Paul Kennedy
Paul Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

The old cliché defines history as “philosophy teaching by examples.” A historian studying the examples provided by the past few years might come to very desperate conclusions about what philosophy has been telling us. Euphoria at the end of the cold war has given place to alarm at the horrors unleashed by ethnic rivalries in the Balkans and Armenia, by Hindu fanaticism in India, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. Gloom at the depressed economic condition of the US, Germany, Japan, and most of Europe is deepened by the knowledge that when the depressed economies revive, their destructive impact on the environment will pick up too.

In the developed world, medical advances are adding handicapped children to the burdens of the social services as well as more nonworking elderly people to those dependent on the working population; in developing countries they add more mouths to those the farmers already cannot feed. Those who fear that history’s message is that every silver lining has a cloud are much in need of a sensible account of what the recent past can tell us about the fairly near future. They will find it in Preparing for the Twenty-first Century, but it is not cheerful reading.

Paul Kennedy is a very accomplished historian, and Preparing for the Twenty-first Century has all the virtues that made The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers such a success. Its reach is global, and the questions it asks are large and pressing. Its essence is quickly summarized: the world faces three potentially unmanageable threats, at least to social and political stability and at worst to bare survival—the population explosion, environmental degradation, and runaway technological innovation. They pose an obvious question: Can we manage these changes rationally and humanely, or shall we find ourselves at their mercy as we traditionally have?

Professor Kennedy’s book—two long extracts have recently appeared in these pages—is, however, better at synthesizing vast amounts of very diverse information than at coming to conclusions. Shall we find the twentyfirst century exceedingly dangerous if we do not prepare for it? The answer is plainly yes. Are we prepared for it? The answer is plainly no. Can we prepare for it? Professor Kennedy seems unsure. It rather looks as if he thinks we cannot, but hardly likes to say so. A recent article by Kennedy in the Financial Times1 sets out a list of virtuous policies that the developed world ought to pursue to assist environmentally sensitive, demographically restrained development elsewhere—among them, for example, saving forests by equipping third world villagers with solar ovens, transferring the results of biotechnology without charging patent and user fees, encouraging contraception, and promoting education for girls and women; but he offers every reason to think they will not be carried out. Last year, President Bush sabotaged the Earth Summit in Rio, but the arrival of the environmentally minded Gore and Clinton in Washington may not, Kennedy writes, mean a change for the better:

Ironically, this time around, we could see Washington more willing to assist poorer countries while many of the other OECD countries drag their feet. With the ruling parties of Japan and Italy in a state of collapse and the governments of Germany, France, Britain, Canada, and many others experiencing record levels of unpopularity, they are probably incapable at present of implementing generous, far-sighted policies to aid our global ills. But if little or nothing is done, won’t we and our children all pay a far higher price for that neglect in the future?

That last anxious question sets the tone of the book. Another striking feature of Paul Kennedy’s account of our global plight does much to explain the uncertain note he strikes. Kennedy writes of the policies that “we” ought to adopt, but he knows that we are not one but many, not united but divided. When we look to the high price we are going to pay for inaction, we know that some of us stand to pay a higher price than others, some of us face far worse problems with far fewer material and social resources than others of us, and solidarity between the better off and the worse off is in short supply. Talk of “our future” suggests a common fate and common incentives to grapple with that fate, but ours is in fact a world of social, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, religious, and political division.

Many societies, Kennedy argues, will have a much worse time than the prosperous few after the year 2000—Somalia, Ethiopia, China, India, the former Soviet Union, much of Latin America, and many Arab states will have great difficulty in dealing with the population growth, environmental degradation, political dissension, and an unfavorable position in the world division of labor. Kennedy gives a convincing account of all this,2 adding to a great deal of commentary along similar lines. What we are more anxious to know is whether more favorably placed societies—the United States, Japan, the member states of the European Community, and the other advanced European economies—can take control of global change in the next decade. And that is the question Professor Kennedy does not answer.


