on 10 November 2001
I read this book several years ago but I often think about it and try to remember Paul Kennedy's thesis when discussing contemporary issues. It seems to me to be particularly relevant post-September 11th and I would be fascinated to know Professor Kennedy's views on the impact of this event - is it significant in the fall of the USA as a Great Power?
Although it's a big, thick academic book and I read it on holiday when I had plenty of time, I remember finding it extremely interesting and very accessible for a layperson.
The author analyses the historical, economic and political, reasons for the rise of the European Great Powers - France, Spain, Great Britain and lastly the USA with a glimpse towards the future - China. If I remember correctly, Great Powers rise when they have very little military spending and can concentrate on wealth creation and fall when they have to spend a large part of their income defending their empires.
I highly recommend it (and was browsing Amazon because I want to buy another copy and read it again!)
History is a wonderful study, a professor of mine once commented, of the interlocking circles of influence, whereby one can find often that an obscure arranged marriage in the Dark Ages could be responsible for a thermonuclear exchange or a hostile corporate takeover today.
Of course, he was exaggerating, but only by a matter of degrees. History is the study of the interconnexions of human beings in their actions over time, and to that end, the more we understand of the past, the better chance we have of surviving and flourishing into the future.
Paul Kennedy's book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is an insightful, sweeping examination of the centuries of the growth and dominance and, lately, relative decline of the European powers over the rest of the globe. To a lesser extent (because they were lesser players) he draws in Asian, and finally, American players, although as will be seen, they began to play the game according to the European rules.
He pays particular attention to the economic and military aspects of the motivations of national and ethnic decision-making; so often history (or at least popular history) has portrayed such as purely political, religious (at least until the last few centuries), or royal-family intrigues. Kennedy explores the forgotten aspects in a popular format; hence the question (as the Gulf War is almost universally recognised as, in reality, a war of economic necessity rather than for political or moral purpose, which tended to be added later)--were the Hapsburgs responsible? Rather, that is a way of asking, are the same motivations that were at play with Great Power relationships in 1500 still at play today? Have we learned anything?
At the beginning of 1500, it was by no means certain that Europe would become the dominant region of powers in the world. China was in decline but still perhaps the greatest power. Empires in India, Japan, and around Muscovy were also contenders. To their detriment, however, each of these powers tended to be isolated and introspective, more concerned with internal consistency and preservation of 'a way of life', whereas the smaller European powers had to compete with each other, and adapt and improve to survive. 'This dynamic of technological change and military competitiveness drove Europe forward in its usual jostling, pluralistic way.'
Occasionally, Europe tended toward the Asian models, particularly with the dominance of the Hapsburgs who, at their height, controlled much of Europe and began to insist on the same kinds of religious, historical, mercantile and cultural conformity that cost the other empires their vitality.
Great power struggles that occurred between 1660 and 1815 are difficult to characterise briefly, but chiefly is marked by the emergence of a cluster of powerful states which came to dominate diplomacy and militarily. After the Napoleonic era, there was a lull in Great Power warfare, until this century, when even the flank powers of Britain and Russia were a bit too central to the conflicts to survive with both military and economic strength intact.
'Given this book's concern with the interaction between strategy and economics, it seemed appropriate to offer a final (if necessarily speculative) chapter to explore the present disjuncture between the military balances and the productive balances among the Great Powers; and to point to the problems and opportunities facing today's five large politico-economic power centres...as they grapple with the age-old task of relating national means to national ends. The history of the rise and fall of the Great Powers has in no way come to a full stop.'
These Kennedy identifies as The United States, Japan, the EEC, the Russian States, and China. Of course, this has the possibility of shifting, too, as countries such as India and Brazil acquire more military and economic strength; countries such as Indonesia that are resource- and population-rich could also achieve Great Power status before long (historically speaking).
Kennedy pays homage to the Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke, who wrote about die grossen Mächte in 1833, following since the fall of Spain. von Ranke also produces speculative chapters; perhaps it is natural for historians to want to chart the course of the future as well as mapping out the past.
This book reads like an epic, but is generally accessible (though somewhat intricate) and gives interesting insights, and is significant for what is does not address (many political scientists and historians will find some major theories ignored) as well as for the fresh approaches it does employ. Best read with other history books.
on 4 July 2002
This book is a brilliant example of economic history. Written in Paul Kennedy's usual crystal-clear and riveting style, the Rise & Fall provides a comprehensive view of how political and economic might are connected. The book is also an illustration of the process of challenge and response described by Toynbee in relation to the life and death of civilizations. It is definitely an absolute must to anyone who whishes to understand some of the great laws of human evolution, what Spengler called the morphology of history.
on 14 July 2004
In this book, published in 1987, Kennedy's aim is to explain us the relationship among different forms of power: economic, political and military power. According to him, the economic power is the source of the other two.
