The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy is a classic history book that provides a fairly simple but very solid thesis on how military power is backed by economic power and how relative economic power will be reflected by political realities even if there is some lag. The book is divided into three sections, Strategy and Economics in the Preindustrial World, Strategy and Economics in the Industrial Era and Strategy and Economics Today and Tomorrow. The book contains many tables and charts showing the relative economic strength of the various powers. These are highly illuminating.

Kennedy starts off by providing an overview of the world around 1500. The rise of the West is examed. The European miracle, that starts around this time is contrasted with the declines of the Ottoman, Mogul and Chinese Empires. Kennedy doesn’t seek to explain why the West took off and the other’s didn’t, but he does put forward the theories of others that Europe’s disunity, climate, coastline and navigable rivers drove the rapid technological and economic progress.

The next chapter of the book is the Habsburg Bid for Mastery, 1519-1659 that describes how the Habsburg dynasty came through marriage and politics to rule Spain and the Empire and then to almost become a truly dominant power in Europe. The Habsburgs bid failed because whilst the riches coming from the new world were great the war effort overwhelmed them and the money was not used to develop the Spanish economy. At this time Britain also become more important and began its strategy of opposing the strongest power on the continent.

The final part of the first section – Finance, Geography and the Winning of Wars, 16601815 outlines how France became the strongest power on the continent and Britain opposed France and how Britain’s use of its navy to enlarge its empire and growing financial technology enabled Britain to fund wars against France that would eventually overwhelm French power.

The second section begins with the chapter “Industrialization and the Shifting Global Balances, 1815-1885”. The book describes how Britain industrialized first and became the most powerful European country but how that rise was soon challenged by Germany which rapidly industrialized in the latter part of C18. The growth of the United States is also described.

The second chapter of the second section describes the period from 1885 to 1918 covering the period when Britain opposed the new strongest power on the continent, Germany. The contribution of the alliances and the requirements of militaries of the time to mobilize at different rates and how this contributed to WWI is outlined. The chapter is also described as the crisis of the middle powers that refers to the time as the start of the decline of Germany, France and Britain and the rise of Russia and the United States.

The final chapter of the second part goes up until 1943. It describes the interwar years, the Versaille settlement and how the US had become the pre-eminent economic power after lending to the Allies and suffering little from WWI. The chapter puts forth the relative strengths of the combatants of WWII and also puts forward reasons why the Germans and Japanese pushed to try and obtain a military advantage before they would be overwhelmed by the USSR and US.

The final section’s first chapter goes over the cold war and the relative strengths of the major players involved. The book looks at economic and then troop strength. Kennedy also describes the rise of China which he puts forward as being a power of the future. Today his prediction has become reality. Kennedy also calmly describes the military options for the US and USSR including nuclear weapons. It is a tribute to the book that the analysis is so sober. Kennedy does show some bias in this section in that he does not even consider that the West may strike at the Warsaw Pact for some reason. All consideration is given to a Soviet strike. It is hard to imagine, however, that Soviet planning did not consider that the West may, at a time of Soviet weakness, attempt to pull Eastern Europe into it’s orbit.

The final chapter looks at the coming 21 century and Kennedy starts to describe the trends that he sees. He describes China’s emergence, Japan’s increase in power and what he believes to be the relative declines of the USSR and the US. His description of the USSR is remarkable. He points to economic weakness, ethnic problems and military overstretch. Kennedy also describes the shortening life span of males in the USSR, a trend that would accelerate once Communism fell. The thing he does not predict or describe is the speed at which the USSR would decline, but few, if anyone, predicted this. He also views Europe to be a strange beast with considerable strengh but lacking central decision making ability and being to diverse to be a power itself, which is how Europe is often described today. His view of the US is that it is declining but is still the strongest power by a long way. He points to deficits as being a weakness that may come to bring decline to the US as it had to powers throughout history. He also describes the difficulty that the US has in the Middle East, in particular he points to the power of the Israeli lobby in making US operations there very difficult. His view of Japan is probably the part of the final chapter that has been most off. He did not pick that Japanese economic power was near the peak and would shortly decline, but again, did anyone else? Perhaps it was forseeable in Japan’s rapidly aging population, but perhaps not.

The book is a brilliant history book and provides a strong description for how power follows wealth. It doesn’t go far into attempting to work out what creates the wealth that drives power. The book view of the future has been shown to be largely correct. The Soviet Union followed it’s relative economic decline with political decline. It would be interesting to see what Kennedy makes now of the rise of India and the rise of other states in the world like Brazil.

The book also has a strong message for politicians today, watch your debt because as your finances go so goes your state.



One response to “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

  1. Sound really interesting, I would love to read it one day (might need another 2 weeks holiday though)

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