Japan, and Italy to expand their power base, in the end produced a world that was economically and militarily reflective of the relative demise of these European middle powers.

By the late twentieth century, however, there were growing signs of a return to a multipolar world. Kennedy describes the growth rates of the United States and the Soviet Union as “sluggish,” both having shrinking percentages of worldwide production. By contrast, Japan, China, and the EEC were expanding in economic potential. Not only was the superpower struggle for nuclear parity a tremendous drain on resources that could better have gone to civilian research and development but also the very destructive potential of those weapons meant that conventional forces had to be bolstered. In the event of an outbreak of hostilities in Europe, it was widely believed, the superpowers would resort to the use of conventional, not nuclear, forces. This realization in turn quickened the American call for Western Europe and Japan to spend more of their own resources on such conventional defense. As Kennedy argues, however, those expenditures would surely produce uneasiness among Japan’s neighbors: Russia, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand—and China. This burden sharing by Japan could unbalance the Pacific Rim and plunge Japan into ever-escalating military expenditures, with disastrous consequences for the prospects of a lasting peace.

Thus, in his final, speculative chapter, Kennedy attempts to outline the profound social, political, and military choices facing each of the Great Powers. For Japan, a status quo in trade would mean continued massive accumulation of wealth, perhaps to the detriment of the other Powers; yet more burden sharing militarily is a policy also fraught with danger.

The EEC, not yet a viable Great Power, has the potential of becoming one. Yet the European community, plagued with the constant threat of Soviet intervention, internal disputes over trade, agricultural supports, and the future of divided Germany, remains a question mark as the world approaches the twenty-first century. Its consortium of states could wield great economic power, or its community could crumble into bickering factions.

The sleeping giant of China has awakened, and is pushing toward economic and military expansion. Its nuclear development has been rapid, but China lags in its ability to put new weapons systems on-line. As the domestic economy grows under reformist leadership, however, it will be only a matter of time before China’s renewed economy produces a military strength that will rival those of the other Great Powers.

Kennedy characterizes the Soviet Union as facing contradictions as it approaches the new century. That is, the country must seemingly contradict its own Marxist (materialistic) and collectivist way of life in order to unburden itself from disappointing agricultural production, a stagnating industrial sector, and inefficient bureaucratic entrenchment. The Soviet Union is spending perhaps twice as much of its GNP on defense as is the United States, even with the renewed American arms buildup during the Reagan Administration. Nevertheless, its resources are not limitless. As with the other Great Powers, the Soviet Union must choose how to apportion its economic goods not only to meet continued military requirements but also to address problems in the consumer sector and to provide the needed boost to industry and agriculture. Though Kennedy acknowledges that the Soviet Union is far from collapse, he emphasizes the difficult future that lies ahead. It is not within the Russian character to accept decline gracefully, and it must be remembered that “historically, none of the overextended, multinational empires which have been dealt with in this survey—the Ottoman, the Spanish, the Napoleonic, the British—ever retreated to their own ethnic base until they had been defeated in a Great Power war” or been fatally weakened in such a war.

While the American portion of the world-power pie is still larger than that of the Soviet Union, Kennedy argues that the American slice of pie is diminishing faster. If the United States is to continue as a first-rank Great Power, it must answer the question of how to balance appropriate military outlay with economic stimulation of the technological power base. The risk is what Kennedy calls “imperial overstretch,” indicating that the United States, on the verge of a new century, could not defend all of its obligations around the world simultaneously. As with a run on a bank, the United States could not pay off all of its debts. Kennedy compares the situation with that of Edwardian Great Britain in terms of debate in educational, business, and policy-making circles about the country’s growing uncompetitiveness. Just as the calls for renewal of Great Britain in 1900 were in a sense confirmation of that country’s strategic decline, so debate within the United States (unneeded in the midcentury heyday) may indicate a similar decline.

Though not a work of original research, Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers marshals information from hundreds of works (with a bibliography running to almost forty pages) to chart the ebb and flow of world economic and military power centers. If his generalizations seem at times bland or trivial, the complex story is well told and compelling. It is a cautionary tale which does not settle, but rather frames, a crucial debate.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 90

Booklist. LXXXIV, December 15, 1987, p. 673.

Business Week. February 1, 1988, p. 11.

Commentary. May, 1988, p. 32.

Harvard Business Review. LXVI, March, 1988, p. 24.

History Today. XXXVIII, June, 1988, p. 51.

Library Journal. CXII, December, 1987, p. 110.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 24, 1988, p. 8.

New Republic. February 1, 1988, p. 7.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, February 4, 1988, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 10, 1988, p. 1.

The New York Times Magazine. June 19, 1988, p. 34.

Newsweek. CXI, January 25, 1988, p. 21.

Time. CXXXI, February 15, 1988, p. 91.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 25, 1988, p. 319.

The Wall Street Journal. February 19, 1988, p. 13.

The Washington Post Book World. December 27, 1987, p. 1.

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