Kennedy warns, however, that the relationship among them is quite fragile and never easy. For example, if a country spends too much money in order to increase his its military power (renforcing its political power), it will surely undermine its economic power (the original source of the other two).
In his opinion, the great powers are those states who can reach the best balance of military and economic strength, and he also thinks that as soon as they lose that ability they lose their place to another great power.
Kennedy shows us how this relationship has worked throughout time, and how much it has influenced on the balance of power between countries. He specifically studies the period from 1500 to the mid - 1980's, and even though he might concentrate too much on Europe (as he warns beforehand), he gets his point across quite well.
Some of Kennedy's predictions weren't accurate: he predicted the fall of USA as a great power, and believed that Japan would take its place. What is more, he wasn't able to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, a few years after his book was published.
However, his ideas and his theory are quite good, and still valid, as is his warning regarding the danger of "Imperial overestretch" to the great powers (specifically USA).
I recommend this book to those who want to understand what is happening today. Even if it is somehow dated, many of its premises are still valid, and the historical perspective is almost flawless.
on 20 October 2001
This is a really terrific book. The ambition level in writing a book of truly global history covering five hundred years is of course towering - and the reader is not disappointed. I would compare it to AJP Taylor's "Struggle for Mastery in Europe" in scope and quality of writing. What makes this book special - and play in the AJP Taylor Zone - is the ability to overlay facts with historical perspective, resulting in a number of really interesting facts. For example, why Europe's belligerance was both its rise and also, its downfall - how the great wars of european combinations were a theme from 1500 all the way through to 1939, and not just a late nineteen/twentieth century phenomena, and consequently, why Europe was doomed: almost like war kept catching fire, and then exhausting itself, like a bomb is used to extinguish oil rig fires. Similiarly, how Islam arrived in the Northern Indian Subcontinent, and the Balkans. Why the Spanish nation declined. The impact of the industrial revolution. Many of these topics are areas we were taught at school, but sometimes have not necessarily taken with the appropriate judgement - for example, when AJP Taylor says Britain and France's imperialism were a sign of its weakness, not its strength - by preying on non-european states. Read it, you will find it of huge educational value, and it fills in a lot of gaps in understanding. My only caution is that whilst its perspective is global, ultimately, it is the story of the great powers and therefore, is focussed largely on the first and second worlds.
on 12 February 2013
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1989) is a tome of a book. In this incredible informative and influential book that must have firmly cemented the reputation of Kennedy and put him on par with the other geopolitical celebrities Huntington & Fukuyama, Kennedy is mainly addressing the relation between economics and the military. The book perfectly demonstrates how these are influencing each other constantly. Although the books is narrating the time between 1500 - 2000, the closer we get to our own age, the more detailed it gets. I think Kennedy meant to focus primarily on superpowers, and these only came into existence after roughly the year 1500. This doesn't mean that before also empires fell due to similar reasons, such as the Athenian Empire when they invaded Sicily and the Roman Empire or the Crusading States who were constantly focusing on expansion, rather than consolidating. As such it is in this book where he introduced and worked out the now popular term `Imperial Overstretch', with which he means on one hand that the fall of an empire is usually caused by too much military costs, so suppose a colony gets conquered, but it doesn't bring up the expenses it took to conquer it and on the other hand, that countries or empires can cause their own downfall by investing bigger and bigger sums of money into the army, while ignoring all others. One could argue that this is pretty much the philosophy behind the arms race between the US and Soviet Union, and that by attrition the US finally won the Cold War. However, looking to modern day US history one could argue that the US fell into that same trap with the 9/11 Wars. I particularly liked the parts about WW1 & WW2. In both occasions Kennedy is showing the strengths and weaknesses of all major players and what they need to win this war. This was especially useful in gaining a better understanding of the complex relation that existed between all the participating states that eventually fought WW1.
on 5 January 2004
As the relative strengths of leading nations in world affairs never remains constant, there is an optimum balance between wealth creation and military strength over the long term. Time and again the leading power believed that it could neglect wealth production in favor of military adventures but others waiting in the wings closed the gap, the relative strength was eroded and a long, slow decline of the once-leading power followed. The rise of Europe was not obvious in 1500 considering Ming China, the Ottoman Empire, the Mogul Empire, Muscovy and Tokugawa Japan which were well organized, had centralized authority and insisted on uniformity of practice and belief. European knowledge of the Orient was fragmentary and often erroneous, although the image of fabulous wealth, and vast armies was reasonably accurate. Constantinople fell in 1453 and the Ottoman Turks were pressing towards Budapest and Vienna. Compared with the world of Islam, Europe was behind culturally, technologically and militarily. Few at that point would have predicted that Europe would soon be at the top of the pack.
