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    Once their productive capacity [is] enhanced, countries...normally find it easier to sustain the
    burdens of paying for large-scale armaments in peacetime and of maintaining and supplying large
    armies and fleets in wartime.  It sounds crudely mercantilistic to express it this way, but wealth is
    usually needed to acquire and protect wealth.  If, however, too large a portion of the state's
    resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes, then that is
    likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term.  In the same way, if a state
    overextends itself strategically--by, say, the conquest of extensive territories or the waging of costly
    wars--it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the
    great expense of it all--a dilemma which becomes acute if the nation concerned has entered a period
    of relative economic decline.
           -Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

Looking back it is hard at first to recall why this book stirred so much controversy when it was published.  It is Kennedy's unexceptional thesis that Great Powers rise to a point where they are overextended because of their imperial commitments and the expenditures needed to defend them.  This diversion of national resources to the military saps the strength of the economy and forces an inevitable decline.  When he writes as a historian, tracing the cycles of the rise and fall of Great Powers of the past, he makes an overwhelming case that this is so.  But he stumbles badly, and this is where the controversy arose, when he tries to apply his theory to the United States.

Kennedy's problems come from the fact that completely misunderstood American exceptionalism in general and the events of the Reagan years in particular.  In the first place, he failed to consider the fact that America has historically been unwilling to intervene in the affairs of other nations unless there is an actual or perceived threat to American life and has been unwilling to maintain even an adequate, never mind an enormous, military in peacetime.  Second, he, like many other Liberals, considered America to be at peace during the Cold War and, therefore, the relatively large defense expenditures of the 1980's did appear to fit the pattern of the other Empires.  However, all that is required is a simple shift in perspective, an understanding that the Cold War was in fact a war and then the budgetary emphasis on armaments actually appears pretty conservative.  For instance, even after fifty years of Cold War the National Debt today is only about 5/7ths of GDP.  By comparison, after WWII it stood at 125+%.  Thanks to the threat of nuclear war and our willingness to fight through proxy states, we managed to conduct the Cold War on the cheap.  And since the Cold War ended we have been disarming ourselves just as fast as humanly, and politically, possible, marking a return to normal American military inadequacy.

This same confusion led Kennedy to misapprehend American commitments abroad.  He looked at organizations like NATO and relationships with relatively unstable governments like El Salvador, South Africa, Israel, etc. and perceived eternal entangling alliances like those which dragged Britain into Europe's continental wars.  But, in fact, most of these were merely marriages of convenience on our part and with the demise of the Soviet Union it is hard to imagine us honoring most of these commitments.  In fact, we were only too happy to disown the whites of South Africa once we no longer had to worry about the Soviets getting control of the regions natural resources.  America is returning to it's normal fairly isolationist posture.  We remain a great power because of our economic might and our nuclear weapons, but we are in no sense an Empire, nor was there ever any real chance that we would try to become one.

Some of Kennedy's errors may simply have been attributable to innocent misunderstanding of the American system and to the problems inherent in all predictive models of human affairs.  However, there is also a strong ideological influence that lead him into error.  Kennedy is a declinist; like many on the Left he feels a visceral need to portray the West as past it's day.  Younger folk, grown used to the resurgent economic miracle that America has become, may have trouble believing that just twenty years ago there was serious talk about the failure of the American System.  In the dark days of the 70s, democracy was thought to be in crisis, a crisis from which it might not be capable of recovering.  The high water mark (low water mark?) of this doomsterism probably came with Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech--here was a president of the United States essentially wringing his hands and throwing in the towel in the face of Soviet expansionism, skyrocketing inflation, social unrest, etc..  Given that kind of environment, it is not surprising that Left academics would have rushed to read the West's funeral oration.  Coming when it did, their thesis struck a note of not merely decline but of defeatism--as if the West's cause was already lost.  Unfortunately for their reputations as prognosticators and impartial historians, and happily for us, this was merely the darkness before the dawn.  As Kennedy should have understood, decades of what was basically a continuous war footing had warped the economy, while pusilanimousness in prosecution of the war had allowed the Soviets to gain an illusory upper hand.  As soon as Reagan took office and committed the West to actually winning and ending the Cold War, things started moving again and just twenty years later we find the country in the best economic shape that any nation has ever enjoyed.

