Pointers from the Past

To the Editor:

Interpreting the larger tendencies and broader patterns of world history is, by its very nature, an intellectually risky business. The mere fact of generalizing across centuries and continents disturbs the orthodox professionals, whose own focus upon a single decade or region probably represents over 99 percent of all historical studies. The necessity to synthesize and make sense of vast amounts of secondary literature irritates the narrow specialist, who holds that it is improper to comment on, for instance, the policies of Gustavus Adolphus without years of research in the Swedish archives. Above all, perhaps, an author's attempt to point to the broader patterns of world history will provoke a response from critics who have their own, and very different, interpretations. Such disagreements will be the livelier if those critics sense that a new publication may also challenge their beliefs about the present and the future. As Marxists recognized long ago, just how the past is interpreted will always be a significant part of contemporary political disputes. "Pointers from the past" are, after all, trying to point us in a particular direction.

To that extent, W. W. Rostow's lengthy assault upon The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Spring 1988 issue of Foreign Affairs is both perfectly natural and welcome. To be sure, anyone who reads a sustained critique of one's latest book in a journal as eminent as Foreign Affairs is bound to have mixed feelings: a dissatisfaction at the reviewer's failure to appreciate the volume in question, and a (admittedly only compensatory) satisfaction at the fact that one's arguments are getting such an airing. Ultimately the feelings of satisfaction must prevail; for does not the present heat generated by the debate over "lessons from the past" (or more accurately, over which "lessons" should be drawn from the past) suggest that we finally may be having our revenge on Henry Ford's well-known aphorism that history is bunk? If he had been right, then why should syndicated columnists across the country now be jostling to offer their opinions on the extent to which the past can offer pointers to the future?

Perhaps the real answer to the second question is that, while demonstrating by their very actions that they do not think history is bunk, journalists, politicians, reviewers and other sorts of pundits know that it is a very useful "grab bag" out of which materials for all sorts of interpretation can be plucked. In this connection, Ernest May's 1973 publication, "Lessons" of the Past still merits careful reading, perhaps especially by those who continue to use the term "appeasement" as if nothing in the historiography of the 1930s has altered since Churchill's The Gathering Storm.

Into this historical grab bag, of course, all reviewers have the right to grope, in the hope of bringing up evidence to counter the author's own interpretation of the past. But whatever counterargument they then produce deserves the same scrutiny they have given the book in question, especially when they make such a point about the problems of using analogies from the past.

This seems particularly necessary in the case of Professor Rostow's critique because of the peculiar but ultimately unsatisfactory emphasis he places upon the distinction between "hegemonic" and "balance-of-power" states in the 500-year story of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Laymen who have not noticed this distinction raised in any other review of my book may be bemused at such an emphasis, as well they should; professional scholars, well used to the way in which history is raided for examples and counter-examples, will be far less moved.

The idea that great-power politics since the Renaissance can be seen as a struggle between certain states that strive for continental "hegemony" and others that counter with a "balance-of-power" policy is not a new one. It is, perhaps, best described in its "pure" form in Ludwig Dehio's 1962 classic The Precarious Balance. In Dehio's rendition of events, Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler led the five successive attempts to achieve European (and, to some degree, global) mastery, but they all were finally brought down by a coalition of "flank" powers, most notably Britain and Russia, and later the United States, which combined to oppose such hegemonic strivings. It was very much a tale of the good guys defeating the bad guys; and for a post-1945 German author fearful that the Soviet Union might become the new "hegemon," it was a useful one to lay before Anglo-American readers.

But the problem about employing such categorizations, as Mr. Rostow should well know, is that the issue is far more complex than those simple distinctions allow. After all, much of the recent interest in studying "hegemons" and "hegemonic regimes" in world politics has come from scholars in the field of international political economy, seeking to analyze the periods when the global trading and financial system appeared to center on one preeminent national economy. From this perspective, it is Great Britain itself, and later the United States, that are seen as the "hegemonic" powers, and the others that somehow have to relate to that hegemony. This is a point of more than semantic interest, since it is possible that many great-power clashes in the past were caused chiefly by one nation's fear of a rival's economic power. According to Mr. Rostow's fixed categorizations, one might conclude that the English should not have engaged in the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century (which were overwhelmingly "trade" wars), because their job was to preserve the European balance of power from the growing ambitions of France. Alas, nations often do not understand their function in world affairs in the way later interpreters do.

One might go on for a long time here, delving into the grab bag of history to show that the distinctions Mr. Rostow makes are all too often subjective rather than objective in nature; or, to put it crudely, that one nation's "balance-of-power" policy is viewed in another capital as a "hegemonic" striving. Denmark in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century so often gravitated toward a French alliance because it resented Britain's overweening, "hegemonic" policies at sea. A century later, Germans under Wilhelm II spluttered with indignation at what they considered to be the British hypocrisy of wanting a balance of power on land but undisputed mastery for the Royal Navy at sea. The Russian equivalent of this twin-track policy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to preserve the power equilibrium within Europe while systematically expanding across Asia; to the peoples of Transcaucasia, the tsarist regime could hardly be viewed as a "system-stabilizing" flank power.

