The Decline and Fall of Almost Everything

The most significant book on international affairs published in the late 1980s was Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers. The magnum opus of a distinguished diplomatic and strategic historian, it was also the exemplary statement of what some critics termed the "declinist" school, which pointed to signs that the United States might be following in the downward path that Britain had taken a century before.

Now, a half-decade later, we have Kennedy's new book, Preparing for The Twenty-First Century, a work not so much of history but of prophecy. It is likely to be seen by critics as carrying declinism to its logical conclusion, as a work not about the rise and fall of great powers but about the decline and fall of practically everybody. Indeed its conclusion could be simplified: the great global changes underway are likely to weaken all nation states and steadily impoverish most of humanity. In fact, however, Kennedy meant for both his books to provide suggestions to nations, particularly the United States, and to their political leaders about how to avoid the worst.

Unveiling The Future

Kennedy begins by recalling Thomas Malthus and his famous and pessimistic "Essay on Population," which prophesied that a population explosion would imperil England's future by the early nineteenth century. Indeed that essay, published in 1798, could well have been entitled "Preparing for the Nineteenth Century." Kennedy takes the reader on a tour d'horizon of the great transnational forces now shaping, and disrupting, the world: the demographic explosion, causing not only massive population growth in poor countries but also massive emigration to rich ones; the globalization of financial transactions and multinational corporations; the transformation of agriculture, especially under the impact of biotechnology; the transformation of industry, especially under the impact of robotics; and the destruction of the natural environment. What Kennedy does to these oft-discussed trends is integrate them into an interacting and reinforcing drama.

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