Was Paul Kennedy Right? American Decline 30 Years On


The Offshore Balancer

Editor’s Note: It is with great pride that I announce Patrick Porter joining WOTR’s stable of regular contributors. He will be writing a monthly column for us titled “Offshore Balancer.” – RE

Almost 30 years ago, Yale historian Paul Kennedy touched an American nerve. His study, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, argued for a broad historical pattern. Great powers, in order to remain great powers, had a task that was simple to understand but difficult to execute: to balance wealth and their economic base with their military power and strategic commitments. These states therefore faced a constant triple tension between investment, defense and consumption. Failure to get this balance right risked overextension as a large economy vulnerable to predators like nineteenth century China, as a stagnating over-militarized power like the Soviet Union, or as a credit-addicted, inflexible failure like Phillip II’s Spain.

In its coverage, Kennedy’s book was not primarily about the United States of 1987. It was a comparative analysis of historical polities from Habsburg Spain to Bourbon France to the British Empire. But one 38-page section towards the end of the 698-page argument, added in by Kennedy at the publisher’s request, attracted the most debate. This brief reflection on what it all meant for the United States led to the book getting translated into 23 languages, and got Kennedy invited to testify before Congress. In that section, Kennedy warned that a set of familiar historical pressures, poorly managed, would erode America’s relative power-position in the world. America’s relative power would wane over time — the choice, he argued, was to manage this process prudently, making it as undisruptive and as painless as possible, or to deny it and thereby accelerate it.

The salience of this argument for an anxious superpower was strong. Kennedy’s book spoke to an audience that did not know of America’s imminent and peaceful Cold War victory. It spoke to an audience fretting about America’s place in the pecking order, in an era of high deficits, high defense spending, and perceived market threat from West Germany and Japan.

Kennedy’s prophecies of rise and fall, like all visions of decline, also attracted the interest of those who positively yearn for America’s fall. As we now know, the book found its way onto the shelf of Osama Bin Laden, whose self-appointed historical mission was to bait the “far enemy” into exhaustion and collapse.

And that, right there, is the problem. To forecast decline is to risk the charge of wanting decline, an unjust charge in Kennedy’s case. To warn of decline is to be branded a “declinist,” eliding the important difference between identifying and embracing negative change. It is to risk being hastily associated with some bad company. After all, radical Islamists, totalitarians, and European imperialists have all obsessively desired the failure of the American project. Anti-Americanism in truth is a complex and contradictory thing, and is pronounced among those who crave what America produces. But if the concept of decline, as one former U.S. ambassador to China and presidential candidate once claimed, is considered “un-American,” debating it becomes difficult.

While no sane critic suggests Kennedy is on a par with Bin Laden, Nikita Khrushchev, or Hugo Chavez, they do allege that Kennedy’s stance was not primarily a work of detached judgement, but a suspect ideological commitment. That Kennedy is British, and a pre-eminent student of British maritime and imperial history, prompted the charge most notably from former mandarin Walt Rostow that he was foisting a false analogy and a British historical template onto a distinctive American case.

Most of all, Kennedy’s case was provocative because it offended the very notion of American singularity. In offering a skeptical appraisal of the long-term prospects of the United States as a global hegemon, Kennedy effectively argued that America is not exempt from familiar historical dilemmas, that for all its uniqueness it is ultimately one more great power, whose domination is finite and who is subject to similar dilemmas and constraining forces that burdened the Ottoman, Spanish, Napoleonic or Victorian empires. Nothing is forever, not even the Pax Americana.

Kennedy’s arguments met with analytical rebuttals, from critics such as Samuel Huntington and Joseph S. Nye Jr. who countered that decline arguments were an old school with a poor record of prediction. They pointed out that defence spending is not necessarily an unproductive drain on an economy. If America is an empire, its mode of empire is fundamentally different from past empires with their land hunger and exploitation. Washington integrates willing peoples into an enduring and more liberating system of alliances and markets. Kennedy’s broad brush strokes, they suggested, were ultimately a work of determinism, losing sight of the vital role of choice and chance in the story.

Most of all, they point out that Kennedy had misidentified his target. While Kennedy’s audience was wringing its hands in Washington, it was the Soviet Union, not the United States, that then fell prey to imperial overstretch, while the United States was poised for a post-Cold War moment of economic expansion and the consolidation of its position as sole global leader, with the world’s population seeking out its markets and its patronage.