I say this uncomplainingly. It is an achievement even for Kennedy to raise the question as an urgent one when the United States, the European Community, and Japan are so largely preoccupied with their own internal affairs—the US with its industrial competitiveness, financial stability, and ability to provide its citizens with health care, the EC with the indigestion consequent upon instituting the “single market” in the middle of a prolonged recession and hard on the heels of German reunification, and Japan with averting financial and commercial meltdown.

Not everyone will be impressed by such difficulties. Environmentalists interested only in global issues may still find Professor Kennedy too distracted by these domestic concerns. His discussion of the problems facing the US, in particular, is a continuation of the discussion of “imperial overstretch” from The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers rather than the question whether America’s world leadership in military matters can be refashioned for other purposes. Kennedy has added to the plot some somber reflections on the self-destructive qualities of American culture, but the question his chapter “The American Dilemma” raises is “Can Americans be saved from themselves?” rather than “Can Americans save humanity?”

American readers who objected to Kennedy’s implication that the US faces decline in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers might even think that Professor Kennedy wants to show that the US will remain “Number One” as the creator of environmental hazards—with 5 percent of the world’s population, we emit 18 percent of the world’s “greenhouse gases.” They may claim that Professor Kennedy is not interested in what the US can contribute to their solution; but that would be unfair. Rather, he finds it as hard as anyone else to visualize just what stimulus it will take to make the developed countries act together to preserve the global human habitat while helping growth in the underdeveloped world.

Nobody doubts that the US will find it particularly hard to lead such a movement. American politics are driven by the efforts of particular interests and regions to frustrate national goals and policies; it is hard to imagine legislators who have prospered under such a system changing their ways and adopting a national, let alone a global perspective. Western senators have just forced President Clinton to withdraw plans to charge market rents and royalties on public grazing lands and mineral claims. These would have done even more for the environment than for the deficit. Can we imagine them voting for energy taxes for the benefit of foreign countries? American politics may not remain gridlocked until global warming has turned Kansas into a desert and put New Jersey under the Atlantic, but how and on what provocation we might turn from being the world’s supplier of military hardware to being the supplier of environmentally delicate technology is a speculative question.

Preparing for the Twenty-first Century begins with the nightmare that has plagued the sociologically minded for the past two centuries, the problem of overpopulation. The Reverend Thomas Malthus stalks Preparing for the Twenty-first Century much as he stalked the imagination of nineteenth-century economists. Malthus was famous for the claim that population grows geometrically, while the means of subsistence grow only arithmetically; while the food supply grows from two to four to six thousand bushels of corn, the population will grow from two to four to eight thousand mouths, and while we add the next two thousand bushels of corn we shall also add eight thousand more mouths.

Kennedy takes surprisingly seriously what is by now acknowledged to be a mere figure of speech. Malthus’s precision was spurious. He had no basis for his calculations, and wrote his Essay on the Principles of Population (1798) to attack William Godwin. Godwin promised a world where property would be abolished and good sense would make us so invulnerable to the hazards of everyday life that we would live for ever and think about better things than breeding. Malthus gave a mathematical turn to a polemical point: in essence, that the sexual drive was too strong for restraint of the sort Godwin had in mind. Population was checked by “war, misery and vice”—“vice” meant birth control, and “misery” meant famine.

Kennedy looks at the history of nineteenth-century Britain, not, as many demographers have, as a refutation of Malthus—the British population rose from rather less than 10 million in 1800 to about 41 million in 1900, but output rose fourteen-fold and life expectancy doubled—but as something to be reconciled with Malthus. Kennedy finds the reconciliation in the migration of 20 million people from the British Isles to relatively uninhabited places like the United States, and in the exploitation of cheap food supplies from the American and Canadian prairies. The implication for ourselves is obvious. While Britain could export its surplus population to the US, Canada, and Australia, the countries that today suffer excessive population growth can do nothing of the sort; airlifting food to Somalia is one thing, but opening the US or Europe to hungry Somalis is quite another.


Nor is there a source of food like that which the British drew on in the nineteenth century. The developing world seems to have got what benefit it can from the “green revolution” of the 1970s, and to be suffering diminishing returns. India has salination problems in the heavily irrigated areas, and almost universally output of both cereals and other food crops has since 1984 suffered from “overuse of fertilizers…, attacks by new diseases, the deterioration of soil quality, and the fact that there was less suitable land available for further planting.”

