The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the 21st Century

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tags: Mark N. Katz



Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, USA), and is the author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Various scholars have sought to identify what the objective criteria are for a state to become and remain a great power—especially a dominant great power or hyperpower.   These include Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers:  Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Vintage Books, 1987); Amy Chua (Day of Empire:  How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall, New York: Doubleday, 2007), and Richard Jackson and Neil Howe (The Graying of the Great Powers:  Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2008).  What I will do here is discuss the model of how a great power rises and falls that each of these set forth, and then discuss what each of these models implies about what great powers are likely to rise and fall at present.

Kennedy’s Conjecture

In his classic book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy described how the rising economic strength of a state not fully engaged in international relations allowed it to gain politico-military strength vis-à-vis those that were more engaged and overextended, but then how its own subsequent politico-military overextension would in turn result in this state becoming weaker versus rising economic powers that were not (yet) overextended.

I well remember how when this book came out in 1987, it received tremendous publicity in the United States for forecasting the decline of the US as a great power.  Kennedy, though, also forecast how it would be difficult for the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Europe (then still in the form of the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union) to remain (or become) great powers.

In 1989-91, of course, it would be the Soviet Empire that would collapse.  In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous article, “The End of history?” in The National Interest, where he argued that this event would result in the inevitable triumph of democracy worldwide.  Since Kennedy’s forecast of decline did not seem to apply to the US, Kennedy’s book was quickly forgotten back then.

Looking back at Kennedy’s forecasts now, what is interesting is that all but one of those countries or international groupings whose future potential as a great power that he discussed then still clearly has the potential to become or remain a great power now.  These are China, Europe, Russia, and America.  Japan is the one country that he forecast could not be a dominant great power that appears unambiguously accurate.  Candidates for great power status that he missed back in 1987 include India (definitely) and Brazil (at least potentially).

What does applying Kennedy’s model to the present forecast?   1) America is clearly the great power that is the most overextended; 2) Europe now has the same problem as Europe did when Kennedy’s book was published:  an unwillingness to project force; and 3) the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—now appear to be adhering to Kennedy’s model for rising great powers:  growing economically while avoiding military engagements.  Whether Russia, India, and China will continue to avoid military engagements, though, is somewhat uncertain.

Chua’s Challenge

In her book Day of Empire, Amy Chua described how states that became and remained hyperpowers had more inclusive and tolerant regimes than their actual or potential competitors, thus allowing the former to more successfully harness the human resources needed to acquire and maintain this status.  But when tolerance in them declined, she warned, this presaged the subsequent loss of their hyperpower status.  This pattern, she argued, was the path taken by the Persian Empire, Roman Empire, Mongol Empire, Dutch Empire, and British Empire (among others).  America, she further argued, became a hyperpower after the end of the Cold War, but that rising intolerance in the US threatens this status.

Obviously, economic and military power is needed.  But if the attractiveness to others is a requisite for being a hyperpower (or even just a great power), what can be said about the attractiveness of our potential candidates to others at present?

The rise of anti-Americanism worldwide, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, suggests that America’s attractiveness is waning.  Although the election of Barack Obama led to hopes (or fears) that this trend could be reversed, his ability to make the positive changes that he has called for appears to be limited by the increasingly intolerant Republican Party which controls the House of Representatives and can block action in the Senate.

As Chua herself argues, China is quite an intolerant country, thus limiting its appeal to others.  As for Russia:  while the Tsarist Empire had significant cultural attractiveness and while the Soviet Union led an ideological movement that was highly attractive worldwide, the appeal of post-Soviet Russia to others (for better or worse) appears quite limited.  India’s cultural attractiveness is growing, but not in the countries neighboring it.  Perhaps Brazil may have this quality of attractiveness to others.  And very strangely, Japan combines a domestic intolerance of foreigners with the possession of a popular culture that has become wildly popular worldwide with young people

Although Chua argues otherwise, the entity with the greatest attractiveness to others at present may be the European Union.  It is the only entity which other countries not only want to join, but willingly alter their behavior for in order to do so.

Demography Is Destiny

Richard Jackson and Neil Howe see population decline and aging as negatively affecting the ability of great powers experiencing them to retain this status.  The implications of their model are straightforward:  the developed world is shrinking and aging while the developing world is growing and remaining relatively young.  In their view, Europe and Russia in particular are especially unlikely to be able to remain great powers.  Developing countries will have the potential to become great powers, but their very youthful populations will make them highly unstable.  Interestingly, America—with its growing population that is aging less rapidly than Europe’s or Russia’s (due to immigration and a higher birth rate) is likely to remain a great power, but will face growing challenges.

Subjective vs. Objective

While there are undoubtedly objective criteria that affect whether states become and remain great powers, public opinion, commentators, and policymakers in different countries often employ highly subjective criteria in making assessments about this.  Policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in various countries often maintain not only that their country deserves to be a great power, but also that because it deserves to be a great power, then it either is, will remain, or will become one.  Similarly, policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in one particular country often maintain that certain other countries do not deserve to be great powers, and therefore they will either not gain or retain this status.

Employing these subjective criteria, then, every country that wants to become or remain a great power can convince itself that it can do so.  Whether or not they actually can, though, is another matter.




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