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.”)

By the 1930s, however, there was no doubt, especially in the minds of the British government, about the extent of Japan’s threat to the balance of power. It was Japan’s expansionist policy in the Far East that showed up more clearly than anything else the difference between the appearance and reality of Britain’s imperial power and the extent to which, as Kennedy puts it, “transoceanic possessions and commerce were simultaneously a strengthening of Britain’s position and a strategical distraction.” In 1918 it had seemed that, in the words of the German historian Erich Marcks, England had “strengthened her power and her economic interests in Mesopotamia, Persia, Africa, has won valuable new territories, her empire has grown by 27 percent in territory and population. This results in a world power and the position of a world power as never before.” But the reality as it appeared twenty years later to the British chiefs of staff was very different:

We cannot foresee a time when our defence forces will be strong enough to safeguard our territory, trade and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously. We cannot therefore exaggerate the importance, from the point of view of Imperial Defence, of any political or international action that can be taken to reduce the numbers of our potential enemies and to gain the support of potential allies.

The events that led to Britain’s gaining the support of new allies in 1941 were caused not so much by British diplomacy as by the initiative of Hitler in attacking the Soviet Union and of Japan in attacking the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. As Kennedy puts it,

Japan’s actions, and Hitler’s gratuitous declaration of war upon the United States, at last brought into the conflict the most powerful country in the world…. Within another year, in fact, de Tocqueville’s forecast of 1835 concerning the emergence of a bipolar world was at last on the point of being realized.

The last two hundred or so pages of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers deal with the consequences of the American and Soviet victories in 1945 and the rapid estrangement between the two countries immediately afterward.

A large part of international politics over the following two decades was to concern itself with adjusting to that Soviet-American rivalry, and then with its partial rejection.

Professor Kennedy understandably seems rather uncertain about how far this rejection has gone. He sees that we are still in a world in which the two superpowers and their allies in NATO and the Warsaw Pact spend almost 80 percent of the world’s investments in armaments and possess 60 to 70 percent of its aircraft and ships. But he also sees the extraordinary changes caused by the economic growth not only of Japan but of several other states in the Far East. Japan, he suggests, “might become a second Venice—in the sense not just of extensive trading but also of protecting its maritime sea lanes and of creating quasi-dependencies overseas.” Or again, it might not: but what is certain (and Kennedy is right to stress it) is that Japan’s successful pursuit of a foreign policy of having no foreign policy is unlikely to last. “As other nations have discovered in the past,” he writes (and there are several examples in his book), “commercial expertise and financial wealth sometimes no longer suffice in the anarchic world of international power politics.”

As far as China is concerned he certainly doesn’t share the view of some of our spycatchers that the Sino-Soviet dispute was just a piece of “disinformation” thought up by the KGB to deceive the West; and he believes that confrontation between China and Russia is still possible not only over Central Asian boundaries and security, but also over Vietnam and Afghanistan. At the same time the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and, he suggests, the skill of Chinese diplomacy in balancing between the superpowers must in the long run make it into one of the world’s independent great powers. The European Community too is both a great power and yet not quite one. The potential is there perhaps, but its structural unity is still less than that of the German Confederation before Bismarck’s wars. Kennedy sometimes writes as if we are back, as Henry Kissinger has at moments suggested, in a Bismarckian world of five great powers—America, Russia, Japan, China, and Europe. Yet the world can still be viewed as basically bipolar, though, to the irritation of the superpowers, the pattern is broken by local conflicts which obstinately refuse to fit into the bipolar scheme.

Throughout his book Paul Kennedy accompanies his narrative history of international relations with a continuous examination of the economic, strategic, technological, and geographical factors which make a great power. His general argument is well expressed in his judgment on the result of the First World War:

While it would be quite wrong…to claim that the outcome…was predetermined, the evidence presented here suggests that the overall course of that conflict…correlates closely with the economic and industrial production and effectively mobilized forces available to each alliance during the different phases of the struggle.

The ability or stupidity of generals, the courage of fighting men were, he argues, roughly equal on both sides. “What was enjoyed by one side, particularly after 1917, was a marked superiority in productive forces.”

