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The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (1987)
Once their productive capacity [is] enhanced, countries...normally
find it easier to sustain the
Looking back it is hard at first to recall why this book stirred so much controversy when it was published. It is Kennedy's unexceptional thesis that Great Powers rise to a point where they are overextended because of their imperial commitments and the expenditures needed to defend them. This diversion of national resources to the military saps the strength of the economy and forces an inevitable decline. When he writes as a historian, tracing the cycles of the rise and fall of Great Powers of the past, he makes an overwhelming case that this is so. But he stumbles badly, and this is where the controversy arose, when he tries to apply his theory to the United States.
Kennedy's problems come from the fact that completely misunderstood American exceptionalism in general and the events of the Reagan years in particular. In the first place, he failed to consider the fact that America has historically been unwilling to intervene in the affairs of other nations unless there is an actual or perceived threat to American life and has been unwilling to maintain even an adequate, never mind an enormous, military in peacetime. Second, he, like many other Liberals, considered America to be at peace during the Cold War and, therefore, the relatively large defense expenditures of the 1980's did appear to fit the pattern of the other Empires. However, all that is required is a simple shift in perspective, an understanding that the Cold War was in fact a war and then the budgetary emphasis on armaments actually appears pretty conservative. For instance, even after fifty years of Cold War the National Debt today is only about 5/7ths of GDP. By comparison, after WWII it stood at 125+%. Thanks to the threat of nuclear war and our willingness to fight through proxy states, we managed to conduct the Cold War on the cheap. And since the Cold War ended we have been disarming ourselves just as fast as humanly, and politically, possible, marking a return to normal American military inadequacy.
This same confusion led Kennedy to misapprehend American commitments abroad. He looked at organizations like NATO and relationships with relatively unstable governments like El Salvador, South Africa, Israel, etc. and perceived eternal entangling alliances like those which dragged Britain into Europe's continental wars. But, in fact, most of these were merely marriages of convenience on our part and with the demise of the Soviet Union it is hard to imagine us honoring most of these commitments. In fact, we were only too happy to disown the whites of South Africa once we no longer had to worry about the Soviets getting control of the regions natural resources. America is returning to it's normal fairly isolationist posture. We remain a great power because of our economic might and our nuclear weapons, but we are in no sense an Empire, nor was there ever any real chance that we would try to become one.
Some of Kennedy's errors may simply have been attributable to innocent misunderstanding of the American system and to the problems inherent in all predictive models of human affairs. However, there is also a strong ideological influence that lead him into error. Kennedy is a declinist; like many on the Left he feels a visceral need to portray the West as past it's day. Younger folk, grown used to the resurgent economic miracle that America has become, may have trouble believing that just twenty years ago there was serious talk about the failure of the American System. In the dark days of the 70s, democracy was thought to be in crisis, a crisis from which it might not be capable of recovering. The high water mark (low water mark?) of this doomsterism probably came with Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech--here was a president of the United States essentially wringing his hands and throwing in the towel in the face of Soviet expansionism, skyrocketing inflation, social unrest, etc.. Given that kind of environment, it is not surprising that Left academics would have rushed to read the West's funeral oration. Coming when it did, their thesis struck a note of not merely decline but of defeatism--as if the West's cause was already lost. Unfortunately for their reputations as prognosticators and impartial historians, and happily for us, this was merely the darkness before the dawn. As Kennedy should have understood, decades of what was basically a continuous war footing had warped the economy, while pusilanimousness in prosecution of the war had allowed the Soviets to gain an illusory upper hand. As soon as Reagan took office and committed the West to actually winning and ending the Cold War, things started moving again and just twenty years later we find the country in the best economic shape that any nation has ever enjoyed.
There is still a baby that we should not throw out with the rest of this bath water; Kennedy's basic thesis is still valuable and provides the basis for a compelling argument that we should not have become involved in the Cold War in the first place. The Soviets would have quickly become overextended trying to administer all of Europe and would have tipped into an even more rapid decline than they eventually sank into. We could have retreated into Fortress America, balanced our budgets and gone along our merry way. For that matter, this is one of the arguments that American isolationists made about WWII and it was equally valid then. But Kennedy's book was not merely intended to be history; it was partially polemical, his purpose to portray an America in decline and to cast doubt upon the Reagan presidency and the renewed commitment to victory in the Cold War. The happy fact that Kennedy's political goals were swamped by events and his warnings sound ludicrous now, should not obscure the important message of the rest of the book. The lesson it teaches is that vast international commitments, and the military expenditures they require, are detrimental to a nation's economic health. The corrective that the Reagan/Bush/Clinton years offer is that it's okay to get drawn into War, provided that you seek to win it and return the nation to it's normal peacetime isolation and military unpreparedness afterwards.
