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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…. Precisely because neither economic historians nor military historians had entered this field, the story itself had simply suffered from neglect.” Professor Kennedy believes that

there was a dynamic involved, driven chiefly by economic and technological advances, although always interacting with other variables such as social structure, geography, and the occasional accident; that to understand the course of world politics, it is necessary to focus attention upon the material and long-term elements rather than the vagaries of personality or the week-by-week shifts of diplomacy and politics.

Other authors, notably William H. McNeill in The Pursuit of Power, 1 which covers a longer period but has a narrower focus, and Maurice Pearton in The Knowledgeable State,2 which deals with a shorter period but contains important insights on the relation between technological development and state control, have raised some of the points discussed by Kennedy, but none of them ranges so widely or controls such a mass of detail.

If Ranke stressed the moral and spiritual forces that helped to make states into great powers, Paul Kennedy comes back again and again to the material basis of their strength. However, material resources need a high degree of state organization to be effective. One can see, for example, in Kennedy’s account of the Habsburgs’ struggle for mastery in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries how, although the vast dominions of the Habsburgs may have suggested to their contemporaries that they possessed unlimited power, in fact their empire was “a congeries of territories each of which possessed its own privileges and was proud of its own distinctiveness.” It was therefore extremely hard to mobilize the resources of the empire, so that it fell apart largely because it was incapable of providing the efficient centralized administration needed to support a vast military and imperial power. Sometimes a small state, such as Sweden, could for a time play the part of a great power just because it did possess an efficient state administration, while Holland’s success was, in part at least, owing to its efficient money market and consequent ability to raise loans instead of constantly imposing higher taxes.

Kennedy, however, concentrates on the period after 1660, not only because his previous detailed research has been on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but also because he thinks that by the eighteenth century the European state system had changed fundamentally with the rise of more cohesive centralized states and a new awareness of “national” interests which replaced the dynastic divisions of the seventeenth century and the religious divisions of the Thirty Years’ War. It was, too, in the complicated diplomatic maneuvers and almost unceasing military campaigns of the early and mid-eighteenth century (of which Kennedy gives an admirably clear and intelligible account) that a new factor in the balance of power emerged—the rise of Russia. It was, as Kennedy points out, just because military technique in the eighteenth century was comparatively static that Russia was able, with the advice of foreign experts, “to catch up and then outstrip countries with fewer resources; and this brute advantage of superior numbers was not really going to be eroded until the Industrial Revolution transformed the scale and speed of warfare during the following century.” Indeed, it might be argued that the appearance of a Russian army in Paris in 1814 marks the beginning of the modern age in international relations and was as indicative of a new era as the presence of a Russian army on the Elbe in 1945 was to be.

In two earlier books, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery and The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, Paul Kennedy has discussed two of the main themes which dominated international relations in the nineteenth century. Britain, with the strongest navy in the world, vast commercial interests overseas, and a growing empire, was committed to maintaining the balance of power in her favor. France after 1815, in spite of colonial disputes and occasional moments of tension, was no longer the serious threat it had for centuries seemed to be. Russia, on the other hand, was now seen as a dangerous rival to Britain in Asia, the more so as the British navy was powerless to affect Russian expansion overland across Siberia to the Pacific coast. The logical application of the principle of the balance of power should therefore have entailed cooperation against Russia by Britain and Germany—by the end of the nineteenth century a much more formidable great power than Prussia had been before the unification of Germany in 1870.

However, Germany’s naval building and imperial ambitions made close ties with Britain hard to achieve, and Germany began by the beginning of the twentieth century to appear a greater threat to the balance of power than Russia—especially a Russia weakened by the war with Japan in 1904–1905 and the revolution of 1905. And so it was in association with Russia and France that Britain by 1907 had become “one of three in a world of five Great Powers.” However, the essence of the principle of the balance of power is that as soon as one threat to it is removed, another threat presents itself; and indeed by 1914 there were already some people in the British Foreign Office who were asking whether the Russians were not after all a bigger threat to Britain’s world position than the Germans.

The First World War destroyed the old international system even more fundamentally than the Napoleonic wars had done, and the resulting pattern was a confused one. Old powers had vanished: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had survived from the seventeenth-century world of dynastic diplomacy, had gone forever. Bolshevik Russia had temporarily dropped from the ranks of the great powers, and the possibility of its recovery was much underestimated by most foreign observers. The vacuum in Eastern Europe left by the absence of the two previous great powers in the region gave an unexpected importance to the smaller states; and notably Poland made the diplomatic gestures of a great power which it lacked the military strength to sustain. Most important of all, two non-European powers, the United States and Japan, had demonstrated that Richard Cobden’s prophecy at the time of the American Civil War had come true: “The Equilibrium of Europe was a phrase of some significance when the whole civilized world was in Europe. It has lost its meaning now.”

There had been, as Paul Kennedy shows, a long gap between the United States becoming a great power economically and its performance as one in the international system.

Even before the outbreak of the Civil War…the United States had become an economic giant, although its own distance from Europe, its concentration upon internal development (rather than foreign trade), and the rugged nature of the countryside partly disguised that fact.

And by 1913 “the United States had definitely become a Great Power. But it was not part of the Great Power system.” To put it in another way, up to 1917 the United States had foreign relations but had not needed a foreign policy. After that—even if only fitfully in the period between the two world wars—the foreign policy of the United States was the most important single factor in the working of the international system.

Japan was a more questionable element in that system. The rapidity of its emergence as a great power, the shock caused by its victory over Russia, its presence among the inner circle of the victors at the peace conference of 1919, the naval challenge which it seemed to offer to both Britain and the United States in the Pacific, all meant that Japan had to be taken seriously, but there was nevertheless a certain reluctance to do so. (In 1916 a British diplomat could still write that Japan was a country “of very moderate importance compared to the giants of the Great War but with a very exaggerated opinion of her place in the universe.”)

  1. 1

    University of Chicago Press, 1982.

  2. 2

    London: Burnett Books, 1982.

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