Courtesy Reuters

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.

Kennedy approaches the Malthusian question with the distinctive insight of a historian who sees both what is similar and what is different about Malthus' time and ours. Both Malthus and Kennedy point to a population explosion at the end of their respective centuries. In itself, this might suggest that population explosions are a rather familiar, and therefore not very frightening, problem, one that is likely to be overcome again with technological progress. But while Malthus was eventually proven wrong, it took the monumental changes of the nineteenth century--such as massive emigration from Europe, the great increase in agricultural productivity, and above all the Industrial Revolution--to refute him. This time, Kennedy observes, the technological progress is occurring in a different place--the rich nations--than

where the population growth is occurring--the poor ones. This trend puts the poor nations at a double disadvantage, and the energetic youth of the Third World have already begun crowding the shores of the First World, with its aging populace.

Population growth without industrial growth will result in even more immigrants surging into the rich countries, reproducing within the nations of the North the division between the old rich and the young poor. Unlike the great nineteenth-century migrations, which were largely into new lands rather than old societies, today's immigration into settled societies is likely to be much more disruptive. Indeed, Kennedy's analysis becomes even more pointed if we consider some examples from a century ago that he does not mention. In the few cases where immigrants did flow into old and settled countries, the eventual political reaction was dramatic and draconian, as when Slavic and Jewish immigration into Austria-Hungary and Germany produced widespread racism and paranoia among the German and Magyar populations. It is not an exaggeration to say that what Fritz Stern has called "the politics of cultural despair" that engulfed Europe in the early twentieth century was largely rooted in a sense of demographic despair.

By introducing divisions within states and removing resources from their control, the transnational changes that Kennedy outlines make nation states far less effective than before in meeting new challenges or even in performing old tasks. The conventional view is that the erosion of nation states is giving rise to powerful international regimes, which will outperform states. Kennedy, however, appears to see the nation state, with all its flaws and weaknesses, as the only effective state that we have. (One might say that the nation state is the worst form of government--except for all the others.)

It is at this point that Japan assumes a central role in the Kennedy drama. Although it will obviously be affected by transnational forces along with everyone else, it has the capacity to be less negatively affected and even to achieve certain benefits. With the most homogenous population and the most restrictive immigration laws of any major nation, Japan is better able to insulate itself from the migration spillover of the population explosion. With its educated populace, high savings rate and the largest robotics industry in the world, it is also able to support its aging population with the automated production of robots rather than the labor of young immigrants.

Kennedy's account of Japan is mirrored in his inventory of the United States. The United States is often the polar opposite of Japan in crucial respects. With the most heterogeneous population and the most liberal immigration laws of any major nation, the United States is likely to receive the full force of immigration flows. With its low savings rate and its large pool of unskilled labor, it has abandoned what little robotics industry it ever had. With its increasingly unskilled and uneducated population, it is not able to meet the demands of high-technology and high value-added industries for productive workers.

While Japan might be considered the most "perfect" example of a classical nation state, the United States is in many ways no longer a real nation state but rather is becoming a sort of multicultural regime. In regard to the capacity to bring forth political leaders, however, Kennedy believes that Japan and the United States have something in common: he is skeptical about the leadership potential of both.

What If He's Wrong?

Almost a century ago in 1904, another British scholar, Halford Mackinder, published his famous and pessimistic lecture, "The Geographical Pivot of History," which could well have been entitled "Preparing for the Twentieth Century." Mackinder argued that the sweeping international trends of his day--the great expansion of quick and cheap means of land transportation and the increasing importance of large landmasses inhabited by large populations--meant that the era of naval power had come to an end, to be succeeded by the era of land power. The result would be the decline of Britain as a world power and the rise of the greatest power on the Eurasian landmass--either Germany or Russia--to be the dominant power of the world.

Like Malthus before him, Mackinder was of course eventually proven wrong; neither Germany nor Russia became the world's dominant power. But in another sense, Mackinder was right. It took the monumental events of the twentieth century--the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War--to refute him. Each of these three wars was fought to prevent Mackinder's prediction from becoming true, and it took 75 years, 45 million lives and trillions of dollars to do so.

