The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers Paperback – 1989
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'A brilliantly original book...It is intended for the intelligent layman as well as the academic historian, combining in Toynbee-esque manner the sweeping conception with careful attention to historical detail.' Financial Times 'This book is falling out of briefcases all over Washington DC, both because it looks and sounds erudite and because it purports to answer an increasingly common question: Has the United States already embarked on its journey into the sunset of empire? It is administering a lot of frissons to trend-watchers.' Christopher Hitchens, Guardian 'Outstanding...He ranges across five centuries and around the whole world. He seems to have read every relevant book in every possible language. And he has produced a general argument so deceptively simple that no politician, however busy, should ignore or misunderstand it.' Observer 'One of the masterpieces of modern historical writing.' Daily Telegraph 'A masterpiece of exposition. It is erudite and elegantly written.' New Society 'A remarkable book...long, clever, often funny, and crammed with remarkable insights; it is tinged with the genius that unravels complexity.' Evening Standard 'Shows a master historian's ability to use evidence like a boxing champion's uppercut.' TES 'One of those rare (and irresistible) books which successfully combine the scope and sweep of "popular" history with the discriminating rigour of professional historiography, making it both a bloody good read and a thought-provoking one.' Listener --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
Paul Kennedy studied at the universities of Newcastle and Oxford and is now professor of history at Yale. His other books include 'The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery' and 'Preparing for the Twenty-first Century'. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
The "overstretch" thesis is even less apposite in the context of the United States. First, the U.S. is not an "empire" as Kennedy defines it; second, U.S. military obligations have not risen in proportion to its GDP since the height of the Vietnam War (and a minor uptick in the mid-1980s); and third, Kennedy fails to explain a logical link between military expenditures and economic decline. He does attempt to explain the link in purely economic terms, i.e., the massive amounts spent to sustain a military force--but does not explain how military spending, which has declined relative to GDP in the U.S., is somehow different than social welfare spending, which has taken an increasingly large share of the U.S.' GDP.
What appears to suffer most from "overstretch" is Kennedy's thesis itself.