There is still a baby that we should not throw out with the rest of this bath water; Kennedy's basic thesis is still valuable and provides the basis for a compelling argument that we should not have become involved in the Cold War in the first place.  The Soviets would have quickly become overextended trying to administer all of Europe and would have tipped into an even more rapid decline than they eventually sank into.  We could have retreated into Fortress America, balanced our budgets and gone along our merry way.  For that matter, this is one of the arguments that American isolationists made about WWII and it was equally valid then.  But Kennedy's book was not merely intended to be history; it was partially polemical, his purpose to portray an America in decline and to cast doubt upon the Reagan presidency and the renewed commitment to victory in the Cold War.  The happy fact that Kennedy's political goals were swamped by events and his warnings sound ludicrous now, should not obscure the important message of the rest of the book.  The lesson it teaches is that vast international commitments, and the military expenditures they require, are detrimental to a nation's economic health.  The corrective that the Reagan/Bush/Clinton years offer is that it's okay to get drawn into War, provided that you seek to win it and return the nation to it's normal peacetime isolation and military unpreparedness afterwards.


Grade: (C+)


Paul Kennedy Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Paul Kennedy
-ESSAY: Old Europe Cannot Be a Counterweight to the American Imperium (Paul Kennedy, Summer 2003, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: The Perils Of Empire: This Looks Like America's Moment. History Should Give Us Pause (Paul Kennedy, April 20, 2003, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II By Paul Kennedy (Casey Chalk, University Bookman)


-BIO: Professor Paul Kennedy (Yale)
    -BOOKNOTES: Author: Paul Kennedy Title: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (CSPAN)
    -ESSAY:  Must It Be the Rest Against the West?: Absent major changes in North-South relations,  the wretched should inherit the earth by about 2025 (Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, Atlantic Monthly, December 1994)
    -REVIEW : of STRANGE VICTORY Hitler's Conquest of France By Ernest R. May  Piercing the Fog of War (PAUL KENNEDY, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Troublemaker : The Liufe and History of A.J. P. Taylor by Kathleen Burk (Paul Kennedy, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Twentieth Century The History of the World, 1901 to 2000. By J. M. Roberts (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE SECOND WORLD WAR By John Keegan (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE RISE OF THE TRADING STATE Commerce and Conquest in the Modern World. By Richard Rosecrance  (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of TWENTIETH-CENTURY WARRIORS The Development of the Armed Forces of the Major Military Nations in the Twentieth Century. By Field Marshal Lord Carver  (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  BEYOND AMERICAN HEGEMONY The Future of the Western Alliance. By David P. Calleo (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of GEORGE C. MARSHALL Statesman 1945-1959. By Forrest C. Pogue (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1945-1951 Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism. By Wm. Roger Louis (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PASSAGE EAST Illustrated and written by Ian Marshall (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE HUNDRED DAYS By Patrick O'Brian (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE FATEFUL ALLIANCE France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War. By George F. Kennan (Paul Kennedy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW:  Paul Kennedy: In the Shadow of the Great War, NY Review of Books
       The First World War by John Keegan
       The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson
    -REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: Doomsterism, NY Review of Books
       The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century by Robert D. Kaplan
    -REVIEW:  Paul Kennedy: Fin-de-Siècle America, NY Review of Books
       The Myth of America's Decline: Leading the World Economy into the 1990s by Henry R. Nau
       America's Economic Resurgence: A Bold New Strategy by Richard Rosecrance
       Peril and Promise: A Commentary on America by John Chancellor
       Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
    -REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: Can the US Remain Number One?, NY Review of Books
       The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 by Aaron L. Friedberg
       The Future of American Strategy by David C. Hendrickson
       Thinking About America: The United States in the 1990s
       Preventing World War III: A Realistic Grand Strategy by David M. Abshire
    -REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: The Reasons Why, NY Review of Books
       The Origins of the First World War by James Joll
    -REVIEW: Paul Kennedy: Not So Grand Strategy, NY Review of Books
       Discriminate Deterrence: Report of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy
    -ESSAY:  Paul Kennedy: Preparing for the 21st Century: Winners and Losers, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY:  Paul Kennedy: The American Prospect, NY Review of Books
    -ARTICLE: IDEAS & TRENDS; The Ascent of Books on Decline of U.S. (NICHOLAS WADE, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: False prophets Professor of the past gets Asia's future wrong (Next City)
    -ESSAY: Bird's Eye:  Why China Doesn't Scare Me  (Karl Zinsmeister, American Enterprise Institute)
    -REVIEW: of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS: Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000. By Paul Kennedy (Michael Howard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: James Joll: The Cost of Bigness, NY Review of Books
       The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy
    -REVIEW: of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS. Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. By Paul Kennedy ( Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of PREPARING FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY By Paul Kennedy (Robert Heilbroner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Preparing for the 21st Century By Paul Kennedy  ( Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Alan Ryan: Twenty-first Century Blues, NY Review of Books
       Preparing for the Twenty-first Century by Paul Kennedy
    -REVIEW: Modern Malthusianism:  Book Review of "Preparing for the Twenty-First Century"   by Paul Kennedy (Jesse Alan Gordon)