Population may seem to threaten trouble only to the developing countries that are experiencing explosive growth without a corresponding increase in food supplies, clean water, or employment opportunities. This would be a naive view. The surplus population of one country, as Kennedy points out, becomes the refugee or illegal immigrant problem of another. In this population growth resembles the second of the global challenges that Kennedy concentrates on: environmental degradation, represented most acutely by the potential problem of global warming. Kennedy says sobering things about other hazards, too—the ozone layer and radiation damage from the sun, for instance; and he laments the way the destruction of the rain forest and other tropical environments deprives us of animal and plant species whose potential usefulness in breeding disease resistant crops or aiding nonchemical pest control we can guess at from past successes but cannot intelligently estimate in advance. But the physical damage and economic disruption threatened by global warming certainly seem to him to pose the greatest dangers.

The third convulsion is not environmental; it affects our economic, educational, and industrial systems rather than the physical environment. This is the robotics revolution, hyperindustrialization at the expense of the human work force. Taking a leaf out of Robert Reich’s book, Kennedy argues that the global division of labor now means that “symbolic analysts”—designers, stockbrokers, lawyers, and people whose talent is generally for devising solutions to problems—form a global elite whose incomes, work, and life styles are increasingly unlike those of the semiskilled and unskilled worker. How societies will deal with unemployment, inequality, and sheer misery in the face of rapid occupational change is a large question. The process has an agricultural twin: if the only way to secure enough edible protein to feed all the new mouths will be “bio-tech” factory farming, traditional ways of life that have been built around an old agricultural technology will also be threatened, and it is not only French farmers who deeply resent such changes.

This is a mere sketch of the book; the text is a dense forest of statistical and more broadly sociological evidence drawn from the developed, the developing, and the struggling world. It can give the most hardened info-addict a hangover, as Taiwanese democracy jostles for attention with the Japanese passion for hierarchy and the mixed results of the Indian green revolution. Preparing for the Twenty-first Century is best read slowly and several times; but if your idea of intellectual pleasure is a long tutorial with the entire staff of the Economist—and mine is—Kennedy provides a fine diet of mindboggling information and impossible questions.

He has two targets. The larger is the possibility of mastering the ecological and technological changes already under way, and accelerating the “demographic transition”—the demographers’ term for the way countries pass through a period of rapid population growth as their mortality rate drops and their birth rate doesn’t to an eventual condition in which they fail to or just barely keep up their numbers. This would be true of the US except for immigration, and is already true of Japan, Germany, and much of Eastern Europe. And he sees that this raises the question: Who is to take our future in hand—Who is to do the taking and whose future is to be taken in hand?

Do we mean, “How is India to persuade the inhabitants of the United States to put less carbon into the atmosphere so that the considerably poorer people of India can continue to pour the carbon-rich smoke of their wood fires into the atmosphere, and develop their industries with as little regard to the environment as the Americans did before them?” Or do we mean, “How can the rich, already industrialized countries make the developing world develop less casually and less destructively than it did, while paying as little as possible of the cost of taking the cleaner and less destructive road?”

The first question evidently amounts to a grim joke, and the second raises a possibility that is increasingly seen to be repulsive. But what process of international negotiation and aid will match the needs we confront remains, in Kennedy’s book, anyone’s guess. If there is a legitimate complaint to be leveled at Kennedy it is that he says too little about the possible effectiveness of international institutions in dealing with these matters, and has no clear view of the utility of such conferences as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio as a way of getting international consensus on global environmental policies.

His second subject is one he is wholly at ease with—what is known to the political science trade as “regime capacity,” the ability of the political and other institutions of a given society to deal with the problems that beset it. The second half—the last two thirds—of Preparing for the Twenty-first Century is an inventory of regime capacity. Japan unsurprisingly appears to be well equipped to survive whatever history throws at it. As to population problems, Japan is in no immediate difficulty; population growth is low, and the belated entry of women into the educated work force will lower it further—as will the generally cramped condition of urban life in Japan, and the cost of housing as opposed to other items of consumption. The aging of the population poses some problems, but if any society can afford to support large numbers of elderly citizens, it will be Japan.