Warlike rivalries between European states stimulated advances, economic growth and military effectiveness. The Habsburg bid for power was ultimately unsuccessful because other European states worked together, the Habsburgs overextended in repeated conflicts during which they became militarily top heavy upon a weakening economic base. The other European states managed a better balance between wealth creation and military power. The power struggles between 1600 and 1815 were more complicated as Spain and the Netherlands declined while France, Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia rose to dominate diplomacy, and warfare. Britain gained an advantage by creating an advanced banking and credit system and, together with Russia had the capacity to intervene while being geographically sheltered from the center of conflict. Britain also started the industrial revolution before the others, providing a great wealth creation advantage. For a century after 1815 no single nation was able to make a bid for domination, allowing Britain to rise to its zenith in naval, colonial and commercial terms based on its virtual monopoly of steam-driven industrial production. Industrialization spread in the second half of the 19th century tilting the balance of power but also introduced more complicated and expensive weaponry that transformed the nature of war and made the world less stable and more complex. The European Great Powers declined while the US and Russia moved to the forefront. Germany was the only European country to stay with the future world powers; Japan was intent only on domination in East Asia and Britain, with its declining relative position, found it more difficult to defend its global interests. World War I was an exhausting struggle that left Europe and Russia weakened, Japan better off and the US indisputably the strongest power in the world. However, US and Russian isolationism allowed France and Britain to remain center-stage diplomatically - a position they did not justify in power terms - but by the 1930s Italy, Japan and Germany became challengers while Russia was becoming an industrial superpower. World War II eclipsed France, irretrievably weakened Britain, brought defeat to the Axis nations and left a bipolar world with military and economic resources roughly in balance.
Most of the book is devoted to tracing these events but the really interesting part of the book lies in the last two chapters where nuclear weapons, long-distance delivery systems and the arms race between the US and Russia changed the strategic and diplomatic landscape. But the global productive balances changed faster than ever before with the EU now the world's largest trading unit, China leaping forward, and Japan experiencing phenomenal economic growth. The US and Russian growth rates have been sluggish and their share of global production and wealth have shrunk dramatically since 1960. In economic terms we are in a multipolar world once again with five large power centers - China, Japan, the EU, the Soviet Union and the US - grappling with the age-old task of relating national means to national ends. Although the US appears to be supreme, the history of the rise and fall of great powers has in no way come to a full stop. Great powers in relative decline instinctively respond by spending more on security and thereby divert potential investment resources, compounding their long-term dilemma. Human kind makes its own history but within certain natural laws which become clear as the reader travels through this absorbing narrative.
In Chapter 8 Kennedy says: "What follows is speculation rather than history, therefore it is based upon the plausible assumption that these broad trends of the past five centuries are likely to continue." But certain trends are firmly in place. In 1951 Japan's GNP was 1/3 of Britain and 1/20 of the US; three decades later it was three times Britain and half the US. Japan has grown to be the world's biggest creditor nation while the US has changed from being the world's biggest creditor nation to the world's biggest debtor nation. This book was written before the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism so the projection is outdated. Nevertheless the grand sweep of history presented lends support to Kupchan's argument in 'The End of the American Era' that the defining element of the global system is the distribution of power, not democracy, culture, globalization, or anything else. Add to that more recent projects that by 2020 China will be the largest world economy and that seven of the ten biggest economies will lie in Asia and the picture of the future becomes clearer. If you have the gut feeling that the US has over extended itself militarily compared to its economic base and its position in relation to its competitors, this book will make clear your worst fears.