Book-related and General Links:


    -ESSAY: WHO RULES NEXT?: Where America stands among world empires (Brad Knickerbocker, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -ESSAY: What to Do With American Primacy  (Richard N. Haass,  Foreign Affairs, September/October 1999)
    -REVIEW: of BOUND TO LEAD The Changing Nature of American Power. By Joseph S. Nye Jr (Michael Beschloss, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: BARBARIAN SENTIMENTS How the American Century Ends. By William Pfaff (Alan Tonelson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Idea of Decline in Western History By Arthur Herman (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Fareed Zakaria, From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role (Anders Stephanson, Boundary)
    -REVIEW: of AMERICA'S ECONOMIC RESURGENCE A Bold New Strategy. By Richard Rosecrance (Robert Kuttner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE COMING AMERICAN RENAISSANCE How to Benefit From America's Economic Resurgence By Michael Moynihan ( Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Benjamin M. Friedman: The Power of the Electronic Herd, NY Review of Books
       The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas L. Friedman
    -REVIEW: Nicholas Lemann: Mysteries of the Middle Class, NY Review of Books
       Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream by Katherine S. Newman
       Silent Depression: The Fate of the American Dream by Wallace G. Peterson
       The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz
       The Good Society by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton
       Rising in the West: The True Story of an 'Okie' Family from the Great Depression Through the Reagan Years by Dan Morgan
    -REVIEW:  Robert M. Solow: Blame the Foreigner, NY Review of Books
       The Endangered American Dream: How to Stop the United States from Becoming a Third World Country and How to Win the Geo-Economic Struggle for Industrial Supremacy by Edward N. Luttwak
    -REVIEW: James Fallows: The Romance with Mexico, NY Review of Books
       The New North American Order: A Win-Win Strategy for US-Mexico Trade by Clyde V. Prestowitz, Jr., Robert B. Cohen, with Peter A. Morici, and Alan Tonelson
       The Low-Wage Challenge to Global Growth: The Labor Cost-Productivity Imbalance in Newly Industrialized Countries by
       Walter Russell Mead
       US Jobs and the Mexico Trade Proposal by Jeff Faux and William Spriggs
       Fast Track, Fast Shuffle by Jeff Faux and Richard Rothstein
       The End of Laissez-Faire: National Purpose and the Global Economy after the Cold War by Robert Kuttner
    -REVIEW: Noel Annan: Can Conservatism Work?, NY Review of Books (1983)
       The Squandered Peace: The World, 1945-1975 by John Vaizey
       Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties by Paul Johnson
       The British Political Tradition, Vol. I: The Rise of Collectivism by W.H. Greenleaf
       The British Political Tradition, Vol. II: The Ideological Heritage by W.H. Greenleaf
    -REVIEW: Garry Wills: A Reader's Guide to the Century, NY Review of Books
       The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm
       Modern Times, Modern Places by Peter Conrad
       A History of the World in the Twentieth Century by J.A.S. Grenville
       The Century by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster
       The American Century by Harold Evans, with Gail Buckland, and Kevin Baker
       The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century edited by Michael Howard
       The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century edited by Richard W. Bulliet
       Why the American Century? by Olivier Zunz
       The Twentieth Century: A World History by Clive Ponting
       Our Times: The Illustrated History of the 20th Century edited by Lorraine Glennon
       Chronicle of the 20th Century edited by Clifton Daniel, John W. Kirshon
        National Geographic Eyewitness to the 20th Century by National Geographic Society
    -ESSAY: World State Formation: Historical Processes and Emergent Necessity  (Christopher Chase-Dunn, The Johns Hopkins University)
    -ESSAY: Do We Consume Too Much?:   Discussions of the future of the planet are dominated by those who believe that an expanding world economy will use up natural resources and those who see no reasons, environmental or otherwise, to limit economic growth. Neither side has it right (Mark Sagoff, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Guess who hates America? Conservatives.  Fall Guys (LAWRENCE F. KAPLAN, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Do Conservatives Really Hate America? The New Republic's diagnosis of the foreign-policy elite (Mike Potemra, National Review)
    -INTERNET MODERN HISTORY SOURCEBOOK: America as World Leader: Internal Change
    -LINKS: Archives on America & Decline
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Saint of Sea Power (Matt Gobush, March 13, 2023, Providence)
    -ESSAY: The Evolution of Empire (JOHN ANDREWS, 6/21/24, Project Syndicate)