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The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987)

by Paul Kennedy

Other authors: Jean-Paul Tremblay (Maps)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,536174,473 (4.04)40
Examines the relationship of economic to military power as it affects the rise and fall of empires.

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English (15)  Dutch (2)  All languages (17)
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
Worth every page. Sometimes things get clearer when viewed from a distance, exact details of events change and are unpredictable but overall arches even if not exactly following the projected curves are slow to turn. I'm not a great explainer but the author of this book is. ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
One of those magisterial overviews of five centuries of world history. Paul Kennedy does a very good job with a quasi-Marxian approach to this, in that economics do in large part determine the trajectory of nations (e.g., a materialist explanation).

While Kennedy admits that earlier history is not his area of expertise, he does a decent job explaining how the "east" fell behind, given the increasing insularity of Ming China and the internecine struggles in South and East Asia that consumed resources and attention. It's not a wholly convincing explanation but other historians have done a fairly good job examining this; I am reminded mainly of Kenneth Pomeranz's counterfactual essay in Unmaking the West, "Without Coal? Colonies? Calculus?: Counterfactuals and Industrialization in Europe and China."

But to return to Kennedy, he has written a remarkable qualitative history based on ballpark quantitative statistics, which is an approach I can very much get behind. Relative national "incomes" in the seventeenth century, for instance, are exceedingly difficult to find data for, much less calculate. And yet Kennedy manages to paint a convincing picture of ebbs and flows in currencies and commodities, in relative power balances and military expenditures, tracing continuities in national approaches towards almost the present day.

It is here that perhaps reviewers have, with the benefit of hindsight, come to blame Kennedy for his failure of prescience. Indeed, he comes close to an accurate prediction in terms of the overall trajectory of Russia, but in the specifics (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union), he just misses the mark:

On the other hand, the Soviet war machine also has its own weaknesses and problems ... Since the dilemmas which face the strategy-makers of the other large Powers of the globe are also being pointed out in this chapter, it is only proper to draw attention to the great variety of difficulties confronting Russia's military-political leadership - without, however, jumpting to the opposite conclusion that the Soviet Union is therefore unlikely to 'survive' for very long. [Emphasis in original]

Kennedy was writing in 1987, just two years before the overthrow of Communism in much of eastern Europe, and four before the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. But despite failing to predict its collapse, he nevertheless successfully identified a downwards socioeconomic and geopolitical trajectory for Russia that has since been proven accurate. Similarly, Kennedy's prognosis for the United States seems, especially now, to have been borne out, almost frighteningly so:

Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the 'number one' problem in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation's perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it...is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments had been made decades earlier ... In consequence, the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what roughly might be called 'imperial overstretch'.

And though he never quite describes it as a future strategic competitor (and, to be fair, it is only in the past fifteen years that the contours of Sino-American relations have really begun to solidify), it is clear to Kennedy that the eventual rise of China is perpetually lurking in the background. "The most decisive" international fissure of the Cold War, he writes, "was the split between the USSR and Communist China," which served to make even that era less of a totally bipolar system than is typically conceived of. China is one of five extant or emerging power centers he identifies, and sees a gradually strengthening power with some of the highest growth rates on Earth - this towards the tail end of Deng's rule, before it really took off.

And so, what then for the United States? In keeping with his theme of "imperial overstretch," Kennedy points out that the United States in 1987 had "roughly the same massive array of military obligations across the globe as it had a quarter-century [prior], when its shares of world GNP, manufacturing production, military spending, and armed forces personnel were so much larger." All the military services will inevitably demand more resources and cry poverty, yes, but that is because what passes for American "statecraft" in the 21st century manages to avoid any hard decisions, any downscaling of commitments, and any meaningful reassessment of available ways and means - with an eye towards determining commensurate ends.

