Past Our Prime?


The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy, New York: Random House, 677 pages, $24.95

Paul Kennedy has attempted to answer the question made prominent in Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West: "Does world history," asked Spengler, "present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions?" Both Spengler and Kennedy answer in the affirmative. For Spengler, "culture" is the all-encompassing arena of rise and decline; for Kennedy, it is relative productivity that determines the direction of nations.

Kennedy's is not a crudely reductionist view; he does not say, with Marx, that economics is the Prime Mover of history. At decisive moments Kennedy is at pains to include necessary qualifications to his argument, but essentially The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is among the "in the final analysis" kind of accounts that stress a predominant factor to the practical exclusion of all others.

Economic power, Kennedy argues, is the key to other kinds of power. The rise and decline of world powers, then, is a relative matter. Although the United States, on an absolute scale, is economically and militarily stronger than it was 40 years ago, it is clearly less powerful because of the greater rise in the economic and military capabilities of other nations, such as Japan, the Soviet Union, and (soon) China. The book is peppered with charts and statistics measuring relative productivity throughout modern history, giving the impression that world power is one big zero-sum game.

But this is a cheap shot. Kennedy constructs his case with a narrative account of national economic power and war-making capability beginning in 1500. The rich narrative includes analyses of the rise of credit finance and the implementation of new productive and military technologies. This rapid advancement of what might be called the premodern version of the military-industrial complex was preceded by the emergence of Europe as the dominant region of the world by 1500. This rise to preeminence, Kennedy understands clearly, largely resulted from the establishment of market-based economies: "The political and social consequences of this decentralized, largely unsupervised growth of commerce and merchants and ports and markets were of the greatest significance."

The undoing of most great powers is overextension, or "imperial overstretch," as Kennedy calls it. The United States today is like Edwardian Britain—maintaining substantial global commitments while undergoing relative economic decline: "decision-makers in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them all simultaneously." The world, moreover, is in the midst of a transition from a bipolar system (United States–USSR) to a multipolar system, with as many as five nations, or groups of nations, crowding center stage. This circumstance requires a keener statecraft on the part of world leaders, and our leaders especially must adjust to this trend, though Kennedy does not specify the kind or degree of adjustment needed.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is neither as good as nor as bad as its friends and critics say. One can dispute with devastating effect his interpretation of the facts and statistical measures of relative American decline (see especially Owen Harries's blast in Commentary, May 1988). Or one can equally use the raw facts, which are not new, in support of critical observations that the United States bears the disproportionate cost of Western defense. It is not until one pushes beyond the pigeon-holed arguments about America's place in the world that one sees that Kennedy's book is largely irrelevant to dealing with this fundamental question.

Its chief vice is an abstract detachment from other fundamental factors of world conflict, such as ideology, national and personal ambition, and strategy. If, as the Reagan administration contended upon taking office in 1981, "the Soviet drive for empire is accelerating in momentum and is becoming more and more difficult to contain," then the cost to the United States and its allies can only be expensive or very expensive. To be transfixed by the problem of relative economic decline, which even Kennedy does not argue is irreversible, is to miss more-important factors that might come to bear on the prospects for absolute decline. And if Kennedy is right that defense spending is a drain on the rest of the productive economy, he is silent on the effect of welfare spending, which is immensely larger in every Western nation.

On the crucial strategic question of whether the defense of America begins east of the Rhine River, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers doesn't help us very much. Thoughtful observers on both sides of the question have long known that the United States needs to move beyond a containment strategy. This requires a subtle and sophisticated statecraft, at which the United States is generally very inept. Kennedy's book, which its boosters suggest should be an informing document for the Democrats, provides neither guidance about this process nor, more importantly, any recognition that U.S. policy has already begun to take notice of the economic factors he points out.

Although the United States under Reagan has sought at great expense to develop a "two-war capability" in place of the "1½ war capability"—a recognition that the world struggle has shifted to the peripheries of the Middle East and Asia—it is also true that the United States, however slowly, has been warning the Western allies of exactly the factors Kennedy identifies. This is a definite change from the attitude America took in the 1950s, when U.S. policy, especially in the Suez crisis of 1956, carried the tacit and often explicit message that Europe should cede the world's problems to the U.S. State Department.

With this background, one cannot expect a rapid change in the share of the Western defense burden. Still, U.S. policy succeeded in drawing significant European forces along on the Persian Gulf adventure. But there's a long way to go yet. And if the goal of this policy is to spread the burden around while maintaining American preeminence in the alliance, it is a very tricky task, indeed.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, at once magnificent and exasperating, will in the end prove ephemeral because of its abstract detachment from the fundamental noneconomic factors of international statecraft. A didactic history must offer a more-complete account of causation, and in the field of national ascent and descent it is the prudence of statesmen, more than mere economic calculation, that determines the fate of nations. Beyond this season, readers inquiring after the issue will look past Kennedy to the more enduring, because more encompassing, rise-and-fall classics such as those of Thucydides, Spengler, Montesquieu, and Gibbon.

Steven Hayward, a student of American studies at the Claremont Graduate School, is editor of The Claremont Review of Books.