on 5 January 2016
As a student of international relations, this book gave me an excellent understanding of the great power struggles over the last 500 years and therefore if you want a historic backdrop to present great power rivalries and a greater appreciation as why powers rise and fall then this book is an absolute must. Although heavy on detail, particularly economic data the author expertly navigates through all the high and low points of the great powers and offers lucid explanations as to their ascendancy or decline. Kennedy argues very convincingly of the correlation between a state's economic strength and its great power status, but warns that if a state expands too much then its military commitments can become too burdensome which invariably leads to a weakening of its economic power, which in turn leads to growing vulnerability to rival powers. Its a pity the book was published in 1990 and therefore predates the collapse of the Soviet Union and the growing rise of China and the relative decline of the USA, however after reading a brilliant analysis of the rise and fall of the great powers since the 16th Century, one has a clearer understanding of both contemporary great power rivalries and those likely to shape the future. Although Kennedy does not make any predictions it is clear from his analysis and his emphasis on hard economic and military power that if the US is to maintain its dominant position and not be usurped by rising powers like China it needs to be careful not to follow the mistakes of previous great powers and overstretch or engage in costly wars.
on 6 March 2012
This was to be a reply to Mr. A. Burkhardt, but it grew to at least five times the size of his pithy review, and turned to the questions of whether Kennedy's book has been proven right (I think it has) and whether it gets to the heart of what's happening in the world today as various forces contend for economic, political, and military hegemony (I think not). So while it still mainly addresses Mr. Burkhardt's points, it's probably more appropriate as a consideration of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers itself.
The best arguments against your thoughtful review were written long ago by Occam and Johnson. The simplest explanations are generally true, and most learning consists in being reminded of what we already know.
As I read the book I kept thinking, I know all this stuff. (I might never have bothered turning the second or third page if it wasn't for a job.) But then I found that the book had taken what I more or less knew and made it vividly real in my mind, especially that first chapter reviewing the relative power of Europe, China, India, etc., circa 1500. I don't recall if this idea was written or just inspired by Kennedy, but I was especially intrigued by the notion that Europe emerged supreme not in spite of but because of the furious conflicts and fierce competition between its own component parts - a paradox that can show up in all kinds of situations. And my kneejerk jingoistic (American) reaction to the rise of India, China, etc., was tempered by seeing this as a return to the natural order of things so well described in that chapter (and in place for about 2000 years before 1500AD).
Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States" is another book whose basic message is so obvious, and explained so lucidly, that it seems almost a waste of time for anyone who knows anything about the world - until it gets under your skin and starts working its way through your brain. Both books remind us that what seems to be a permanent arrangement (of nations and continents in Kennedy's book, races, genders and classes in Zinn's) can be overthrown only rarely and with great difficulty by conscious effort of the upstarts/underdogs, but is easily and quickly lost by overdogs trying too hard to defend their place at the top.
Perhaps the economic costs of maintaining empires are accompanied by an equally fatal loss of moral authority and self-respect as the top dogs' strategies and tactics become ever more ruthless; shame corrodes power even more efficiently than budget deficits. But it's only when they come together (as in the USSR in the 1980s) that you get the negative synergy of material and moral factors that almost guarantees the immanent end of the old regime.
Circa 1970-75, America's behind-the-scenes rulers (the Rockefellers and their extended family of Kissingers, Bzerzinskis, etc.) recognised the danger signs and acted fast to remedy the situation - befriending China, dumping Nixon, accepting defeat in Indochina, arranging energy crises to bring the Arabs into their moneychanging operations, and pulling all the big decision-makers in the media, labor unions, universities, etc. into their policy-making clubs (Trilateral Commission, CFR, etc.) It worked; by 1980 the children of the bourgeoisie were becoming yuppies instead of revolutionaries, Latin American death squads were wiping out troublemakers, Vietnam and Cambodia China and Russia were warring among themselves (and the Reds would spend the next ten years defending and losing their recent acquisitions in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, before finally losing even the Kremlin itself). Like America, Rome and Britain had some shaky moments during their long supremacy. Was it Trajan who realised it was time to stop expanding the Empire?- no, Hadrian I think, the wall-building guy, Trajan's boytoy and successor. Smart fellow, Hadrian. The Roman Empire lasted another 300 years or so, more like 1400 if you count Byzantium.
Free will can't ultimately overcome fate, but it can postpone the end for decades or even centuries if the overdogs stay very alert, clever and decisive - and above all, if they know when and where to back down and back off.
