Courtesy Reuters

Beware of Historians Bearing False Analogies

In This Review

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. $24.95
Purchase

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

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