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The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000

By Paul Kennedy

Random House, 1987, 678 pp.

Professor Kennedy, a British scholar translated to New Haven, has written a massive book around a grand theme: the relation between the rise and fall of major powers over the past five centuries and the shifts in their relative economic strength and technological virtuosity. It is both a work of historical analysis, in which the author seeks to discern recurrent patterns upon which to base defensible generalizations, and a policy prescription, notably for the United States. Understandably, it is the latter strand that is receiving current attention; but before examining Kennedy's advice it is worth surveying briefly the other dimensions of his work.

First comes a survey of the world scene circa 1500, with quick portraits of Ming China, the Muslim world including Mogul India, pre-Tokugawa and Tokugawa Japan, pre-Petrine Russia, and Europe before the rise of the modern nation-states. Kennedy then brings to the stage his succession of quasi-Wagnerian melodramas of rise and fall: the Hapsburgs (1519-1659), the Anglo-French struggle in the wake of brief Dutch primacy (1660-1815), post-Napoleonic British primacy (1815-1885) and its erosion (1885-1918), the rise of the United States and the U.S.S.R. at the expense of the middle powers (1919-1942), the bipolar world and the beginning of its erosion (1943-1980). (My own opinion is that the erosion of the bipolar world began as early as 1948, when the U.S. Congress passed the Marshall Plan legislation and Tito successfully broke with Stalin.)

This survey involves the mobilization of a large volume of evidence, much of it not directly related to Kennedy's central theme. Sensing the diffuse character of his exposition, he provides a terse ten-page introduction. There he confronts two of the major unresolved analytic problems that run through his study, and there he fails to confront a third.

First, he asks, how much generalization is justified by this tale of battle and blood and wasted resources? The evidence, he finds, is too conflicting for any tidy laws of history. He limits himself to three unsurprising propositions:

—There is a causal link between economic strength and the power position of states in the international system.

—In the long run, the rise and fall of states reflects their relative economic position in the world economy.

—There is a time lag between the trajectory of a nation's relative economic strength and its relative military-territorial influence.

Second, Kennedy draws back a bit even from this degree of "crude economic determinism." He lists other factors that have affected relative national success and failure in the arena of power: geography, military organization, national morale and alliance systems, among others. These are, however, not pursued systematically in the analyses that follow.

Third is his missing insight: he fails to distinguish sharply those states which pursued policies of regional hegemony from those content with a balance-of-power policy (that is, a policy which aimed to prevent the hegemony of any other power in their region). In the post-1500 era—marked, above all, by the triumph of nationalism—it has made quite a difference whether a power set out to suppress the nationalism of others or rather to help mobilize the nationalism of allies to resist suppression by a third party. It is a distinction worth making.

The central problem of Kennedy's analysis and, later, prescription concerns his treatment of Great Britain in relation to the other cases of rise and decline. There is a subsection in Kennedy's book whose title poses a good question: "Britain as Hegemon?" It evokes Britain at the height of its power, with Europe in reasonable diplomatic equilibrium aided notably by Bismarck's restraint. It was an equilibrium about to break down, but it represented a technique for exercising power in a multipolar arena quite different from that of Britain's predecessors or would-be hegemonic successors in Europe. A balance-of-power state may not be liked, but it is almost certain to find allies when it confronts another power intent on regional hegemony.

The British decline thus differs from the others. Britain's relative role in fending off attempts by a succession of powers to gain hegemony in Europe was, indeed, reduced by the progressive industrialization of other states. But its relative decline as a European and Atlantic power is not the result of pursuing a hegemonic dream in Europe. It did exercise hegemonic powers in the Empire, despite the recognition after the American Revolution that such powers would progressively wane as nationalism gathered strength. While the end of the British imperial dream was psychologically and politically traumatic, it saved money.

Nevertheless, the trauma of imperial decline postponed Britain's recognition that its destiny lay primarily with the European continent. The problem that had to be overcome was captured in Dean Acheson's somewhat cruel analysis and challenge late in 1962; namely, that Great Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role.

The most obvious generalization from Kennedy's saga is political rather than economic: the pursuit of hegemony strengthens nationalist resistance, renders the expansionist effort increasingly costly, and out of its own dynamics may drive a state to extend its exertions to a point where failure is inevitable, as the hegemonic power reaches beyond its relative economic capacity. A state pursuing a balance-of-power policy may find its relative status shifting due to the spread of industrial innovations, but it is not destined to repeat the fate of Hapsburg Spain, Napoleonic France, imperial and Hitlerite Germany, or militarized Japan.

In short, Kennedy's generalizations from the historical record down to 1942 suffer from a confusion of the British case with the others, and a confusion of two quite different links between economic resources and power in the world arena: the progressive economic strains imposed by the pursuit of hegemonic dreams in the face of affronted nationalism; and the progressive dilution of relative economic power as the British demonstration of industrial and commercial takeoff, starting in the 1780s, was followed during the succeeding two centuries by a sequence of takeoffs in continental Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

This distinction becomes central when Kennedy moves beyond 1942. Kennedy's theory takes the form of a double analogy: he treats the post-1945 rise in U.S. power by analogy with hegemonic empires of the past; its decline by analogy with his interpretation of the decline of Britain. Neither analogy, in my view, is applicable.

