The Rise and Fall of Great Powers

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The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
- Economic change and Military conflict from 1500 to 2000
By Paul Kennedy
Fontana Press, London, 1989.

This fascinating book by Paul Kennedy, a professor of history at Yale University, is about the changing balance of power in the past 500 years. The book explains the interaction between economics & strategy and relates military conflicts to economic progress. As the author puts it, “Wealth is usually needed to underpin military power and military power is usually needed to acquire and protect wealth.” But if too much money is diverted towards military expenditures or if the state over extends itself by too many conquests, the results will not be satisfactory. There is a very significant correlation over the longer term between productive and revenue-raising capacities and military strength. Another point which the author emphasizes is that wealth and power are always relative. Also, a nation’s relative economic and military power may not rise and fall in parallel. There is a noticeable lag between the trajectory of a state’s relative economic strength and the trajectory of its military/territorial influence. According to the author, “Great powers in relative decline instinctively respond by spending more on security and thereby divert potential resources from investment and compound their long-term dilemma.”

The Rise of the Western World

In 1500, few could have predicted the tremendous economic progress the western world would make. Compared with other great centres of cultural and economic activity, Europe’s relative weaknesses were more apparent than its strengths. Europe had no significant advantages in culture, mathematics, engineering/navigational technologies, compared with other great Asian civilizations. Ming China, the Ottoman empire, the Moghuls, Russia and Japan all looked equally well placed compared to Europe. But Europe went ahead due to a combination of circumstances. There was political fragmentation. Different regions specialized in different products leading to a thriving trade. The decentralized, largely unsupervised growth of commerce and merchants and ports and markets allowed economic progress to take place unhindered. No systematic or universal plundering of merchants by a central authority could take place. In Europe, there were always some authorities willing to tolerate merchants and their ways even when others plundered and expelled them. Gradually, most of the regimes of Europe entered into a symbiotic relationship with the market economy, providing domestic order and a non-arbitrary legal system. In return, they received taxes. The development of long-range armed sailing ships heralded a fundamental advance in Europe’s place in the world. These vessels enabled the west to control the important sea trade routes. There was also an upward spiral in knowledge in science and technology, based on observation and experimentation. Printing presses helped disseminate knowledge. As Kennedy puts it, “In most cases, what was involved was not so much positive elements, but rather the reduction in the number of hindrances which checked economic growth and political diversity. Europe’s greatest advantage was that it had fewer disadvantages than other civilizations... It was a combination of economic laissez faire, political and military pluralism and intellectual liberty, which had been in constant interaction to produce the European Miracle.” This mix of ingredients did not exist in Ming China or in the Muslim empires of the Middle East and Asia. As a result, these societies seemed to stand still while Europe advanced.

The key ideas in this book

• Wealth is the basis for military power.
• Too protect wealth, military power is necessary.
• There is a significant correlation between a country’s ability to generate resources and its military power. • Wealth and power are always relative
• Powerful countries, in order to...
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