The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

by Paul Kennedy

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Paul Kennedy presents a broad overview of the idea of world domination beginning in the sixteenth century. Once the concept of the globe was established, the leaders of many nations began competing to dominate world regions and, ultimately, the entire world. That competition became a driving force in politics and economics. Inevitably, some powers would rise as others fell. One interesting aspect of Kennedy’s study is the period when it was written. As the subtitle indicates, Kennedy made projections through 2000, but they could not be much more than speculations. Although he understood that the Cold War was in many ways winding down in the late 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union was far from a certainty in 1987, when his work was published.

Kennedy’s idea of a “great power” is based in a combination of military and economic success within a nation that enable it to exercise considerable influence over much of the world. These related aspects need not be contemporary.

[T]he historical record suggests that there is a very clear connection in the long run between an individual Great Power’s economic rise and fall and its growth and decline as an important military power (or world empire). This . . . is hardly surprising since it flows from two related facts. The first is that economic resources are necessary to support a large-scale military establishment. The second is that, so far as the international system is concerned, both wealth and power are always relative . . .

This does not mean, however, that a nation’s relative economic and military power will rise and fall in parallel . . . there is a noticeable “lag time” between the trajectory of a state’s relative economic strength and the trajectory of its military/territorial influence.

The author begins by reviewing the political, economic, and military developments in various parts of the world prior to and contemporary with accelerated European expansion from the late fifteenth century onward. One aspect to which Kennedy pays considerable attention is the role of religion in promoting expansion and domination, especially in the case of Islam. Over a millennium, as Islam became the state religion of numerous states, it was extended along with those states’ political domination. A notable case is the Mughal expansion through central Asia into the South Asian subcontinent under Akbar (1556–1605) and those who followed, even as there was similar growth in other continents.

Akbar . . . carved out a northern Indian empire stretching from Baluchistan in the west through Bengal in the east. Throughout the seventeenth century, Akbar’s successors pushed farther south against the Hindu Marathas . . . To these secular signs of Muslim growth must be added the vast increase in numbers of the faithful in Africa and the Indies, against which proselytization by Christian missions paled in comparison . . .

By the late nineteenth century, Kennedy notes, control over much of the world had been split up among a handful of European nations, with independence or self-rule becoming increasingly rare. Their attitudes toward imperial domination were encapsulated in the 1884 Berlin conference, which largely excluded the United States and Russia, and sought to reaffirm the dominance of European countries in Africa. The seeds of the dissolution of that position were already in place.

The center of affairs . . . was the triangular relationship among London, Paris, and Berlin . . . The fate of the planet still appeared to rest where it had seemed to rest for the preceding century or more: in the chancelleries of Europe . . . [Even in regard to Asia,] Russian general Dragirimov would declare that “Far Eastern affairs are decided in Europe.”

While it is obvious that no one in 1885 could accurately forecast the ruin and desolation which prevailed in Europe sixty years later, it was the case that many acute observers sensed the direction in which they dynamics of world power were driving.

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