Now, his stylized portrait. From 1943, he argues, the United States and the Soviet Union interpreted the world in bipolar power and ideological terms and acted accordingly. The two nations are presented as having equally fallen prey to "globalist" thinking. An unnamed "American official" is evoked from a secondary source to explain: "It is now our turn to bat in Asia," in succession to British and Dutch imperialists. American postwar economic policy is presented as an effort to exploit free trade and laissez-faire, at a time of European weakness, to consolidate American postwar economic primacy. This is the not-unfamiliar litany of some on both sides of the Atlantic since the end of the Second World War.

A full response to this caricature is not appropriate here. But it is worth recalling that the political instinct of the United States in 1945-46 was to come home from the world as much as it could and rely to the greatest possible extent on its membership in the United Nations to keep the peace. In the actions taken in Europe the United States was not engaged in an obsessive, bipolar duel for world power with the U.S.S.R. It was acting in continuity with its policy since 1917; namely, that it would move to redress the balance of power in Europe at times of acute crisis when that balance was palpably threatened. And it acted in a particular way.

In 1945-46 the issue debated in the U.S. government was whether to support the unity of Europe at the certain cost of creating a great economic competitor, gambling that the United States would have a strong partner in holding the balance of power. Well before the Marshall Plan offer, the U.S. government had decided on this course, and it has remained American policy in Europe for more than forty years. Washington was the steady friend of Jean Monnet, with his plans and dreams for a strong Europe—not exactly the posture one would expect from a power caught up in a hegemonic seizure.

In Asia, too, if one examines what the United States did, as opposed to the rhetorical sound track, it is clear that since the late nineteenth century the nation acted quite consistently in terms of the balance of power, and has continued to do so during the more than forty years since the end of the Second World War: the defense of South Korea; the U.S.-Japanese Mutual Security Treaty; the Southeast Asia Treaty; the defense for twenty critical years of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; and the reaffirmation by Presidents Carter and Reagan of the Southeast Asia Treaty as it applies to Thailand, despite the tragic outcome of the engagement in Vietnam. There is great continuity in this story.

Just as Professor Kennedy does not capture the balance-of-power roots of American policy, he fails to deal clearly with the U.S. nuclear role. The preservation of a balance of power in Europe and Asia was, of course, complicated and rendered more expensive for the United States by its role of nuclear guarantor for its allies and others opposing Soviet hegemony in both regions. No other nation could or can foreseeably assume that function—and an abandonment of it would plunge the world into a dangerous, unstable phase of nuclear proliferation.

Now Kennedy's prescription: the United States should shift resources from "security" to "investment," sacrificing short-run military security to longer-run economic security. It is here that his analogy shifts from Russia and its predecessor hegemonic powers to his view of post-1945 Britain. There are four observations to be made about this advice.

First, of course, U.S. military outlays should be the minimum compatible with the protection of American vital interests. As a proportion of GNP, U.S. military expenditures have declined from 13.2 percent at the peak of the Korean War, to 8.9 percent at the peak of hostilities in Southeast Asia (1967), to 6.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 1987. This trend decline is no cause for complacency, but it is often forgotten amid rhetorical charges of a spiraling arms race.

Kennedy is quite aware of the trend but argues it does not take into account the relative rise in the economic power of other countries. His view would only be valid, however, if the United States were seeking hegemony over those countries. In fact, the relative rise in economic power has mainly occurred in countries allied to the United States, or where important common balance-of-power interests exist (e.g., India and China).

Second, the prospect is that the proportionate burden of the United States may decline further in the future, as the result of arms control agreements and other arrangements which reduce military burdens for both the United States and the U.S.S.R. The image that emerges from Kennedy's rhetoric and analysis—of an America in the grip of compulsions to pursue a linear expansion in its military outlays until it self-destructs—is justified neither by past trends nor by reasonable expectations for the future.

Third, desirable as it is, a relative reduction in military outlays does not automatically translate into a higher growth rate, nor is a relatively high rate of growth incompatible with a relatively high rate of military expenditures. For example, the burden of U.K. military expenditures declined in the years down to 1978, while the economy continued to deteriorate. Something of the same could be said of the American economy in the 1970s, when military expenditures declined to a trough of just under five percent of GNP in 1979. On the other hand, Taiwan, with 20 percent of U.S. GNP per capita and a proportionate military outlay higher than the United States, enjoys a per capita rate of growth almost four times higher. The situation of South Korea is similar. The capacity to reconcile a high rate of growth with a nation's security requirements is a much more complex affair than Kennedy allows.