Here again, Kennedy is prescient: "an American polity which responds to external challenges by increasing defense expenditures and reacts to the budgetary crisis by slashing the existing social expenditures, may run the risk of provoking an eventual political backlash." We've almost certainly watched that unfold in the years since 2001. In keeping with the rest of Rise and Fall, the United States is in fact headed for decline, but in a relative sense, one that is manageable if approached reasonably. This doesn't single out the country; instead it might be seen (and is by Kennedy) as a reversion to the mean:

It may be argued that the geographical extent, population, and resources of the United States suggest that it ought to possess perhaps 16 or 18 percent of the world's wealth and power, but because of historical and technical circumstances favorable to it, that share rose to 40 percent or more by 1945; and what we are witnessing at the moment is the early decades of the ebbing away from that extraordinarily high figure to a more 'natural' share.

Kennedy also offers a warning: "the task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore...is a need to 'manage' affairs to that the relative erosion of the United States' position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage." This is wise counsel for the years ahead, as the unipolar moment continues to rapidly fade. But if this is the predominant challenge to the United States in the 21st century - a superpower in decline - than so far we have surely failed to meet it. ( )
1 vote goliathonline | Jul 7, 2020 |
The internal political system of the United states, or of any other nation for that matter, is of little consequence to Paul Kennedy in his treatment of WWI. The rise and fall of the Great Powers with which he is concerned is based upon the waxing and waning of economic strength, the ultimate measure of which is the ability to fight and win a war. As David Kaiser pointed out in his review of the book, Kennedy is less concerned about why nations go to war than the impact wars have on the constellation of powers which make up the international system. The success of Kennedy's book is testimony to the continued relevance of a traditional approach to international relations.

Few could dispute Kennedy's assertion that in the final analysis, American financial interests made intervention on behalf of the Allies a nearly foregone conclusion. American entry into WWI tipped the overall balance of economic strength heavily in favor of the Allies. He stresses the time lag in American mobilization as a factor in the duration of the conflict, but does not decry America's belated entry or its crusade to flmake the world safe for democracy." Once again, he is interested in mechanics rather than intention.

Unlike Kennan, he deals with WWI in and of itself rather than as a prelude to the rise of totalitarianism. This does not mean that Kennedy's view of WWI is presented without a larger interpretive framework, however. Of all the cases which fit into his scenario of Great Power status being based upon the ability to finance a successful war, WWI certainly provides the least contestable example. The rising Great Powers of Germany and America clashed in this conflict, and America's greater productive capacity,

This book too must be seen within the context of the Co1d War, in Kenndy's case the late Cold War. Kennedy's ultimate conclusion that America in the late 1980s is a Great Power in decline evoked great popular controversy. "Imperial overstretch or the excessive commitment of economic resources to military needs, is the root cause of America's decline according to Kennedy. This message found many adherents at the closing of the Cold War, just as did Kennan's at its outset. One suspects, however, that due to the ponderous statistical baggage of Kennedy's analysis more people actually read Kennan than Kennedy. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is not an easy read.
  mdobe | Jan 13, 2018 |
A tour de force analysis of the last 500 years of power struggles, lessened only slightly by the decision to subtitle the book 1500 to 2000 when it was released in 1989, which meant that predictions made 10 minutes before the landscape changed with the collapse of USSR in 1990 rather spoiled the polish at the end! But great book and wonderfully thought provoking.
Read in Samoa Sept 2002 ( )
1 vote mbmackay | Nov 27, 2015 |
I have been reading this at the same time I have been reading a very critical a book about the CIA ( )
  carterchristian1 | Feb 23, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Paul Kennedyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Tremblay, Jean-PaulMapssecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cellino, AndreaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Migone, Gian GiacomoPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Nell'anno 1500, data scelta da molti studiosi come punto di demarcazione tra le epoche pre-moderna e moderna, gli abitanti dell'Europa non avrebbero mai immaginato che il loro continente fosse destinato a dominare gran parte del mondo restante.
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Examines the relationship of economic to military power as it affects the rise and fall of empires.

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