The Cost of Bigness

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000

by Paul Kennedy
Random House, 677 pp., $24.95

In 1833 the young German historian Leopold Ranke published an essay on the great powers that traced the pattern according to which the European powers had risen and fallen between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries; he suggested the factors that explained their success and failure—the size of armies, financial resources, a common feeling for the state and its moral power, especially with the rise of a sense of nationality. “The history of the world,” he wrote,

does not consist of such an accidental violent confusion as might at first appear. There are forces, including spiritual ones, creative life-giving forces, life itself; there is moral energy to be seen in the development of states…. They flourish, take over the world, express themselves in many ways, challenge, impede and overthrow each other: in their interaction and succession, in their life, their disappearance and recovery…lies the secret of world history.

Relations between states were for Ranke the most important subject of historical study, and much of his later writing was to be devoted to them, since he believed in the Primat der Aussenpolitik, the primacy of foreign policy in determining not just the place of a state in the world, but also its internal development.

Ranke was writing when a new international system was being established after the defeat of Napoleon’s bid for European hegemony and when five European great powers—Britain, France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia—had hopes of establishing a “Concert of Europe” in which they could cooperate in maintaining international stability and preserve the “balance of power.” The principle of the balance of power was to be formulated rather pompously by a senior member of the British Foreign Office, Sir Eyre Crowe, who wrote in 1907:

The only check on the abuse of political predominance has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several forces forming leagues of defence. The equilibrium established by such a grouping of forces is technically known as the balance of power.

Bismarck had put it more succinctly and brutally when he remarked, “Always try to be one of three in a world of five Great Powers.” It is in fact a commonsense arrangement, which continues to dominate international relations today; and the phrase “the balance of power” can be interpreted both as an objective assessment of the actual economic and military strength of the great powers and as a subjective evaluation by statesmen of where their own national interest lies.

Paul Kennedy tells us in the introduction to his important, learned, and lucid new book that he began with the model of Ranke’s essay on the great powers in mind but then came to realize that “the story of the shifts that occurred in the economic and strategic power balances” in the last five hundred years could not be dealt with in an essay but required a long and detailed narrative, because “what most readers…wanted was more detail, more coverage of the background….…

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