Decline of a Great Power?





Robert Brent Toplin is Professor of History (Emeritus), University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He has published several books that deal with history, film, international affairs and politics.

Yale historian Paul Kennedy’s 1987 best-seller, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, has been getting renewed attention these days, because the book carries a message of interest to Americans in 2010.  Kennedy demonstrated that many of the great nations of earlier history made expensive military commitments.  Eventually, the cost of defending vast interests weakened their economies.  Kennedy said the United States appeared to be engaging in “overstretch” as well.

Recently, Piers Brendon challenged Kennedy’s interpretation in a New York Times op-ed.  Brendon, a Cambridge University scholar, noted that some of Paul Kennedy’s predictions had not been realized.  Kennedy was wrong, he charged, in assuming that Japan would continue to boom and Russia would remain tied to communism and suffer economically.  These points, however, represented minor exercises in speculation.  Kennedy’s principal thesis in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers about the danger of overreaching is still relevant.

Paul Kennedy tied economics to foreign affairs, showing that discussions of the two ought to be integrated, not separated.  He suggested that leaders who contemplate large-scale military intervention ought to ask:  What will the actions cost?  What can the nation afford?  Could expensive actions create enormous deficits and ultimately weaken rather than strengthen national security?

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was one of the top non-fiction books of 1987 because its interpretation resonated.  Related themes concern Americans today.  In the 1980s, Americans were concerned about the ballooning U.S. defense budget under Ronald Reagan.  Now Americans worry about the cost of extensive military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Kennedy’s arguments excited readers in the Eighties because the U.S. industrial base appeared sluggish at the time but Japanese manufacturing was growing rapidly.  Americans wondered if Japan’s relatively small defense budget aided the nation’s economy.  Presently, the Chinese are in a related position.  China’s manufacturing is booming, and the country’s military expenditures, though growing, appear small in comparison to U.S. spending for defense.

Shortly after the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, public interest in the book faded.  Positive developments made Kennedy’s case seem less compelling.  In 1989, Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, and in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.  The Cold War was over and Americans spoke excitedly about a “peace dividend.”  President Bill Clinton delivered some of that dividend by reducing some items in the U.S. military budget.  In the late 1990s, the stock market surged and the U.S. government had a budget surplus.  With inflated hopes, Americans anticipated national advancement, not decline.

Today the mood is gloomy rather than optimistic.  The American economy has lost traction, and the deficit is spiraling.  America’s military remains deeply engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Against this background, words that Paul Kennedy published in 1987 appear insightful.  Kennedy warned that “decision-makers in Washington must face the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.”

Today’s conversations about overreach usually apply to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his co-author, Linda Bilms, describe those engagements as “The Three Trillion Dollar War.”  Stiglitz and Bilms note U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are projected to cost almost ten times the price of the first Gulf War, a third more than the Vietnam War, and twice the price of America’s participation in the First World War.

News stories about military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan dominate the headlines, but there are other important examples of on-going military obligations that receive less public attention in print and on television.  The United States provides almost half of all global military spending (48%). U.S. troops are presently stationed in more than 150 countries.  About 90,000 U.S. military personnel remain in two peaceful nations that surrendered more than sixty years ago (there are 57,000 U.S. military personnel in Germany and 33,000 in Japan).

Paul Kennedy did not argue that a great nation must pull back completely, retreat from international affairs, or become isolationist when assessing the cost of international commitments.  Nor did he did claim that the decline of a great global power, such as the United States, is inevitable.  He stressed, rather, that national leaders should be aware of the interaction between strategy and economics.  If leaders extend a country’s reach beyond the capacity of its material resources, wrote Kennedy, “the nation will be less secure in the long term.”  That message is as relevant today as it was back in 1987, when many Americans found The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers a thoughtful commentary on the lessons of history.


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