Paul Kennedy’s exegesis on the intersection of economic capacity, extraterritorial ambition and political reality is what Monty Python might refer to as “a bloody big book.” Indeed weighing in at 677 pages, it is more than up to the task of putting down your budgerigar, if that’s on your to do list. Notwithstanding that fact and its subject matter, for a serious reader it is an accessible and readable treatment of subject that is often presented in quite the opposite fashion.This is not to say that the level of detail provided may prove to be more than what many non-academic readers might prefer. Given that Kennedy relies on more than 500 years of years of European history for most of its underlying data, that detail is considerable, on which more below.
Kennedy’s central thesis is summarized in the promotional material as follows:
As the relative strengths of leading nations in world affairs never remains constant, there is an optimum balance between wealth creation and military strength over the long term. Time and again the leading power believed that it could neglect wealth production in favor of military adventures but others waiting in the wings closed the gap, the relative strength was eroded and a long, slow decline of the once-leading power followed….
That’s all well and good, but the question then turns to how many pages should be delegated to presenting the theory, and how many to substantiating it? A further sample from the blurb goes on to give you an idea where Kennedy strikes the balance:
…Warlike rivalries between European states stimulated advances, economic growth and military effectiveness. The Habsburg bid for power was ultimately unsuccessful because other European states worked together, the Habsburgs overextended in repeated conflicts during which they became militarily top heavy upon a weakening economic base. The other European states managed a better balance between wealth creation and military power. The power struggles between 1600 and 1815 were more complicated as Spain and the Netherlands declined while France, Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia rose to dominate diplomacy, and warfare. Britain gained an advantage by creating an advanced banking and credit system and, together with Russia had the capacity to intervene while being geographically sheltered from the center of conflict….
If that sounds like a bit of a snooze to you, well, for the first few years of the period covered, it can be, given the hundreds of small states comprising Europe at that time and Kennedy’s reticence not to give any of them proper attention. But it’s easy to skim past the fiddly bits, if you’re so inclined, in order to follow the bigger story line.
To be fair, anyone that tackles an historical topic that spans a long time period faces the dilemma of how much background knowledge to assume the reader will have below decks when she enters the picture. Some authors, like Piers Brendon, in his (otherwise) magnificent Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1781 – 1997), which addresses a good bit of the same subject matter, assume that the reader took a degree in British History from Oxford, tantalizing and titillating (but explaining virtually nothing) as he romps through centuries and across the globe. Others, like Kennedy, take no chances – and then some.
Accordingly, unless you unless you enjoy reading history for history’s sake and not for the sort of narrative approach commonly found in non-fiction books that find their way onto best seller lists, you may want to let this one go by. And even if you’re a serious student of political economy, you may wish that Kennedy had spent somewhat more time developing and discussing his thesis than presenting the supporting data in such detail.
But enough of the down side. If you’re a serious student of history and realize that most of your reading to date has left economics out of the picture, then this will be an interesting and worthwhile read. In particular, Kennedy’s final chapters (completed just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and offering thoughts on what the future may hold), make for an interesting read. The fact that the decades that follow have not always tracked his expectations detract nothing form the careful development of his analysis.