Yet even if we leave aside these cautionary remarks about Mr. Rostow's categorizations, the chief flaw in his critique still remains to be noted: it is the questionable relevance, in terms of a great power's capacity to remain successful and flourishing for generation after generation, of whether it sees itself (or is seen to be) as either a "hegemonic" or a "balance-of-power" nation. To be sure, an arrogant, hubristic state (like Napoleon's France or Wilhelm II's Germany) that tries to swallow more than it can chew is likely to exhaust its resources more swiftly than a power with fewer ambitions; and if that arrogance is sufficient to provoke a counter-coalition of great powers to mobilize their larger combined resources to prevail, it will meet its fate. If it fails to match its ends with its means-as hubristic powers have a greater tendency to do-it will pay the penalty.

But what Mr. Rostow apparently does not see is that this inability to match ends with means has brought down all sorts of countries, whether "hegemonic" or not, and whether they sought to revise or maintain the existing order. What ultimately counted was not their status, but their relative national strength. From the 1660s onward, for example, the Dutch found that they had increasingly to concentrate on beating back the "hegemonic" strivings of Louis XIV's France; a half-century later, that aim had been achieved (by a coalition), but the United Provinces was no longer in the ranks of the great powers. Again, from 1871 onward, and more particularly after 1919, the chief aim of French statesmen was to preserve a European balance of power in the face of Germany's massive economic and military expansion. It was a natural, and one might say worthy, sentiment-only partly aided by France's allies. But it could not gainsay the fact that the wellsprings of French power no longer sufficed to carry out its policy successfully. A "balance-of-power" strategy, like a "hegemonic" strategy, still required the power concerned to have the strength to achieve its aims.

We can now see why Mr. Rostow's singling out of Britain's historic "balance-of-power" role, and his argument that the United States since 1945 has occupied much the same position, is both less pertinent and less comforting than he would have us believe. It is less pertinent because Britain itself, all the Churchillian rhetoric and leadership notwithstanding, found it impossible to carry out an effective "balance-of-power" strategy when its own relative economic strength had ebbed. By 1945 Hitler's power had been destroyed much more comprehensively than Louis XIV's power in 1714; but Britain, like the Dutch Republic before it, was stepping out of the first ranks.

And Mr. Rostow's analogy is also much less comforting for the United States as it heads toward the 21st century-not because his proposed diplomacy of working with allies in Europe and East Asia to preserve the "balance of power" is wrong, but because he brushes aside the relative erosion of this country's manufacturing and financial strength since the 1950s. By a supreme irony, Mr. Rostow's little anecdote about President Kennedy's 1961 remark weakens rather than strengthens his case: "We've forty percent [of the free world's power]. . . ." Are we still far ahead now? And will we still be so in 2000 or 2020 if we fail to renew the wellsprings of our national strength, produce our own engineers, and manufacture our own microchips?

There is much to be debated about how far the United States needs to go in restructuring both its external diplomatic and military policies and its internal economic policies, in order to readjust to the changing global order and to preserve its more essential national interests. But that discussion cannot be initiated in the brief space permitted here, and will have to wait for another time. It is encouraging that in some of those areas, it seems to me, Mr. Rostow and I are not too far apart in our prescriptions. But moving toward such long-term policies will not be aided by evoking dubious historical analogies, especially of the Churchill v. Chamberlain category. Nor will it be aided by reading into history's grab bag to produce bemusing distinctions of a country's status in the international system, rather than focusing on those underpinnings of power that have affected all nations, whatever policy they choose to pursue.

Paul Kennedy

Yale University

The reviewer replies:

In response to Mr. Kennedy, I shall deal with only four major points:

1. Hegemony v. balance of power. Kennedy first sets out to blur the distinction between a hegemonic and balance-of-power policy, but he evades an issue fundamental to his book and my review; i.e., the charge that U.S. foreign policy post-1945 sought hegemony in Europe and Asia. From his response I conclude that he has dropped that characterization and substituted a new charge: that Britain and the United States were each, in its time, hegemonic "global and financial" powers. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the pre-1914 world economic system did not depend on British economic hegemony (see, particularly, my Rich Countries and Poor Countries, 1987, Chapter 9). After all, British foreign trade fell from 25 percent to 16 percent of the world total between 1870 and 1914; its industrial production, from 32 percent to 14 percent. The system nevertheless worked because all the major players accepted rules of the game that kept the world's prices and business fluctuations roughly in step. The point is currently relevant. If the major economic states are in time to create a successor to the Bretton Woods system-as they should-they will have to focus on rules of the game acceptable to all rather than on the instructions of an economic "hegemon" that never existed except for a few post-1945 years.

