10, 1988, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 1,
Column 3; Book Review Desk
By MICHAEL HOWARD;
Michael Howard is the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University
LEAD: THE RISE AND
FALL OF THE GREAT POWERS
The idea that we can learn from history is one professional historians usually abjure. They leave it to politicians to pluck apparent analogies - Munich, Sarajevo - from the past, and consider it a point of honor to demonstrate how inappropriate they are. They let political scientists discern and explain regularities and patterns in the past, and hold happily aloof from the methodological controversies that invariably ensue. They distance themselves from the exceptional prophets, like Arnold Toynbee, who emerge from their own ranks. They prefer to emphasize the uniqueness of past events, the different value systems of past societies, the need to purge oneself from contemporary preoccupations before studying the past, and they claim no more than that history can give us a sense of balance and perspective, making us, in Jacob Burckhardt's words, ''not clever for next time, but wise forever.''
Paul Kennedy of Yale University has broken ranks with his colleagues. In a work of almost Toynbeean sweep he describes a pattern of past development that is not only directly relevant to our times but is clearly intended to be read by policy makers, particularly American policy makers. ''The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers'' is, as Mr. Kennedy states, a book that can be read on at least two levels. On the one hand it presents a clearly defined and closely reasoned thesis explaining the subject matter of the title - why nations rise and fall, and why the process is still continuing. On the other, in order to provide the data for his thesis, Mr. Kennedy gives a clearly written and fairly uncontentious history of the rise and fall of Europe and its empires and the confrontation between the superpowers which had followed. He unashamedly endorses the view of the German historian Leopold von Ranke that history is fundamentally about high politics, and that politicians will be better at their jobs if they understand the historical processes of which they form part.
He expands his thesis in the introduction and epilogue. It can be easily summarized: The more states increase their power, the larger the proportion of their resources they devote to maintaining it. If too large a proportion of national resources is diverted to military purposes, this in the long run leads to a weakening of power. The capacity to sustain a conflict with a comparable state or coalition of states ultimately depends on economic strength; but states apparently at the zenith of their political power are usually already in a condition of comparative economic decline, and the United States is no exception to this rule. Power can be maintained only by a prudent balance between the creation of wealth and military expenditure, and great powers in decline almost always hasten their demise by shifting expenditure from the former to the latter. Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain did exactly that. Now it is the turn of the Soviet Union and the United States.
THE over-extension of American commitments and the baroque gigantism of the American defense budget have been a matter of such general concern over the last few years that Mr. Kennedy may be accused of the fault against which historians warn their pupils: seeing the past through the perspective of the present. It is none the less true that contemporary concerns often alert us to aspects of the past that previous historians have overlooked; and indeed it is this very accumulation of perspectives that keeps the past continuously alive. In the hands of a political pamphleteer seeking evidence to prove a case such an approach is a corruption of history, but when a scholar as careful and learned as Mr. Kennedy is prompted by contemporary issues to re-examine the great processes of the past, the result can only be an enhancement of our historical understanding and a fresh enlightenment of the problems of our own time. Further, when the study is written as simply and attractively as this work is, its publication may have a great and beneficent impact. It is to be hoped that Mr. Kennedy's will have one, at a potentially decisive moment in America's history.
Mr. Kennedy clearly sets out his pattern of over-extension and decline. At the beginning of the 16th century, Spain, the first European great power, inherited vast commitments in Europe and overseas. In spite of the excellence of Spain's armed forces, defending those commitments involved expenditure on a scale that could not be met from Spain's own mismanaged resources (like the American people today, the Spanish possessing classes refused to tax themselves to pay for their empire) and had to be met by an ultimately lethal mixture of deficit budgeting and inflation. Spain's preponderance lasted as long as it did only because her principal adversary, France, mismanaged her resources even more badly. By the end of the 17th century, however, France had developed a system of bureaucratic and military management that enabled her to exploit her economic resources to such military effect that it required a coalition of all other European powers to prevent her establishing a permanant hegemony over the continent.
Then France in her turn became overextended, her economy unable to support increasingly expensive regular armed forces, until her participation in the American Revolutionary War created the bankruptcy that led to the French Revolution. French wars in the 25 years following that were simply huge plundering expeditions that had to pay for themselves.
France's major adversary was England, and England's strength lay not in her military but in her economic capabilities. A virtuous circle was built up throughout the 18th century; a powerful trading system engendered the credit necessary to pay for a navy that protected and extended that trading system and destroyed those of adversaries. Simultaneously England was able to build up the capital to finance the pioneering in industrial technology that was to give her a lead over her nearest rivals lasting more than half a century. It was this process, combined with skillful political management, that enabled Great Britain to emerge from the Napoleonic Wars as by far the most powerful country in the world - despite her minimal military contribution to the wars, at least to those on land.
But by the end of the 19th century Britain had lost her economic lead, saw herself increasingly threatened, and was having to devote increasing resources to the navy on which her ascendancy rested. These resources were drawn largely from the pockets of those, especially the landed classes, who were best able to afford it; but when British ascendancy was tested by the rising power of Germany in a prolonged war, it could be maintained only by a huge increase in both internal and external indebtedness and by the liquidation of substantial overseas assets. Only the support of the United States made possible the allied victory in World War I. Once that support was withdrawn, Britain found that she could not possibly pay for the control and protection of her extended imperial possessions. The decision taken in 1939 to increase defense expenditure to a size commensurate with her political responsibilities bankrupted her within 18 months.