Kennedy's predictions about the forthcoming century could come to share the fate of Malthus's and Mackinder's about their respective centuries. He may be wrong that the great transnational trends of our day will bring about a decline in the power of almost every nation state and in the quality of life of almost every human being. But to prove him wrong may require great conflicts and great catastrophes that are as unanticipated and unimaginable now as were the conflicts and catastrophes of the twentieth century to Mackinder and his contemporaries.

The three world wars of this century were fought the way they were because nations--especially Britain and the United States--and their political leaders actively, even heroically, resisted seemingly inexorable international trends. At certain points, the conjunction of political will and material resources enabled the United States to reverse or rather, transcend these trends.

The United States turned out to be capable of combining the strengths of both the naval and the land epochs. With its strategic location between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and with its landmass and population on a continental scale, the United States achieved a versatility and flexibility in world politics that Mackinder could not anticipate. It was its political leadership, however, that enabled the United States to combine the best of both epochs (as it did in two world wars), rather than falling between them (as in the isolationism of the interwar period).

In addition, the American invention of the airplane (as it happened, only two months before Mackinder gave his lecture proclaiming the superiority of land power) and later the American development of the nuclear bomb made it possible for the greatest land power, Russia, to be deterred and contained by the greatest air power-another outcome that Mackinder could not foresee. Again, however, it was political leadership, as well as a good deal of unpredictable luck, that enabled the United States and the world to traverse the unknown and dangerous territory of the nuclear age.

In the 21st century similar conflicts may come about because nation states and their political leaders will resist the great transnational trends. Some such possibilities have already been suggested. A century ago a period of labor mobility and massive immigration was succeeded by a period of labor immobility, exclusionary laws and ethnic hostilities. Even the United States imposed sharp restrictions on immigration for almost half a century, from the early 1920s to 1965. There is every likelihood that in the next few years the European and East Asian nations will reimpose new restrictions on immigrants from outside their own regions and cultures. The means may be formal and legal (as in Japan today and Germany soon), or they may be disorganized and violent (as in Germany in the last two years), or they may be organized and murderous (as in Germany, Austria and Hungary in the first half of the twentieth century). Which path is taken will, in large measure, depend upon the capacities and choices of political leadership.

Changes in the transnational flow of migration could affect the transnational flow of finance. In the past, the closing down of the free movement of labor often correlated with the closing down of the free movement of capital. Periods of capital mobility and massive international investment have been succeeded by periods of capital immobility and restrictive national regulations. The increasing economic interdependence of the European Community could be contained, or even reversed, over the next few years by political imperatives to reimpose control over national economies.

Even the problem of poor countries having insufficient means to purchase the products of rich ones, which Kennedy sees as a new problem, is actually an old and familiar one. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the rich countries of the day--the United States, Britain and France--dealt with this problem with narrow self-interest and limited imagination. The result was a catastrophe, the Great Depression. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the richest country of the day--the United States--dealt with the same problem with enlightened self-interest and creative imagination, and the result was a half-century of prosperity, at least for the industrial nations of the North. Perhaps in the future there can be an analogous act of political imagination, a grand bargain between the rich nations and the poor ones, which would use the technology of the rich to bring about both the upgrading of the education and skills of the poor and the implementation of the environmental standards of the rich.

It was out of the great catastrophes of the twentieth century that the great political leaders of our times came forth. Some of these leaders (Lenin, Stalin and Hitler) brought about even greater catastrophes. Some of them (Roosevelt and Churchill most obviously, but also Truman, Marshall and Eisenhower), however, brought about solutions of a sort. The relationship between great catastrophes and great leaders has been true of every century, and it will be true of the 21st century as well.

The best way--for both a nation and a person--to prepare for the 21st century will be what has always been the best way to prepare for uncertainty. That is to rely not so much upon the outer supports of plans, programs and policies but upon the inner strengths of character--resiliency and resourcefulness, discipline and cooperation, endurance and courage, and, perhaps above all, faith and hope.

When one thinks of the United States today, these are not the qualities that first come to mind; indeed, the very idea of character hardly comes to mind at all. These were, however, the qualities that other nations often ascribed to Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it was these qualities--often embodied in the great American political leaders--that made a good part of that century into the "American Century." When Americans try to prepare themselves for the next century, they can perhaps best do so by recovering those qualities of character that prepared them so well for this one.