As a general conceptual approach this amounts perhaps to little more than the assertion by Engels that Kennedy quotes: “Nothing is more dependent on economic conditions than precisely the army and navy.” But the value of this book lies in the way in which throughout the long narrative these economic conditions are precisely spelled out. I suspect that some statistically minded historians may find Kennedy’s tables too simple and his rather skeptical approach to statistics unscientific. He stresses that “all the statistics can do is to give rough indications of a country’s material potential and of its position in the relative ranking of the leading states.” And even in the contemporary world

the growth in the number of professional statisticians employed by governments and by international organizations and the development of much more sophisticated techniques…have tended to show how difficult is the task of making proper comparisons.

In fact, it is the robust common sense with which Paul Kennedy approaches the economic indicators that makes his account so convincing.

The last section of the book (about one hundred pages) is called “To the Twenty-first Century,” and here, of course, the narrative structure which carried the argument and analysis down to 1980 is no longer applicable. Kennedy expresses the problem like this:

Writings upon how the present may evolve into the future…can lay no claim to being historical truth. Not only do the raw materials change, from archivally based monographs to economic forecasts and political projections, but the validity of what is being written about can no longer be assumed. Even if there always were many methodological difficulties in dealing with “historical facts,” past events like an archduke’s assassination or a military defeat did indeed occur. Nothing one can say about the future has that certainty. Unforeseen happenings, sheer accidents, the halting of a trend, can ruin the most plausible of forecasts: if they do not, then the forecaster is merely lucky.

This, as one might expect from the tone of the rest of the book, means that Paul Kennedy is very cautious in his speculation. He has not been studying the past in order to establish laws enabling him to predict the future; but he has been studying the long-term “dynamic for change,” the economic and technological developments which have caused the rise and fall of great powers. These developments have always been uneven in pace, but “the fact remains that all of the major shifts in the world’s military-power balances have followed alterations in the productive balances; and further, that the rising and falling of the various empires and states in the international system has been confirmed by the outcomes of the major Great Power wars, where victory has always gone to the side with the greatest material resources.”

Verifying Kennedy’s analysis of the situation at the end of the twentieth century by seeing who wins the Third World War is hardly a course open to us, since neither historians nor strategic experts are likely to survive to see the result. He sees, however, that preparation for war, as the cost of increasingly complicated armaments rises and as production plans have to be made years in advance, tends to blur the distinction between peace and war. As Maurice Pearton has written,

Even in societies which regard themselves as being at peace…the ramifications of industrialized war…have already destroyed the distinction between “military” and “civil” in the context of the scientific research necessary to produce advanced weapons.3

And Professor Akira Iriye wrote recently, “The boundaries between peace and war have become increasingly ill-defined.” In the nuclear age, with the balance of power resting on the theory of deterrence, it has been widely accepted that survival depends on a level of armaments and military preparedness unheard of in earlier times except in time of war, with profound consequences for the economic, social, and political life of the states involved.4

In his emphasis on material factors such as economic growth Professor Kennedy perhaps sometimes prefers to omit the immeasurable—the power of ideas, of nationalist fervor, or religious faith. These are factors hard to analyze in statistical terms, and the historical analyst is sometimes at a loss when dealing with them. Before the fall of the Shah of Iran, it was comparatively easy for people who looked chiefly at economic growth to predict a point when an industrialized Iran, perhaps with nuclear weapons, might be an aspirant to the role of a great power. It is far harder to measure what the effect of Islamic fundamentalism is going to mean for the international system.

Moreover, perceptions of power can change the balance of power. “France,” Paul Kennedy writes, “always had an impact upon affairs far larger than might be expected from a country with a mere 4 percent of the world GNP.” This is because some French leaders from Louis XIV and the two Napoleons down to General de Gaulle (and even perhaps President Mitterrand) have succeeded in imposing their own image of French greatness on the outside world. Again, Britain’s historical past and its achievements in the Second World War succeeded in maintaining the illusion that Britain was still a great power for some time after the material basis for great power status had been eroded. The irrational and the immeasurable do not lend themselves to statistical tables, but they can, for better or worse, change the course of history as profoundly as increases in the Gross National Product.

In a world where states are assuming unparalleled financial burdens to maintain their security and in an unstable and unpredictable situation in which few governments are really clear where they are going and what the long-term goals of their policies are, the task of the student of international relations is especially hard. Paul Kennedy’s great achievement is that he makes us see our current international problems against a background of empires that have gone under because they were unable to sustain the material cost of greatness; and he does so in a universal historical perspective of which Ranke would surely have approved.

This Issue

February 4, 1988