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The Rise and Fall of Great Powers – Paul Kennedy

Posted on: February 12, 2009








The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy, first published in 1987, explores the politics and economics of the Great Powers from 1500 to 1980 and the reason for their decline. It then continues by forecasting the positions of China, Japan, the European Economic Community (EEC), the Soviet Union and the United States through until the end of the 20th century.[1]

Kennedy argues that the strength of a Great Power can only be properly measured relative to other powers and he provides a straightforward and persuasively argued thesis: Great Power ascendency (over the long-term or in specific conflicts) correlates strongly to available resources and economic durability; military “over-stretch” and a concomitant relative decline is the consistent threat facing powers whose ambitions and security requirements are greater than their resource base can provide for (summarized on pages 438-9).

Throughout the book he reiterates his early statement (page 71): “Military and naval endeavors may not always have been the raison d’être of the new nations-states, but it certainly was their most expensive and pressing activity”, and it remains such until the power’s decline.

Early modern era
The book starts at the dividing line between the Renaissance and early modern history-1500 (Chapter 1). It briefly discusses the Ming (page 4) and Muslim Worlds (page 9) of the time and the rise of the western powers relative to them (page 16). The book then proceeds chronologically looking at each of the power shifts over time and the effect on other Great Powers and the “Middle Powers”.

Kennedy uses a number of measures to indicate real, relative and potential strength of nations throughout the book. He changes the metric of power based on the point in time. Chapter 2, “The Habsburg Bid for Mastery, 1519-1659” emphasizes the role of the “manpower revolution” in changing the way Europeans fought wars (see military revolution). This chapter also emphasized the importance of Europe’s political boundaries in shaping a political balance of power.

“The argument in this chapter is not, therefore, that the Habsburgs failed utterly to do what other powers achieved so brilliantly. There are no stunning contrasts in evidence here; success and failure are to be measured by very narrow differences. All states, even the United Provinces, were placed under severe strain by the constant drain of resources for military and naval campaigns… The victory of the anti-Habsburg forces was, then, a marginal and relative one. They had managed, but only just, to maintain the balance between their material base and their military power better than their Habsburg opponents.” (page 72)

European imperialism
The Habsburg failure segues into Chapter 3’s thesis that financial power reigned between 1660 and 1815, using Britain, France, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia to contrast between powers that could finance their wars (Britain and France) and powers that needed financial patronage to mobilize and maintain a major military force on the field. Kennedy presents a table (page 81, Table 2) of “British Wartime Expenditures and Revenue”, between 1688 and 1815 is especially illustrative, showing that Britain was able to maintain loans at around one third of British wartime expenditures throughout that period

Total Wartime Expenditures, 1688-1815: 2,293,483,437 Pounds,
Total Income: 1,622,924,377 Pounds,
Balance Raised by Loans: 670,559,060 Pounds, and
Loans as % of Expenditure: 33.3%
The chapter also argues that British financial strength was the single most decisive factor in its victories over France during the 19th century. This chapter ends on the Napoleonic Wars and the fusion of British financial strength with a newfound industrial strength.

Industrial Revolution
Kennedy’s next two chapters depend greatly upon Barioch’s calculations of industrialization, measuring all nations by an index, where 100 is the British per capita industrialization rate in 1900. The United Kingdom grows from 10 in 1750, to 16 in 1800, 25 in 1830, 64 in 1860, 87 in 1880, and 100 in 1900 (page 149). In contrast, France’s per capita industrialization was 9 in 1750, 9 in 1800, 12 in 1830, 20 in 1860, 28 in 1880, and 39 in 1900. Relative shares of world manufacturing output (also first appearing on page 149) are used to estimate the peaks and troughs of power for major states. China, for example, begins with 32.8% of global manufacturing in 1750 and plummets after the Opium Wars and Taiping Rebellion to 19.7% of global manufacturing in 1860, and 12.5% in 1880 (compared to the UK’s 1.9% in 1750, growing to 19.9% in 1860, and 22.9% in 1880).

20th century
Measures of strength in the 20th century (pages 199-203) use population size, urbanization rates, Barioch’s per capita levels of industrialization, iron and steel production, energy consumption (measured in millions of metric tons of coal equivalent), and total industrial output of the powers (measured vs. Britain’s 1900 figure of 100), to gauge the strength of the various great powers.

He compares the Great Powers at the close of the twentieth century and predicts the decline of the Soviet Union (the book was originally published on the cusp of the Soviet collapse, the suddenness of which Kennedy did not predict), the rise of China and Japan, the struggles and potential for the EEC, and the relative decline of the United States. He highlights the precedence of the “four modernizations” in Deng Xiaoping’s plans for China-agriculture, industry, science and military-deemphasizing military while the United States and the Soviet Union are emphasizing it. He predicts that continued deficit spending, especially on military build-up, will be the single most important reason for decline of any Great Power.

Source: Wikipedia

Photo credit: Flunging picture on flickr and


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