The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy


The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was highly influential when it came out and continues to make an interesting read, though it has rather swiftly slippd from being an interesting look at the contemporary situation to an interesting look at how the world looked in the Eighties.  Having read it not long after it came out, I can remember the way it seemed to have some kind of great predictive power.  This was enhanced when the Soviet Union collapsed – an event that was foreseen by almost nobody, including Paul Kennedy, but he somehow seemed to have the best explanation. 

But lets look at the book itself before we look at its impact.  Like a lot of complicated things, you can summarise it in a few words and totally fail to get it across.  It is an account of the leading world powers and their interactions from 1500 onwards.  At the start of that period China is the most powerful single state in the world, and the Ottoman Empire is not too far behind it.  We look at how states develop their productive capacities to gain an edge on their rivals, and how they fight one another for influence and advantage.  It is quite a story.  Kennedy is British but doesn’t give Britain any more prominence than it is due.  But the story of this insignificant island’s rise from obscurity to an empire that spanned the world and back again is as good an example as any.

Britain’s success was founded on strong economic developments and in particular a technological revolution that gave it the wherewithall to project its power globally.  In this it was barely ahead of France, if at all, for most of the period covered. Its advantages were relative and not all that great.  France had more land, manpower and natural resources.  But it also had more borders that needed to be defended.  Although the French managed to devote quite a lot of resources to sea power, they never quite managed to establish a large lead over Britain in naval power. And come the Napoleonic period, they lost their naval strength completely for a while.

Britain was able to establish a worldwide empire basically by default.  France could well have overtaken it at any time. In one telling point, Kennedy points out that defence expenditure in Britain in the late Nineteenth Century was massively greater than it had been in the first half both relatively and in absolute terms.  But despite this the late Victorians did not by any means feel more secure.  Rising powers like Germany, and as is often forgotten Russia, now posed a real and new threat.  There was also the rise to power of the United States, a country that it had been possible to ignore earlier.  The economy of the United States overtook that of Britain in size in the 1870s.  This was soon to become a signficant factor in world politics.

And on top of America, Britain had also to cope with the rising power of Russia.  Russia had always been a factor in European politics.  One of Catherine the Great’s Ministers had boasted that nobody in Europe could fire a canon without the permission of Russia.  This was an exaggeration, but Russia’s size and above its manpower meant it was a major regional power.   As Russian industrialised its potential power began to grow and could not be ignored, posing a threat to the British Empire in India.  Having a worldwide empire is dandy, just so long as you are the only power with a big fleet.  Once others get onto the ocean you suddenly have a lot of vulnerable outposts.

The events of the second world war, startling and interesting as they are, in some ways have blinded us all to how inevitable the outcome really was.  Europe no longer had a monopoly of power and would have to accomodate the rise of Russia and the US in some way or other.  Of course the way that played out didn’t inevitably have to include the complete flattening of the European continent, but the fact that it did was helpful in making the alteration in the balance of power rather obvious.

But as this book makes clear, nothing ever stays the same and balances of power don’t last long.  The Soviet Union emerged from the Second World War in a strong position on the chess board, but its actual pieces were not all that strong.  And it faced a rival with a much stronger productive base.  It was only able to keep up with it by devoting a large and growing proportion of its economy to defence spending.  Communism did not prove to be competitive enough with capitalism to keep the struggle up indefinitely, but no system of government could have saved the Soviet Union in the long run.

The book was published in 1987 and boldly made some predictions about the future.  The outlook for the Soviet Union was bleak.  The prospects for China and Japan were much better.  The United States was in no position to rest on its laurels.  It might overpower the Soviet Union, but that struggle would inevitably weaken its own industrial base and prevent it from becoming an overwhelming superpower able to bestride the world like a colossus.

I think this was the first of what has become almost a sub-genre of literature dealing with the collapse of the American empire.  The inevitably of its demise is almost taken for granted and only how long it will take and just how horrific the form it will take are debated.  Needless to say the most avid consumers of these stories are Americans themselves, many of whom seem to take an almost perverse pleasure in discovering just how bleak their future is.

How do the specific predictions made in this book look from 25 years on?  Well the Soviet Union has done its bit to fit in by dying off.   Japan has failed to live up to its potential – it turned out that the US had some tricks up its sleeve that Kennedy hadn’t anticipated.  China had already started its rise before the Rise of the Great Powers came out, and has continued to grow ever since.  Meanwhile the biggest discrepancy between what Kennedy thought would happen and what actually has happened is the state of America.  It has, as predicted, built up a huge military machine.   But no other power has had the ability, nor apparently the inclination to take them on.  So far from declining, the US is indeed supreme.  Is this a further example of imperial overstretch comparable to that of the British Empire that the US has so closely replaced?  (A lot of US naval bases around the world are exactly the same as the British ones used to be.  Some are even leased from Britain.)

Well not really.  The US military expenditure is a little large for the economy supporting it, and there are some moves to make some economies.  But it is hardly about to collapse.  It is likely to continue at near its present level for the foreseeable future.  It is funded to a large extent by deficits in the government budget to be sure.  But this seems to be a matter of preference rather than necessity.  The Americans could if they chose clear their deficits relatively quickly if they really wanted to or needed to.  But when they are the supreme power on the planet, it really is up to them.

This book has dated a lot more quickly than many history books, but this is because the author was bold enough to do what historians so rarely do and place his cards on the table with some firm predictions.  That those predictions have not worked out exactly is not to my mind any reason to criticise.  The thinking behind those predictions is still valid and still illuminates a lot about history and about the present.  I think it will continue to be read for some time to come and will continue to be worth reading.



Filed under Big History

2 Responses to The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy

  1. You've got me really interested in this book, which I've never heard of before. A great review/analysis!

  2. Thanks, it is good to know you found it interesting.

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