In matters of industrial change, Japan is equally well placed; the robotics revolution is a Japanese revolution. It is the labor shortage in Japan that explains why robotic production has been developed there to a degree that astonishes other countries. And if Japan wants to preserve its high-price rice farmers as a sort of cultural luxury, there seems nothing to prevent that either. But Japan can do little to escape the global consequences of environmental degradation. Kennedy almost reduces the question to a vivid example of the risk that the island of Okinotorishima will vanish under water, and thus diminish Japan’s fisheries; “it has already allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up and protect the tiny outlying island…; if it should be permanently submerged under the rising seas, Japan could lose fishery and seabed rights.” He knows better. Japan cannot export to a world in collapse, and it is not clear that the Japanese economy could readily adapt to a world where its export markets shrank dramatically. In that sense at least, Japan is no more able than anywhere else to opt out of global environmental disaster.

China and India, on the other hand, have a hard path. Chinese industrial development has so polluted the environment that there are cities satellites can see on only a handful of days a year. Chinese fertility has been held to 2.4 children per woman—a steady state rate is 2.1—but even so, there will be 1.5 billion Chinese by the year 2025, and their potential impact on their habitat boggles the imagination. China also faces a version of “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” Holding down the birth rate may be essential in a country that “can sustain between 750 and 950 million people—figures surpassed some two to three decades ago.” Success in this, however, threatens to unbalance the population, so that by 2035 there would be twice as many sixty-year-olds as twenty-year-olds, with obvious consequences for the economy.

India, on the other hand, threatens to become swamped by its population. With a fertility rate of 4.3, India stands to have as large a population as China in 2025, of whom more than half will live in poverty. Both industry and agriculture grow too slowly to do much to pull the really poor out of their misery, and the process of industrialization has barely limped along: in 1978–1979, 15.8 percent of national output came from industry, by 1989, it had crept up to 16.1 percent.

The most discussed chapters of Preparing for the Twenty-first Century will surely be those on which Professor Kennedy’s two recent contributions to The New York Review were based. Regional specialists will no doubt quibble with some of the details of his discussion of “winners and losers in the developing world,” but the general direction of his argument is hard to resist and deeply alarming. He opens with one of many disturbing statistics: “Nothing better illustrates the growing differences among developing countries than the fact that in the 1960s, South Korea had a per capita GNP exactly the same as Ghana’s ($230) whereas today it is ten to twelve times more prosperous.” The outlines of success and failure are familiar; the Asian “tigers”—Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea—will prosper, with low population growth, a highly educated and adept working population, and governments apparently competent to administer a modern market economy, while most of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East will be riven by ethnic strife, governmental ineptitude, and military conflict.

What is less familiar is the attention Kennedy pays to the cultural factors that have allowed some societies to make the transition to a modern market economy, sustained by a population whose attitudes and ambitions support it rather than fight it. He sets most store by what President Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore used to boast of, the Confucian emphasis on education; and he is respectful of the way that “the uniformity of the system does not exclude an intense individual competitiveness; in Taiwan (where, incidentally, twelve members of the fourteen member–cabinet of 1989 have acquired Ph.D.s abroad), only the top third of each year’s 110,000 students taking the national university entrance examinations are selected, to emphasize the importance of college education.” This helps only in the right environment, but factors like the high level of national savings, government support of business, the direction of effort toward exports, and the attempt to catch up with the Japanese leader seem to be not unlikely companions of intelligent farsightedness directed toward communal rather than purely private ends.

The contrast with large parts of Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa is too painful to dwell on for long. Another appalling statistic, borrowed from the Wall Street Journal is enough: “excluding South Africa, the nations of sub-Saharan Africa with their 450 million people have a total GDP less than that of Belgium’s 11 million people.”