2. Resources and a balance-of-power policy. Accepting my distinction, Kennedy next argues that even a balance-of-power nation can be "brought down" for lack of adequate "relative national strength." He cites, in particular, France after 1919 and Britain after 1945. The tragedy of interwar France was not that it commanded in 1936-38 only five percent of the world's industrial production rather than Germany's 11 percent. It was that at Versailles the United States refused to give France the security guarantees it demanded as the price for a generous treaty with Germany. Interwar Britain, as well, took its distance from France at critical moments. At that time, Britain, France and the United States commanded 46 percent of the world's industrial production. If they had stood in firm coalition in the 1930s, the Second World War could have been prevented. Similarly, the failure of Britain to seize leadership in the movement toward European unity after 1945 was not the result of its having stepped "out of the first ranks." It failed to lead Europe because British political life was divided on postwar foreign policy; and an even more gravely weakened pre-1958 France took the European lead.

In short, relative economic power is not irrelevant; but countries are "brought down" by ill-advised pursuit of hegemony or by failure to form and sustain adequate anti-hegemonic coalitions-not by the numbers.

3. Can the United States sustain an economic base for a successful long-term balance-of-power policy? I was pleased that Kennedy, in his letter, aligns himself with "right-wing patriots" (and Democratic presidential candidates) in calling for a renewal of the wellsprings of the nation's economic strength. But one doesn't have to go back to the Hapsburgs to perceive that the U.S. fiscal and trade deficits of the 1980s and the Third World debt problem constitute major challenges. Whether or not they and the related Japanese and German surpluses are handled wisely by the world community will evidently have far-reaching strategic consequences. Linked to these concerns is the problem of adjusting to and exploiting productively the massive and pervasive technological revolution now under way. More than any other single factor, it is the challenge of the technological revolution that explains the curious fact that "restructuring" is going on quite self-consciously in every major economy. And, as Mr. Gorbachev insists, the outcome will affect the relative Soviet power position in the world. That is true for every other major nation-state.

As for the American perestroika, one can be as pessimistic or optimistic as one chooses concerning a process still under way. But on the specific points Kennedy cites, the American position is somewhat better than he suggests. Manufacturing, for example, is now leading American growth; and a good many American industries virtually written off a few years back are proving internationally competitive after re-equipment and the emergence of a more rational exchange rate. We did lose a good deal of the standard mass chip market; but demand is shifting to custom chips, where our position and prospects are better. More generally, the country is alive with more than 50 substantial high-technology concentrations, each the product of a partnership among universities, industry, state or local governments, and, often, the unions. We remain a vital continental society with many centers of initiative. As for the "supreme irony" of President Kennedy's quote, the latest World Bank data indicate that in 1985 the United States produced 45.9 percent of the output of the noncommunist industrial world; France, 6.4 percent; Britain, 5.5 percent.

These are among the assets that a strong and purposeful national administration could organize to accelerate revival at home and, in cooperation with others, to rebalance a distorted international economy. As I wrote in my review, there is a place in this process of domestic and international renewal for some redistribution of the burdens of the common defense and assistance to developing nations. But there is every reason to strengthen-not weaken-the structure of our alliances.

Does America command the resources and technological competence to sustain such a policy? Of course it does. Whether it will do so is a matter of nerve, will and leadership.

4. Churchill v. Chamberlain and all that. It is evident that Kennedy is preoccupied with what he regards as the failed wisdom of Chamberlain and the pre-1939 wrongheadedness of Churchill. Since none of us has a monopoly on truth, historical analysis jerkily moves forward on waves of revisionism and counter-revisionism. As one who spent 1936-38 in England, heard William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw") orate fascist doctrine at Carfax and Churchill urge a pact with the U.S.S.R. at the Oxford Union, was harangued by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy at Rhodes House and Nancy Astor at Cliveden on the inevitable destruction of capitalism if we were to fight Hitler, and then discussed these matters in great detail with my contemporaries, I can, perhaps, be excused if I am unimpressed by the new "historiography of the 1930s" as exemplified by A.J.P. Taylor and Paul Kennedy. There is no perspective generated by the recent revisionist literature that was not a familiar part of the intense discussion among students at the time.

I raise the issue not to reargue the past but because I believe the debate is relevant to the choice of policy before the United States. Brought up as our generation was on Journey's End, What Price Glory and other antiwar literature, none of us had any illusions about the probable costs of the war that would follow a confrontation with Hitler. Some were attracted by the time Britain might buy if, in effect, the Continent were turned over to Hitler; others by the dream of a stalemated war between Germany and the U.S.S.R. What tipped the balance for most of my contemporaries were two considerations: the longer-run consequences for Britain of accepting the status of a dependent island off a Hitler-dominated mainland; and, equally, a sense that a Britain that made such a deal would not be worth living in.

Kennedy's counsel that the United States should risk unhinging the delicate balance of its alliances to increase marginally the resources available for the domestic economy also, it seems to me, fails to take into account accelerated nuclear proliferation and other dangerous and expensive longer-run consequences of a dilution or withdrawal of our commitments to others. It also risks demeaning the quality and purposes of our national life.


University of Texas

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