The gravest charge levelled at Kennedy was a political one. His warnings, they argued, placed him in the broader school of reactionary cultural pessimism. He was afflicted with same intellectual disease that struck Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher who argued, as the Kaiserreich immolated itself in the Great War, that civilizations were organic life forms doomed to go through cycles of growth and decay. Intellectual historian Arthur Hermann acknowledged that Kennedy dreaded collapse rather than looking forward to it — but found that his diagnosis made him sound like Spengler and other “gloomy prognosticators,” a tradition that can trace its descent to Nietzsche.

This matters, because dressing Kennedy up as a reincarnation of Spenglerian determinism makes him easier to dismiss. But can Kennedy be so easily branded as the mouthpiece of an older, cyclical declinism? It is worth revisiting what, in fact, he actually said. From his 38 page diagnosis, we can extract the following claims:

  1. In appraising America’s position, he noted two caveats: that while its share of world power has been declining, its problems are “probably nowhere near as great as those of its Soviet rival,” and that the unstructured nature of its society gives it a “better chance of readjusting” to changing circumstances, provided there is a judicious national leadership.
  2. The longevity of U.S. power faces two challenges: preserving a balance between its defense commitments and the means to sustain them, and preserving the economic base of its power against shifting patterns of production.
  3. America’s aggregation of interests and obligations exceeds the country’s power to defend them all at once. This scale of security obligations was acquired at a time when America’s shares of world gross domestic product, industrial production, and military power were considerably larger, its balance of payments healthier, and its level of indebtedness lower.
  4. Elements of America’s constitutional system of government and political culture impede the reformulation of grand strategy, from domestic lobbies to the electoral system.
  5. No society remains permanently ahead of others, as patterns of growth rates, technological advance or military power do not freeze, but the United States is not destined to shrink to the “relative obscurity” of former leading powers like Spain or the Netherlands, or to disintegrate like the Roman or Austro-Hungarian empires. It is too large and too homogenous for that. America’s relative share of wealth and power will ebb away, but it will long remain “a very significant power in a multipolar world.”
  6. Therefore, the task of American statesmen is to manage these trends so that the erosion takes place “slowly and smoothly.” This decline is relative, not absolute, and the only serious threat will come from failure to adjust sensibly, and America’s problems are less daunting than European powers of the past confronting an array of enemies.

This is notably mild, and not the dramatic declinist argument Kennedy’s opponents seem to portray.

Looking back, Kennedy’s warnings were imperfect. He did not foresee the Asian financial crisis, and it turned out that the future did not yet speak with a Japanese accent. He failed to anticipate America’s resurgence in the dot-com boom, and the swiftness of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But as an account of gradual falling away from unipolar levels of dominance, over decades, it is remarkably insightful. We see evidence of it in the shift of economic weight from West to East. This does not mean a rising China is destined to ascend inexorably at prodigious levels, an improbable scenario that some on Kennedy’s side too quickly entertain. |Like Kennedy’s Soviet Union, its future problems may be worse than America’s, and there is no viable candidate poised to step in and replace the United States. But it does signal that the scale and quality of economic pre-eminence the United States enjoyed may be hard to claw back.

In other fields, we see evidence of this shift in the diffusion of military capabilities, with the spread of anti-access and area denial military technologies that would make it harder for the United States to impose its will at acceptable cost in a crisis in East Asia. And if Kennedy is right that great powers must struggle in balancing investment, consumption, and military spending, the mounting debt-deficit burden, the strains on social welfare, the problem of the lack of savings, and the pressures this could put on “guns versus butter” is already exerting its strain on the American political system.

Underpinning Kennedy’s argument was an astute observation that America’s global position arose in atypical, indeed extraordinary historical conditions, whereby the Old World of Europe shattered itself in World War Two, a war which strengthened America’s economic base and military power, making its relative position artificially strong, a state of affairs that could not go on indefinitely. Decline, in this context, meant not the melodrama of the Occident at sunset, falling into the sea, but a shift from a position of unipolar dominance to becoming a heavyweight in a more polycentric world.

