Is America Falling Behind?

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Irresistibly readable though it is, I doubt that Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House) has leaped onto the best-seller list simply because people want to follow the roller-coaster histories of the Hapsburgs or the British Empire or other by-gone centers of world power. The book packs its wallop because Kennedy asks aloud a question that has been silently nagging at America’s consciousness: Is America falling behind?

Of course, there has never been a shortage of American hand wringers and Jeremiahs. But Kennedy wags no moral fingers and displays not the smallest hint of any anti-American bias. Neither does his book predict any kind of inevitable doom for the United States.

Kennedy is a trim, spare Englishman in his early forties who was the first of his working-class family ever to go to college. At the University of Newcastle he read history for his education, but for his pocket money he worked during vacations as an assistant to a bookmaker at the local track and thought about earning his living as a correspondent for a leading racing journal. As graduation neared, he wrote a tryout column that correctly called a 33-to-1 shot; then he sat for 11 three-hour exams. He pulled off a dazzling first and within the week had been offered a scholarship at Oxford. The editor of the racing journal said that if he changed his mind, he could always come back.

At Oxford Kennedy read British diplomatic and imperial history and became research assistant to Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the great military historian. In 1976 Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery appeared to much acclaim. Further books, articles, and fellowships in Europe and America followed, and in 1983 he was up for a prestigious chair at Oxford. Mrs. Thatcher’s budgetary freeze came just in time, from our point of view, for Kennedy then accepted Yale’s offer of the post he now occupies there—Dilworth Professor of History.

I’m very eager to talk to you about the United States, but I think we ought to begin by tracing the larger argument of your work. Let me start by asking you how you ever came to write so audacious a book in the first place.

Actually the impetus came out of my work on British navel history. I was never much interested in writing about naval battles. It was the interplay between England’s mastery at sea and its subservience to its domestic economy that interested me—how its economic capabilities eventually proved to be the all-important constraint for its military capacities. That put me to wondering whether it might not have been the same for Holland and Spain or Germany. For a long time I kept in the back of my mind this relationship between military and economic power. Then, in 1981, I got going. I intended at first to write a quite short book that would briefly recount the familiar tales of the great powers from the 1500s up to about 1960, with the two superpowers—the United States and the USSR—in place. Then friends and colleagues who read early chapters wanted to know more about events and economic trends that were not so familiar to them as they were to me, and perhaps more important, I became increasingly aware that the world of the two superpowers was by no means an end to my story. In fact, I saw—or thought I could see—that some of the dynamics of the past were about to be played out again, under different conditions, of course, and with different outcomes, and yet in some fashion following a familiar pattern.

You mean that you perceive some kind of grand design in the rise and fall of the great powers—a theme that repeats itself in the stories of imperial Spain and Austria and Napoleonic France and nineteenth-century Britain and twentieth-century Germany?

As a historian I’ve learned to be very, very wary of grand designs. History is a complex affair, and the more closely you look at any particular event or time, the more complex it tends to become. Just the same, there is a kind of pattern to the interplay of military power and economic power—a pattern that really isn’t very surprising. A nation requires some sort of economic advantage if it is to rise to power in the first place. This economic advantage is not just a matter of resources, however. At least as important are its institutions. In the fifteenth century, for example, Ming China was a far more populous, rich, and powerful nation than any European country, but under its mandarin bureaucracy its energies simply stagnated. Much the same with Mogul India. World mastery passed to Europe in the sixteenth century because Europe was so institutionally diverse, flexible, open. To the extent that there is a grand design, one element of it is surely a nation’s institutional adaptability to changing circumstances—or perhaps, more precisely, its institutional capacity to encourage innovation and creativity.