In the future, Paul Kennedy wrote 35 years ago, a United States in decline would be relegated to the place of “a significant power in a multipolar world”. However inaccurate several of his prognostications in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers turned out to be – Kennedy failed to ascertain how close the Soviet Union was to collapsing and that the Japanese economic miracle would end in a lost decade of recession – his foresight about America’s relative decline in the face of rising multipolarity looks prescient. There is growing agreement about this reordering of the world among the powerful. “New centres of power are emerging, the world in the 21st century is multipolar,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote in Germany’s first National Security Strategy in June this year. In July António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, released a policy brief announcing that the “post-Cold War period is over, and we are moving towards a new global order and a multipolar world”. Even the investment bank Morgan Stanley recently published a “Practical Guide to the Multipolar World”.
But Kennedy also stressed that the emergence of a multipolar world would not imperil the United States’ status as a superpower. America “would still remain a superpower – simply because of its size”, he wrote in 1987. It is a view he maintains today. In his New Statesman essay marking the 35th anniversary of the book’s publication, Kennedy writes that the US is the only Western country that will remain a superpower. “Only the US, given its economic heft, would remain in the top ranks,” he asserts. The other two future superpowers Kennedy envisions are China and India, heralding a “pivot to the East”. And as Kennedy anticipates, American decline – already under way – will not resemble an apocalyptic Spenglerian collapse, but rather happen slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly, over a much longer period.
Kennedy’s work hinges on the theory, as he writes in his essay, that a superpower’s “geopolitical relevance and military strength is always a product of economic might, which is ever-changing”. Put another way, great powers, if they are to remain great, must balance the domestic economy and wealth with military might and “enduring commitments”. Neglecting any part of the delicate “guns, butter and investment” formula risks triggering decline. A superpower which places too much weight on military might, for example, while allowing economic stagnation in the homeland will inevitably lead to loss of great power status (the late Soviet Union is the most frequently cited example of this malaise). Put in crude Trumpian terms, political leaders who aspire to sustain America’s great power status must thread the needle between “America First” and “America Last”. According to Kennedy’s logic, believers in the benevolence of American empire shouldn’t disparage concerns about the evisceration of the working class as mere isolationism with echoes of white supremacy, or admonish those who point to the vast homelessness crisis when questioning unlimited military aid to foreign countries; in his formulation, addressing these domestic problems is not at odds with America’s continued outsized presence on the world stage, but integral to maintaining it.
[See also: The tragedy of John Mearsheimer]
Perhaps it is little wonder then that the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, which prepared the way for the US-led Nato intervention in the former Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s, emerged at the height of the “unipolar moment” – a time of unparalleled American confidence and domestic contentment. For Americans during that period, history was something that happened to other people. “As Moscow fell and Tokyo stagnated,” Kennedy writes of that time, “Washington’s power rose in relative terms.” During the second half of that decade, real economic growth averaged 4.5 per cent a year and unemployment dropped to 4 per cent. Inflation was low. Consumption as a share of GDP grew continuously through the decade to more than 68 per cent by the turn of the millennium. Growing investment followed. The triple tension at the heart of Kennedy’s thesis – balancing consumption, defence and investment – allowed for a more expansive approach to foreign policy, and the undertaking of more strategic commitments.
But as Kennedy points out in his essay, the “90-year stretch of US strategic interest in distant regions of the globe [is] over”, forecasting that the perimeters of American security would no longer span the globe. As Kennedy wrote in 1987, the US “is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments which had been made decades earlier, when the nation’s political, economic, and military capacity to influence world affairs seemed so much more assured”. In Kennedy’s view, this means US presence in the world must inevitably be scaled back. The US retreat from Afghanistan in 2021 sent an unsettling message to its dependants in other regions of waning interest. One such corner of the world is the Balkans. In recent years, a host of articles and policy recommendations have cautioned against American retreat there. Many have argued that the US role in the region remains “indispensable”, and that Washington’s accommodation of Serbia’s autocratic president, Aleksandar Vučić, to maintain stability is an abdication of its stated liberal-democratic values. An essay published by the New Lines Institute, a think tank, titled “US Policy in the Balkans Under Biden: Accommodating Nationalist Hegemons for Managerial Simplicity”, lays this frustration bare. But calls to revive US engagement in the region have largely been ignored. With Euro-Atlantic eyes fixed on Ukraine, the ebb of American power from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia now appears inexorable.
In his essay, Kennedy is perhaps at his weakest when predicting what will happen with respect to the EU. Though he acknowledges that none of the European countries would “count for much” individually, he maintains that the EU should not be underestimated as an “ossified power”, suggesting, as many optimists have, that Ukraine may be extended membership by 2030.
This view has gained momentum in some influential circles in Brussels since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as proponents say the war can breathe new life into the project of enlargement. But the experiences of EU candidate countries in the western Balkans tell a bleaker story, as member states such as Bulgaria and Greece have blocked accession talks for North Macedonia over matters of contested history, identity and language that appear trivial to outside observers. The recent bickering between Ukraine and Poland over grain imports also does not portend well for an untroubled enlargement process: last week Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, castigated the Polish government for extending a ban on cheap Ukrainian grain imports, which Warsaw says hurts its own domestic farmers. The increasingly bitter spat has underscored that a renewed commitment to EU enlargement would mean many more obstacles to come.
Kennedy also assumes that the EU will retain a cohesive foreign policy, “stabilising a historically turbulent continent and further isolating Russia”. But there is no promise that the individual foreign policies of member states will comport with that wish: on 30 September, Slovakia will hold elections and its populist candidate, Robert Fico, who has criticised Nato and is demanding peace negotiations in Ukraine, may well win; the far-right Alternative for Germany – a party that does not hide its Kremlin sympathies – has risen to second place in the polls, and even diehard Ukraine supporters such as Poland are starting to show compassion fatigue. The EU’s chronic inability to “speak with one voice” will probably imperil its status as what Kennedy calls a “slightly-less-than-great power”, let alone allow it to become a great one.
This is the first of a series of replies to Paul Kennedy’s recent New Statesman cover story: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers redux
[See also: The EU is the “illusory giant” of geopolitics]
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power