This is a world away from Spengler. Decline to Spengler was a more apocalyptic and operatic thing, over which historical agents had little influence, and was a built-in part of the natural, biological cycle of civilizations, no more avoidable than the death of a plant. Over-expansion, or “imperial overstretch,” and the descent into Caesarism was not a flawed miscalculation but an inexorable consequence of a power’s growth. Each major civilization ended up turning to a man of blood and iron to extend its rule over others.

Kennedy, by contrast, counselled not despair but a series of pragmatic, material adjustments to the “guns versus butter” dilemma, to address the problem of the eroding foundations of power, to counter the difficulty of too much consumption and not enough savings, the problems of deindustrialization and shifting patterns of production, and the deteriorating eco-system of public infrastructure and skills needed to sustain productivity and progress. The United States, he argued, should avoid lapsing into protectionism or isolationism, but retract some commitments and shift some burdens. In other words, Kennedy was no Spenglerian. Quite simply, Spengler was a determinist and a fatalist, for whom decline meant the death of a civilization. Kennedy is not.

Ever since the Great Recession and financial meltdown of 2007-8, debate over the Kennedy thesis has taken on fresh life in new columns and books about the rise and fall of powers. And once again, even mentioning the possibility of decline, reversal, or undesired change is ridiculous in itself to some parties across the spectrum.

The idea that things can get worse, and fall rather than rise, and that structural conditions can make deterioration more likely than resurgence, amuses Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, for whom today’s declinists are haunted by Spengler’s ghost. Gopnik argues that theories of decline rest on predictions about the future, which is unwritten. They do, of course — but so do forecasts about growth or resurgence, and Kennedy gave weight to the importance of choices in handling whatever structural conditions handed down. A falling away from being number one is inevitable eventually — but the circumstances of that fall and its level of violence is where contingency, choices and strategy itself intervenes. Against the charge that he was preoccupied, deterministically, with the physical sinews of power and the economic base, at closer glance Kennedy assigned great importance to the quality of the choices America’s security elite would make.

More problematic is Gopnik’s treatment of decline as a mere intellectual fad. Declinism may be a recurrent intellectual impulse. But the experience of things getting worse against a backdrop of wider change can also be very real. For the West’s blue collar workforce, it is not absurd to suggest that life is harder, poorer, and often lonelier now than it was in decades past. The workforce in the 34 democracies that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development today compared to 1945-1973 has less purchasing power and must work more hours to sustain their income levels, and increasingly resort to welfare, which is not adequately alleviated by cheaper goods from abroad.

This has consequences for a superpower, as the United States loses a large base of well-paying jobs that sustained working communities. Ever greater concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, against the immiseration and breaking up of the working class, creates increasing burdens for the state in the long run, and makes it harder to persuade people to accept any allocation of scarce resources abroad at the expense of rebuilding at home. The greater this problem grows at home, the harder it will be to address while sustaining hegemony.

From a different political direction, there is Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution. In a rebuke of what he sees as Obama’s turning away from America’s historical world mission, Kagan argues that “superpowers don’t get to retire.” It may be so, though retrenchment from some commitments is not the same as retirement from the world stage. But if they are not careful, superpowers can be placed into retirement involuntarily by others, or by their own imprudent choices, or both. And if they don’t carefully husband their resources and keep their power and commitment in balance, states can fall rather than peacefully retire. Kennedy’s opponents accuse him of ideological motives. But Kagan and other hawkish idealists also articulate an ideology of American power, as revivalists who believe it is America’s destiny forever to bounce back after a slump, or eternalists who believe that American market democracy represents the end of history as a coherent, evolutionary process.

Ultimately, America faces the problems of “rise and fall” from a historically better position than its predecessors in the “great power” story. Gradual, long-term erosion is probably a more fitting scenario than sudden collapse: The United States has a large population that is reproducing at a steady rate, a resource-rich landmass and a powerful military, and dominates the lists of Nobel Prizes. Whatever else happens, this is not a senior state likely to step down from the top table. Remaining at the head of the table is another matter. Adopting a more restrained grand strategy can be a prudent step in mitigating this possibility, and prolonging a state’s historical moment. This was Kennedy’s simple, mild and lasting observation. He was wrong on many things, but right on the main point.


Professor Patrick Porter is the academic director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter.  He is the author of The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.