Britain's ascendancy had in fact been maintained not only by her economic power but by the political skill with which her elites had maintained domestic consensus at home and found necessary allies abroad. Mr. Kennedy's stress on political skill is important, since it keeps his thesis from being crudely determinist. It was the absence of shrewd political leadership that was so fatal to post-Bismarckian Germany. Bismarck and his contemporaries created a political structure that ena-bled the Germans economically and politically to dominate the continent. But it was a structure that from the outset failed to create consensus at home, and in the hands of Bismarck's maladroit successors it was perceived as a threat by all Germany's neighbors. An economic determinist writing in 1890 might have predicted that, given Germany's economic strength, her hegemony of Europe was inevitable and that she would emerge in the 20th century as a world power on the level of the United States.
That she failed to achieve this manifest destiny but instead led the continent into two utterly destructive wars, can be attributed only to appalling political mismanagement. Germany's combination of economic strength and military effectiveness would have been enough, in World War I, to defeat her European adversaries, had she not deliberately provoked the hostility of the United States, a power against whose economic strength she had no hope of prevailing in a long struggle. Defeat in World War I still left Germany the strongest economic power on the European continent. But her crash rearmament program in the 1930's equipped her only for a series of ad hoc campaigns for which, like Napoleon before her, she made her defeated enemies pay. Not until 1942 did she begin seriously to mobilize her economic resources, and by then it was too late; she was now faced by two adversaries, the Soviet Union and the United States, whose strength far outclassed her own. There was nothing foreordained about the failure of Germany's bid for world power; her leaders simply failed to play the excellent cards history placed in her hands. That, also, provides a lesson for the present.
The United States emerged as supreme from the two world wars as Britain had from the Napoleonic wars, her economy stimulated rather than debilitated by the conflict. That supremacy, like Britain's before, was temporary and relative, created by the eclipse of old competitors and the only gradual emergence of new ones. But while that supremacy lasted, the United States assumed a range of global commitments about which, in Mr. Kennedy's words, ''Louis XIV or Palmerston would have felt a little nervous.''
BY now, European, Soviet and Japanese recovery, together with the slower emergence of the People's Republic of China, has gradually reduced American ascendancy to that of primus inter pares at best; and, like other great powers in the past, in order to preserve her hegemonial status the United States has felt it necessary to allocate an increasing share of her resources to defense expenditure. Now she finds herself in the position of Spain and France before her. Unwilling to defray the costs of empire by an equitable system of domestic taxation, she has tried to pay for it by a combination of deficit financing and external indebtedness which in her case threatens the stability of the whole free-market system. And as was the case with Hapsburg Spain, she preserves her ascendancy only because the condition of her major adversary is even worse.
Unlike Toynbee or Spengler, Mr. Kennedy does not conclude that the West is doomed to cyclical decay. Indeed at one level his whole work is a paean for the free-market competitive system which produced not only the armaments but the enterprise that the United States inherited in such abundant measure from a Europe that had used it to overwhelm more sluggish empires and conquer the world. What the United States needs, he concludes, is the wisdom to recognize its problem, the will to come to terms with it, and the kind of political skills that in the past have enabled lesser powers to maximize their advantages and minimize their defects.
He is not, it must be said, optimistic about the capacity of the American political system over the long term to engender such virtues in its leaders. The thought indeed obtrudes itself, in the aftermath of the Washington summit, that if the Soviet leadership were to prove better able to develop such qualities and operate more skillfully in an increasingly multipolar world, the outlook for the United States would be bleak. No amount of defense expenditure could then save it from the consequences of that unhappy isolation into which so many great powers have found themselves driven in the past and from which they have emerged, chastened and defeated, as second- or third-rank powers. There are lessons to be learned from the past at a profounder level than those of Munich or Sarajevo, and the American leadership would do well to heed them.
NOT BY BATTLE ALONE
As a doctoral candidate at Oxford University two decades ago, Paul Kennedy studied great-power strategy under one of Britain's most distinguished military scholars, Sir. Basil Liddell Hart. But he still felt that something was missing.
'It seemed to me that a large number of things couldn't be explained by what happened on the battlefield alone,'' Mr. Kennedy said in a telephone interview from Washington, where he was attending a conference. ''The importance of economics seemed to me to have been much undervalued by military and diplomatic historians.''
In his new book, ''The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' Mr. Kennedy, who is the Dilworth Professor of History at Yale University, explores the connections between economic and military strength across 500 years of world history. His thesis carries him even beyond the boundaries of history itself, into what he admits is an 'experimental'' application of historical analysis to current events.
''What I was finding in my historical researches,'' he said, ''was that, by looking at various economic indices, you could detect the rise and fall of different powers in the system. When they started losing their economic competitiveness, there was an earnest debate about how to restore it -- how to make yoruself strong and productive as you were two or three decades earlier. There were distinct echoes of the arguments that were occuring in the United States in the late 1970's and 1980's.
There were also distinct echoes in the political responses,'' he noted. ''There is a very characteristic right-wing, patriotic response which says we aren't really declining, we've just lost our will. Or that we have to get back to old standards, to reassert the virtues which made us great.''
'''Us'' could be either Edwardian Britain talking about Victorian Britain or the Spain of Olivares talking back to the Spain of Phililp II, or it could be Ronald Reagan's America, looking back nostalgicaly to the Eisenhower years. - Mark A. Uhlig