In the judgment of Yale historian Paul Kennedy, a world in which a shrunken America is just primus inter pares, “one of the most prominent players in the small club of great powers,” is all but inevitable, a natural turning of the seasons. While many on the left would welcome such an egalitarian future — it is not “a bad thing,” Kennedy claims — the rest of the world, especially liberal-democratic nations, may quibble just a bit with this rather prosaic and utilitarian view of global power.
Kennedy — who was my colleague at Yale for most of the last decade — made his reputation by limning the “rise and fall of great powers,” and his most recent article in The New Republic, “Back to Normalcy,” is but a variant of this oft-played theme. Galloping widely through the last half-millennium of Western history, he purports to show how America’s global position rests on an increasingly unstable three-legged stool of “soft power,” economic power, and military power. Each is eroding as other nations rise. In Kennedy’s telling, the ability to challenge America for regional or possibly global leadership is merely a matter of aping American models and asserting the national will.
This view may not be incorrect in tracing current trends and perhaps even in sketching the rough contours of the near future. Yet this argument lacks any moral component and is overly dismissive of the sources of both domestic power and global stability.
In the clinical view that Kennedy takes, the United States (and before it, Great Britain) is, in the end, simply interchangeable with all previous and future great powers, and its unique domestic society and global behavior are but epiphenomenal. The best that Kennedy can do is a grudging acknowledgment that “we should all be careful to wish away a reasonably benign American hegemony; we might regret its going.” Such are the wages paid to nearly two centuries of liberal growth and international stewardship.
Nowhere in Kennedy’s ruminations do the words “liberty” or “freedom” appear, and he mentions democracy only once, when recounting Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye’s analysis of the global effects of American power. The indivisible links among a given society’s domestic structure, its national strength, and its international position are thus dismissed.
There is no recognition either that national greatness over the long term must come from the character of a given society or that the nature of the hegemonic country will determine to a great degree the nature of the international system. It is no accident that Great Britain and the United States became so powerful and stable. Surely, the unique combination of ever-more-efficient capitalist financing and production along with slowly expanding democracy should be accounted the prime source of Anglo-American greatness.
To this potent mix was accreted generations of evolution in social trust, transparency in economic interactions, and the firming of the bedrock of law. All of these accelerated industrial development, and thereby human wellbeing, more evenly and for a longer period of time than did any other system in history. To treat them as but an incidental factor in the rise to power of Great Britain and the United States is to eviscerate one’s explanatory scheme and make any predictions a risky gamble. China’s attempt to continue growing without developing mechanisms of self-expression, trust, and impartial law is an experiment the world will watch keenly over the coming decades, but only a reckless prognosticator would assume that such growth is inevitable. It is not so simple as playing “catch-up,” in Paul Kennedy’s words, even if America’s relative economic strength will indeed decline over time.
Kennedy’s thesis also glides over the sources of international norms, stability, and the provision of global public goods. On the global stage, countries ruled by law and in which the people are sovereign act very differently from those ruled by an oligarchy. Kennedy’s realist vision is one in which states are but indistinguishable billiard balls, knocking into each other on a cosmic pool table. Yet cultural preferences must surely explain the post-1945 international behavior of Washington, London, Ottawa, and Canberra, to name a few. Providing public goods through such actions as ensuring freedom of the seas, hosting and nurturing international organizations, and supporting democracy worldwide marked the second half of the 20th century as one of the most progressive in history. No one can think that today’s liberal international order, as flawed and often ineffective as it is, is less preferable to a 19th-century colonialist balance-of-power system, or to a future dominated by China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.