Authored by Martin Siff via The Strategic Culture Foundation,
In 1987, Paul Kennedy, a British professor of history at Yale University, unleashed a political and intellectual firestorm with the publication of his great (677-page) book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” Kennedy produced a magisterial overview of the competition for global power over the past 500 years from 1500 AD to the present.
Kennedy proposed the thesis that any power that achieved, imagined it had achieved or sought to achieve and maintain a dominant hyper-power role of global dominance was doomed to lose it and then rapidly decline in overall power, wealth, prosperity and influence.
Kennedy argued – with a wealth of detail drawn from different nations over his vast period of half a millennium – that the very attempt to achieve and maintain such power forced every nation that attempted it into a ruinous pattern of strategic overstretch.
This demanded every major global empire in their turn to devote ruinously far too many economic resources to unproductive military power and ever more costly global commitments and conflicts.
The more ambitious the commitments, the quicker came military defeat, economic ruin and national collapse, Kennedy documented.
Kennedy published his book however at exactly the wrong moment for its abundantly documented conclusions and arguments to be taken seriously in the United States. The Cold War was just ending. The heroic actions of the Russian people in rejecting communism and leading in the dismantling of the Soviet Union were being misinterpreted as an eternal and lasting victory for the United States and for the forces of free market capitalism and minimum government regulation.
Kennedy was therefore subjected to a furious firestorm of abuse, especially from the emerging neoconservatives who under President George W Bush succeeded in imposing their reckless policies on nations across the Middle East and Eurasia. Kennedy, unlike his enraged critics was a gracious and tolerant gentleman as well as great scholar and took the firestorm in his stride.
Now more than 30 years after Kennedy published his great work, we can see how prescient, wise and visionary it truly was.
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