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Are We Really Going The Way Of The British Empire?
Those who believe America’s power is on the wane look to the example of Britain’s shockingly quick collapse. But the similarities may be less alarming than they seem.
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
In 1987 Paul Kennedy published his eighth book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The first seven had established his reputation as an admirably capable professional historian, and he was pleasantly surprised when this one became celebrated far outside academic precincts. He also must have been astonished when he found himself the object of political invective.
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers touched a nerve. Just as the vigorous assertions of national pride that characterized the Reagan years were beginning to ring a little hollow to some people, the book seemed to suggest that American exceptionalism had no place in the annals of economic, diplomatic, and military history. We were part of a long series of hegemons—loosely speaking, great powers that had lost their preeminence as their military obligations exceeded their economic means.
We were the current item on a list that ran from Hapsburg Spain through Bourbon and Napoleonic France and, most resonantly, through Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. (Nor have the developments in Arabia caused him to change his mind; in a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Kennedy compared America’s going to war in the Persian Gulf with Philip IV of Spain’s “distant military interventions of the 1630s and 1640s on the grounds of ‘reputation.’”)
Kennedy’s book made academics—and politicians—recall a Great Britain that had alone fought off Hitler and become the third nuclear power, and these people had gone on to watch the startlingly quick erosion of Britain’s military significance and her steady eclipse in international politics. For a time the task was to locate the seeds of her decline, which were duly traced to the British “climacteric"—the moment in the late nineteenth century when the rivals destined to surpass her began their irreversible ascent, and Britain stood at what would eventually be recognized as her apogee.
Books on the British climacteric proliferated, but it was The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that largely moved it into widespread use as a precursor of America’s fate, out of learned journals and into the magazines and op-ed pages read by the political nation. A large and vehement chorus angrily denounced the book; some of those who protested may even have read parts of it. At least one man read it carefully and was moved to respond with a careful disagreement.
Joseph Nye, a former Deputy Undersecretary of State, is now the Ford Foundation Professor of International Security at Harvard University. Last year he published Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. In it Nye examines the comparison of Edwardian Britain and late-twentieth-century America and finds it wanting. He thinks America will remain the preeminent power for a good while yet, and he is skeptical about the chances of our most highly touted rivals. Bound to Lead provoked a sometimes careless enthusiasm from the people who had been outraged by Kennedy; Nye has a grimmer view of American prospects than did the noisier anti-Kennedy cheerleaders. Nevertheless, his book managed to throw cold water on what had suddenly become a piece of universal wisdom: America as senescent, tottering giant.
Robert Heilbroner’s interview with Professor Kennedy ran in the September/October 1988 issue of American Heritage. Late last winter I spoke with Professor Nye in his neat, severely appointed office at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, which he runs.
Britain at the turn of the century was hard-pressed by its rival, Germany. Our military rival has suffered a severe decline.
In recent years historians and political scientists have debated whether the United States has paralleled Edwardian Britain as a power moving from hegemony to decline. Professor Kennedy’s book has been taken to represent the pessimists’ case, and now your book has been taken to represent the optimists. Does it?
First I should say that Paul Kennedy in reviewing my book drew a distinction between the declinists, among whom he listed himself, who believe that the American position will continue to worsen over time, and the revivalists, among whom he enrolled me, who say that while the United States has major problems, it does still have the capabilities to overcome them.
I believe the analogy to the decline of Britain fails on three counts: One is that Britain at the beginning of the century was never as large as the United States in terms of its overall preponderance in the world. Britain by the time of World War I was the fourth-largest economic and military power in the world. The United States is still the largest economy and the largest military power.