Perhaps the messy conclusion of America's Indochina War effort will one day be recognised as a sign of strength, not weakness - not a refutation but a confirmation of Kennedy's thesis! After all, pulling out was the only way to call a halt to an economically unsustainable and morally indefensible example of imperial over-reach. Then barely a year later the Bicentennial festivities of 1976, and the election of Jimmy Carter (a Rockefeller lapdog at the time, as were both the other major candidates, Gerald Ford and John Anderson), made it possible for America to think of itself as a land of innocence and hope again. And when the history of the (Rockefeller-engineered) Watergate saga was enshrined in myth by the movie "All The President's Men", the Vietnam War wasn't even mentioned; the sins had been purged and forgiven, and the country reunited, without acknowledging the indelible shame that had divided the country in the first place. Saigon may be called Ho Chi Minh City today - but it's a beehive of sweatshops slaving away for international capitalism. With defeats like that, who needs victories? Seen from a 2012 perspective, America's failure in Vietnam (including its failure to use the nuclear weapons that could have overcome North Vietnamese resistance instantly) proves that Kennedy's theory of history (which of course he hadn't written yet - as you point out, it's just common sense) can be applied successfully in practice. When the top dogs understood they were getting locked into over-reach mode, they did what was necessary to pull back and make a fresh start.
And that's probably why I now now see "Diplomacy" by Henry A. Kissinger in the little row of book covers underneath the box I'm writing this in. Kissinger was a Rockefeller protege as a Harvard wunderkind in the 1950s, when he set forth the theory of a "low-intensity" Vietnam war in a Rockefeller-sponsored booklet, twenty years before he was entrusted with negotiating an end to the high-intensity monster he had created. When the sins of the Watergate period were being exposed, Kissinger's personal involvement in the worst offences on the home front (breaking into Ellsberg's shrink's office for instance) was actually greater than Nixon's. But while Nixon was scapegoated down to a grotesque, pathetic, and rather disgusting devil in the official history of 20th Century America, elder statesman Kissinger pontificates to us from the loftiest perch ever occupied by an intellectual in America. He earned this place through his brilliant contributions to the art of empire-management and over-reach limitation, as a leading member of the Rockefeller cabal that generally supervised the CIA and ran the State Department, as well as advising presidents and convincing the opinion-makers in the media to toe their line. No doubt Kissinger could have easily written "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" in the 1950s if he'd wanted to (perhaps not as readably), but he was more interested in applying the theory than propagating it. His purposes would not have been served by going public.
Kennedy's book left the bestseller lists after 34 weeks in the fall of 1988, and by 1989 his message had seemingly been superseded by events. But while the triumphalist screeds of the 1990s (the End of History, the New American Century, and such) are nostalgic momentos of a bygone era, Kennedy's basic idea seems more timely than ever. But perhaps it's not. It obviously describes the dilemma of Obama's America, and the rising and falling of other nations as well (it's irrelevant whether Kennedy's crystal ball was clear enough to tell us which particular nations will emerge or fade away as long as the basic idea is working well). But what Kennedy's thesis misses entirely is the rise of a transnational financial elite that can operate through rootless corporate structures - now with private mercenary armies free to go anywhere and do anything, from assassinating labour organisers to abducting and torturing innocent by-standers for information. Nothing could be farther from the new elite agenda than building up or defending any particular nation-state. Indeed, systematically dismantling all nation-states seems to be a top priority. They are not interested in governments backed by empowered and loyal citizens, kept healthy, happy and smart through well-built and well-run public sector institutions. They are interested in the masses' loyalty to global brand names, and in the masses' spending money they don't have; beyond that it doesn't much matter if they live or die. Politics and governments and nations still matter only when they get in the way. The only issue is how soon and how thoroughly this new elite can infiltrate and dissolve and absorb the still-nationalist and still-autonomous elites of Asia and Latin America. The global reach of Monsanto's agricultural juggernaut, the awesome power of credit ratings, the growing dependence on private military forces are just three factors suggesting the assault is well advanced if not yet quite consolidated. In this new world, how nations compete with other nations for hegemony matters less than whether any nations, or all nations, will deal with the actual global hegemony of forces that may soon transcend and dominate any and all nations, if they don't already.
The Iraq War currently seems like the archetype of overdogs' self-defeating over-reach but its costs and consequences are probably dwarfed by the over-reaching private sector. Behold the way global financial institutions demand neoliberal policies all across the third world, and now in Europe too, trying to control everything, privatise everything, and squeeze every last dollar out of the poorest lands on earth - as if grinding other's faces in the mud guaranteed a stable and long-lasting economic order over which the global elite can reign supreme forever. Perhaps it can, being free from the geographic and demographic limits on national governments. Time will tell.
on 17 May 2014
In my opinion this is one of those books that needs to be on every shelf of anyone that says they like History. It's so easy to read, enjoyable and more importantly it's analysis is so convincing. First class.