The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers – 35 Years Later

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by Tyler Durden
Monday, Dec 26, 2022 - 08:40 PM

Authored by Francis Sempa va,

Thirty-five years ago, Yale historian Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was released to widespread acclaim.

It was (and is) riveting history, explaining the interaction of economics, geopolitics, and social momentum in international relations since the 16th century. One of the main themes of Kennedy’s history was the concept of imperial overstretch – that the relative decline of great powers often resulted from an imbalance between a nation’s resources and commitments. And Kennedy opined that the United States needed to worry about its own imperial overstretch.

Kennedy summarized his historical findings with a passage that has great relevance to 21st century global politics:

[I]t has been a common dilemma facing previous “number one” countries that even as their economic strength is ebbing, the growing foreign challenges to their position have compelled them to allocate more and more of their resources into the military sector, which in turn squeezes our productive investment and, over time, leads to the downward spiral of slower growth, heavier taxes, deepening domestic splits overspending priorities, and a weakening capacity to bear the burdens of defense.

The timing of Kennedy’s book was bad. It appeared in 1987, yet two years later the United States won its long Cold War victory over the Soviet Union.

How could the U.S. be in decline when it just won an historic victory in what President John F. Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle?” But Paul Kennedy’s history was sound. Great power decline, as Kennedy showed in his survey of five centuries of international politics, usually takes a long time – often centuries. And “decline” in international politics is a relative term – a great power declines usually in relation to other powers. Decline does not mean collapse – though that sometimes happened–but it does signal a shift in the global balance of power.

And great power statesmen rarely appreciate that decline. President George H. W. Bush declared a “new world order” after the fall of the Soviet empire. His son, President George W. Bush, after the September 11, 2001, attacks made it U.S. policy to spread democracy throughout the world. He launched the Global War on Terror and the United States fought two long wars that in the end accomplished very little. In the meantime, China was rising economically and militarily, and soon would begin to flex its geopolitical muscles in the western Pacific and across Eurasia.

Kennedy’s book took the long view of history. Unipolar moments–a term coined by Charles Krauthammer–are just that: brief moments in history that do not erase long term trends. It is arguable that America’s decline began when President Woodrow Wilson and congress made the United States a belligerent in the First World War. Wilson and his “progressive” cohorts started the U.S. on the path to globalism, which after a brief interlude in the 1920s, was continued under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration which attracted “progressives” by the thousands to Washington, D.C., and government service. “Progressives” think they can use national power to make the world a perfect place. James Burnham brilliantly captured the progressive approach when he noted that progressives like Eleanor Roosevelt treat the world as their slum.

Our victory in World War II disguised that decline – it was another unipolar moment where the United States’ power appeared unchallenged relative to other great powers. The Truman administration took imperial overstretch to new limits. As Walter Lippmann and later George Kennan pointed out, the Truman Doctrine was a globalist’s delight, and its global reach required the institutionalization of the national security state–what President Eisenhower later called the “military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower knew all about the military-industrial complex – he had been a part of it since the beginning of the Cold War and observed its growth and growing influence during his presidency.

It was Richard Nixon and his top foreign policy aide Henry Kissinger who recognized the existence of long-term relative decline that Paul Kennedy later wrote about in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Nixon and Kissinger understood history and the realities of international politics in Toynbeean terms. That is why they simultaneously pursued the opening to China and detente with the Soviet Union. Eurasia had to remain geopolitically pluralistic for the United States to be secure. Korea and Vietnam were symptoms of decline – wars that perhaps we should not have fought, or that we should not have had to fight, and that we refused to win, but that fed the beast of the military-industrial complex. And the roots of those wars also extended back to the Truman administration’s catastrophic “loss of China.”

Some observers in 1949 – including Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur, and then-congressman Richard Nixon – recognized how disastrous the communist victory in China was to future American security. Taking the long view of history, our “tie” in Korea and loss in Vietnam pale in significance to the loss of China because China’s rise in the 21st century may end up being the proximate cause of America’s relative decline.

Toward the end of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy expressed the then-controversial belief that great power wars were not a thing of the past. “Those who assume that mankind would not be so foolish as to become involved in another ruinously expensive Great Power war perhaps need reminding that that belief was also widely held for much of the nineteenth century.” For three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States thought and acted as if great power wars were behind us. It took the Trump administration’s national security strategists – especially Elbridge Colby – to redirect our national defense strategy toward great power competition. Our sleepwalk through history ended with the simultaneous challenges of China and Russia. Paul Kennedy’s great book deserves to be remembered as a warning that the “end of history” is a dream.