-ESSAY: Old Europe Cannot Be a Counterweight to the American Imperium (Paul Kennedy, Summer 2003, New Perspectives Quarterly)
-ESSAY: The Perils Of Empire: This Looks Like America's Moment. History Should Give Us Pause (Paul Kennedy, April 20, 2003, Washington Post)
Book-related and General Links:
-BIO: Professor Paul Kennedy (Yale)
-BOOKNOTES: Author: Paul Kennedy Title: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (CSPAN)
-ESSAY: Must It Be the Rest Against the West?: Absent major changes in North-South relations, the wretched should inherit the earth by about 2025 (Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, Atlantic Monthly, December 1994)
-REVIEW : of STRANGE VICTORY Hitler's Conquest of France By Ernest R. May Piercing the Fog of War (PAUL KENNEDY, LA Times)
-REVIEW : of Troublemaker : The Liufe and History of A.J. P. Taylor by Kathleen Burk (Paul Kennedy, Atlantic Monthly)
-REVIEW: of Twentieth Century The History of the World, 1901 to 2000. By J. M. Roberts (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE SECOND WORLD WAR By John Keegan (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE RISE OF THE TRADING STATE Commerce and Conquest in the Modern World. By Richard Rosecrance (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of TWENTIETH-CENTURY WARRIORS The Development of the Armed Forces of the Major Military Nations in the Twentieth Century. By Field Marshal Lord Carver (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of BEYOND AMERICAN HEGEMONY The Future of the Western Alliance. By David P. Calleo (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of GEORGE C. MARSHALL Statesman 1945-1959. By Forrest C. Pogue (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1945-1951 Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism. By Wm. Roger Louis (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of PASSAGE EAST Illustrated and written by Ian Marshall (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE HUNDRED DAYS By Patrick O'Brian (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE FATEFUL ALLIANCE France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War. By George F. Kennan (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: In the Shadow of the Great War, NY Review of Books
The First World War by John Keegan
The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson
-REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: Doomsterism, NY Review of Books
The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century by Robert D. Kaplan
-REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: Fin-de-Siècle America, NY Review of Books
The Myth of America's Decline: Leading the World Economy into the 1990s by Henry R. Nau
America's Economic Resurgence: A Bold New Strategy by Richard Rosecrance
Peril and Promise: A Commentary on America by John Chancellor
Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
-REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: Can the US Remain Number One?, NY Review of Books
The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 by Aaron L. Friedberg
The Future of American Strategy by David C. Hendrickson
Thinking About America: The United States in the 1990s
Preventing World War III: A Realistic Grand Strategy by David M. Abshire
-REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: The Reasons Why, NY Review of Books
The Origins of the First World War by James Joll
-REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: Not So Grand Strategy, NY Review of Books
Discriminate Deterrence: Report of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy
-ESSAY: Paul Kennedy: Preparing for the 21st Century: Winners and Losers, NY Review of Books
-ESSAY: Paul Kennedy: The American Prospect, NY Review of Books
-INTERVIEW: CONNECTICUT Q&A: PAUL KENNEDY; 'The Phone Rings All the Time' (DENNIS HEVESI, NY Times)
-PROFILE: TAKING STOCK: IS AMERICA IN DECLINE? (Peter Schmeisser, NY Times)
-ARTICLE: IDEAS & TRENDS; The Ascent of Books on Decline of U.S. (NICHOLAS WADE, NY Times)
-ESSAY: False prophets Professor of the past gets Asia's future wrong (Next City)
-ESSAY: AMERICA RULES: THANK GOD WHO ELSE SHOULD CALL THE SHOTS? CHINA? IRAN? THE RUSSIAN MAFIA? (CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER)
-ESSAY: Bird's Eye: Why China Doesn't Scare Me (Karl Zinsmeister, American Enterprise Institute)
-REVIEW: of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000. By Paul Kennedy (Michael Howard, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: James Joll: The Cost of Bigness, NY Review of Books
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy
-REVIEW: of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS. Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. By Paul Kennedy ( Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of PREPARING FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY By Paul Kennedy (Robert Heilbroner, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Preparing for the 21st Century By Paul Kennedy ( Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW: Alan Ryan: Twenty-first Century Blues, NY Review of Books
Preparing for the Twenty-first Century by Paul Kennedy
-REVIEW: Modern Malthusianism: Book Review of "Preparing for the Twenty-First Century" by Paul Kennedy (Jesse Alan Gordon)
China provides us cheap labor and then buys bonds to help with our very modest debt.
- Jun-24-2004, 20:00
I have to agree with Mijnheer Rijnders as this review needs to be overhauled. What the judds failed to anticipate in their 2000 review was how far away from Bush's campaign promises of "no nation building" (or destroying), "being humble" in foreign relations, and being fiscally conservative ("balanced budget") he would drag the USA in the reality of his rule.
Kenneddy's theories were based not on projections but on historic analyses and it does look with increasingly supportive evidence that hsi analyses were correct.
China, unrestricted in its growth and budgeting heavily on the education of engineers and hi-tech specialties is taking such jobs away by the 1000s from Americans every month. What will be left will be the low-paying, no health insurance service variety which will drive US tax bases down to the bottom end of it's limits and may see the next admin or one thereafter starting public works projects like FDR's New Deal TVA to stem the red ink on the US budget deficit growth.
what comes after that? read Kennedy!
- AE Mohr
- Jun-24-2004, 15:05
Just finished the book. I agree that Kennedy did not completely contemplate what would happen once the U.S. won the cold war and it is a shame that he didn’t wait a few more years to publish the book. However, his general observations on 1) nations' need to balance economic growth with defense spending and recapitalization, and 2) China do have merit. Kennedy stated quite clearly, in the chapter on the 21st century, that it was dangerous for a historian to make predictions, and - as you can see from the article and other comments – he was correct.
- Jan-08-2004, 06:39
Were it not for 9-11, radical Islamicism/pan-Arabism, and the fact that our defense budget in 2001 was half what it had been during the Cold War I'd be inclined to admit you're right. But since those are all facts, I fear you're quite wrong.
- Mar-31-2003, 08:23
Considering the first argument in this review, that Paul Kennedy "failed to consider the fact that America has historically been unwilling to intervene in the affairs of other nations unless there is an actual or perceived threat to American life and has been unwilling to maintain even an adequate, never mind an enormous, military in peacetime", I believe that the Iraqi war has proven wrong this line of thought. I believe Paul Kennedy was more of a visionary than the reviewer could imagine.
- Wim Rijnders
- Mar-31-2003, 07:59