Paul Kennedy: Is America Really in Decline?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Paul Kennedy is a professor of history and director of international security studies at Yale University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.]

Where on earth is the United States headed? Has it lost its way? Is the Obama effect, which initially promised to halt the souring of its global image, over? More seriously, is it in some sort of terminal decline? Has it joined the long historical list of number one powers that rose to the top, and then, as Rudyard Kipling outlined it, just slowly fell downhill: “Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / At one with Nineveh and Tyre”? Has it met its match in Afghanistan? And has its obsession with the ill-defined war on terrorism obscured attention to the steady, and really much more serious, rise of China to the center of the world’s stage? Will the dollar fall and fall, like the pound sterling from the 1940s to the 1970s?

It is easy to say “yes” to all those questions, and there are many in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and in the United States itself, who do so. But there is another way to think about America’s current position in today’s mightily complicated world, and it goes like this: All that is happening, really, is that the United States is slowly and naturally losing its abnormal status in the international system and returning to being one of the most prominent players in the small club of great powers. Things are not going badly wrong, and it is not as if America as becoming a flawed and impotent giant. Instead, things are just coming back to normal.

How would this more reassuring argument go? Well, we might start with a historical comparison. In about 1850, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm points out in his great work Industry and Empire, the small island-state of Britain produced perhaps two-thirds of the world’s coal, half its iron, five-sevenths of its steel, and half of its commercial cotton cloth. This extraordinary position was indeed abnormal; that is, it could not last forever. And as soon as countries with bigger populations and resources (Germany, the United States, Russia, Japan) organized themselves along British lines, it was natural that they would produce a larger share of world product and take a larger share of world power and thus cut Britain’s share back down to a more normal condition....

So why should we not look at America, and America’s present and future condition, in the same calm way? It is of course a much broader and more populous country than Britain was and is, and possesses far more natural resources, but the long-term trajectory is roughly the same. After 1890, the United States had slowly overtaken the British Empire as the world’s number one by borrowing critical technologies (the steam engine, the railway, the textile factory), and then adding on its own contributions in chemical and electrical industries, and blazing the way in automobile and aircraft and computer hardware/software production. It was assisted by the good fortune of its geographic distance from any other great power (as Britain was by its insularity), and by the damage done elsewhere by World Wars I and II (as Britain was by the damage done elsewhere by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars). By 1945, therefore, America possessed around half of the world’s GNP, an amazing share, but no less than Britain’s a century earlier when it held most of the world’s steam engines. But it was a special historical moment in both cases. When other countries began to play catch-up, these high shares of world power would decline....

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Oussama Harb - 12/24/2010

The author has made his point, but in the other hand his reasons were not solid. European economic power and Chinese military and economic power are growing steadily and I think in the next 50-100 years,the
US might lose much of its brilliance.
The influx of Hispanic will play a negative effect on America's society and later policies.I think that the next certain war with either China
and/or Russia over Korea or with Iran and it's Muslim allies over Israel will be decisive. Either it will prolong the age of the US empire for one or two centuries or it will bring it down since we know that these superpowers will use their nucclear weapon to ensure their victory !