Fourth, the challenge confronting the United States as it faces a protracted phase of increasing competition from the emerging powers requires much deeper and more radical change than Kennedy suggests: for example, improvement in the quality of the American educational system; increased cooperation between business and labor as well as bipartisan approaches to balancing the federal budget; intensified ties between the universities and the private sector. Incidentally, despite a high military claim on U.S. research and development resources, the United States seems to be maintaining its position in the generation of new technologies reasonably well. The critical dimension of competition lies in the pace at which entrepreneurs actually bring to bear the new technologies in production, a process not closely related to the military budget.

My conclusions about this book, then, are the following:

—The author's failure to distinguish a balance of power from a hegemonic policy is a fundamental flaw in his analysis and prescription.

—His familiar but still curious view of American diplomatic history conceals the fact that—rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding—the United States has, ever since its alliance with France during the Revolution, pursued a balance-of-power policy.

—Such pursuit has permitted the United States to avoid the vicious circle which engulfed all true hegemonic powers over the past five centuries. I would add that nuclear weapons and a certain historically rooted caution have thus far also saved the Soviet Union from that fate, although its society has been greatly strained by its hegemonic efforts.

—For a balance-of-power country a satisfactory defense and a vital economy are not incompatible if, in David Hume's phrasing, they remain "industrious" at home and conduct a "civilized" alliance policy abroad.

A final word: Kennedy closes with a passage in which he tries to define the narrow margin open to statesmen (and their societies) in dealing with historical forces they can "neither create nor direct": a parable drawn from Bismarck, who once, in a Hegelian mood, set the limit of the possible as steering "with more or less skill and experience" on "the stream of time."

Kennedy seems to have somewhat more central European pessimism in him than the majority of Americans. As I went through the endless tables of relative economic power that characterize the text—some incorporating my own calculations—I thought from time to time he was taking these trends a bit too seriously. This came to me even more strongly while reading in his 1983 work, Strategy and Diplomacy 1870-1945. Its lead essay argues that Britain wisely followed a policy of "appeasement"—of adjustment to the inevitable rise of other powers—as it felt its primacy waning in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; that Neville Chamberlain was on the right track with Germany—but for Hitler's actions, which "discredited" appeasement and gave leverage to the "unholy alliance" of left and right that came to oppose Chamberlain.

In fact, there was more to British policy over the whole period Kennedy analyzes than passive adjustment to economic and military power trends; for example, the alliance with France after 1900 and the beginning of a sense in British policymaking circles that an American alliance might in time be necessary to redress the balance of power in the old world.

But my most fundamental disagreement with Kennedy is his tendency to regard history as linear. He clearly believes, for example, that societies cannot regenerate. He regards calls for regeneration as the province of right-wing patriotic politicians trying fruitlessly to swim against the tides of history.

To Bismarck, I prefer Churchill ("the course of history . . . is always being altered by something or other"). Without a conviction that man has a somewhat larger control over his destiny than Bismarck and Kennedy suggest, Britain's defeat of Napoleon and its remarkable World War II performance would have been impossible—as would the quite unpredicted postwar regeneration of Western Europe and Japan, and a great many other heartening historical events.

There is a special reason that Americans should lean toward the Churchillian view that our margin of control over our destiny is, to a degree, more generous than Kennedy allows. It was expressed in 1961, at a difficult moment in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle. President John Kennedy told me: "The British could have a nervous breakdown in the wake of Suez, the French over Algeria. They each represent six to seven percent of the free world's power—and we could cover for them. But we can't afford a nervous breakdown. We're forty percent, and there's no one to cover for us. We'd better get on with the job." And so we did.

What is the job now? The United States should stick with a new positive version of the balance-of-power policy that we have pursued with some success for more than two centuries. Such a new version lies in the broad direction Western Europe took, at long last, in the wake of the Second World War, after five centuries and more of internecine bloodletting. In order to balance the power of Germany on the one hand, and the United States and the Soviet Union on the other, Western Europe moved toward intensified, institutionalized cooperation, leading ultimately, perhaps, to unity. Great Britain could have and should have led that effort. For explicable although unfortunate reasons it did not, but the fact is that the European Community represents a more civilized version of the balance-of-power policy Britain pursued for centuries at times of power crisis in Europe.

The answer for the United States at this historical interval, when its relative power and influence, while diminished, still transcends by far that of any other power, is, in a sense, to pursue on a wider basis the policy Britain should have pursued toward Europe after 1945; that is, to move forward with others to give institutional substance to the profound common interests that suffuse the Pacific Basin and tame forehandedly the tensions which exist or might emerge; to move similarly in a new spirit of authentic partnership within the western hemisphere; to tighten the ties of partnership within the Atlantic community; and to hold out to the Soviet Union a vision of a soft landing from the cold war.

In more immediate terms there is a case for adjusting carefully and maturely the economic burdens within the alliances across the Atlantic and Pacific, in light of recent shifts in relative economic and technological capacity. There is no case for radical change in the structure or purposes of those alliances, committed as they are to both defense and conciliation, arms and arms control. On the contrary, their steadiness and continuity are fundamental to the possibility of a successful transition from where we are to a liquidation of the cold war. Another blind American retraction, as in 1945-46 and the 1970s, which Paul Kennedy's false analogies tend to encourage, could destroy that possibility.

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