Nor does Kennedy suggest how Egypt will manage to support a population growing from 55 million today to 94 million by 2025, while simultaneously holding the Muslim Brotherhood in check, persuading Ethiopia and the Sudan not to interfere with water supplies from the Nile, and coping with the unexpected impact of the Aswan Dam on the fertility of the soil its waters irrigate. American readers, for their part, are likely to ask whether the US will emerge among the winners.

Adam Smith observed that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Britain’s decline from global economic leadership to its current standing somewhere at the head of the second class states took a century or so. The US has been losing ground in growth and productivity to just about every other industrialized nation since the end of World War II, but the average productivity of American workers is still the highest in the world. Moreover, if we correct for the distortions of exchange rates, only Switzerland has a higher real income per head. Yet this is an eroding lead; the US economy was almost five times as large as Japan’s in 1970, and less than twice as large in 1987, some 12 percent larger than the entire EC in 1970 and barely two thirds the size in 1987. If it grows at half the speed of these economies for thirty years, the consequences are clear.

Kennedy’s conclusions will further provoke American readers who resent his “declinism.” He thinks the US is like Britain a century ago, a rich, liberal, decentralized society in which no consensus can be established about the need for a national policy for renewal, and where too many vested interests in education, the professions, industry, and government are sufficiently content with the status quo to lack any interest in devising such a policy. The British “muddled through,” and that is what he expects the US to do. The results will not be intolerable, but they will be relative decline.

Or rather, they would not be intolerable if American public culture were such that Americans got good value from what they spend their money on. Kennedy belongs to the social-democratic school of thought that believes the real problem with the US is a blind attachment to a self-defeating economic individualism. American moral and political individualism based on a variety of rights remains as attractive as ever for Kennedy, but American disorganization thoroughly irritates him. Among all the citizens of advanced countries, only Americans would spend 14 percent of GNP on a health care nonsystem that leaves thirty-seven million people uncovered; only Americans would think it sinful to raise taxes to pay for an efficient public transport system, or to induce motorists to save fuel, or to provide free higher education for all who qualify for it.

The American system of law and order reduces Kennedy to something close to indignant splutter: the most livable American city—Seattle—has a murder rate seven times higher than that of one of Britain’s least livable cities—Birmingham. The US incarcerates 426 persons per 100,000 population; the Soviet Union managed half that, the Australians a sixth, and the Dutch a tenth. This masks a larger evil yet; black Americans are jailed at the rate of three thousand per hundred thousand, “whereas South Africa managed to preserve apartheid by imprisoning 729 black males per 100,000.” The failings of American secondary education, the disintegration of the nuclear family, and the horrors of the inner city are too familiar to bear repeating.

The picture of cultural rot given by Kennedy has much in common with some recent gloomy figures released by William Bennett and the conservative Heritage Foundation.3 But Kennedy points out that the end of the cold war has meant that such reflections do not come from one particular point on the ideological spectrum. Some Democrats who support Clinton, like Ben Wattenberg, are joined in cheerfulness about the future with friends of William Bennett, like George Gilder; and on the other side of the divide, many of President Clinton’s academic advisers come from the pessimistic end of the spectrum. They are as afraid as Bennett is of the collapse of the two-parent family, the dissolution of educational standards, and the weakening of the moral inhibitions against crime.

In the situation Kennedy describes, the prospects of the US taking a decisive lead in helping the rest of the world to face an uncertain future are not good. Coping with everything from global warming to the shift of political power and social and cultural influence away from the white European Northeast toward the browner South and West while remaining deeply attached to creaking institutions set in place in the late eighteenth century will take all the energy the US possesses. Optimists will say, quite rightly, that Professor Kennedy is guilty of unsophisticated extrapolation—that he takes present trends and tells us how ghastly things will be if they continue; but they never do continue. Vast changes such as the collapse of the Soviet Union can take place without anyone predicting them. The development of cheap and pollution-free energy from nuclear fusion could upset projections about the costs of development. To which pessimists will respond that things are as likely to change for the worse as for the better. Professor Kennedy is careful not to come down too boldly for one side or the other, but Preparing for the Twenty-first Century seems to present on the whole a case for pessimists.

This Issue

May 13, 1993