Thirty-five years ago this past January, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was published with consequences that still amaze me. Already by the end of 1987 my editor, Jason Epstein, could sense that this was not going to have the sales of a “normal” work of history. On one occasion he told me that Norman Podhoretz, a leading conservative figure in the US, had roundly attacked my study in the Washington Post, which was a good reason to instruct Random House to print more copies. Reporting for the New Statesman at the time, Christopher Hitchens wrote that Rise and Fall could be seen “spilling out of briefcases” of those who worked in the American capital and was read in the cabinets and chancelleries of the West. After raiding his compound in Abbottabad in 2011, US special forces found a copy among Osama bin Laden’s books.
For weeks it stayed at the top of the non-fiction bestseller lists of the Washington Post, the LA Times and many other papers, being denied the number one spot at the New York Times only by the mysterious mass purchases of a book called Donald Trump: The Art of the Deal. Sales of Rise and Fall in other countries were also huge. In Japan, the book was hurriedly translated in 28 days, and initial sales were around 600,000 copies. Overall, one estimates, world total sales reached around two million.
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Why did this happen, and in such a way? The years 1988 and 1989 were historic. The axes of global power were shifting, and readers sought an explanation. Rise and Fall offered one: geopolitical relevance and military strength is always a product of economic might, which is ever-changing. “The relative strengths of the leading nations in world affairs never remain constant,” I wrote, “principally because of the uneven rate of growth among different societies and of the technological and organisational breakthroughs which bring a greater advantage to one society than to another.” But what had been true of the past would also be true of the present and future: shifts in the productive strength of certain powers relative to the others never stopped, and so no nation could expect to remain number one for ever. Unlike most works of history, Rise and Fall was prescriptive.
That struck a nerve in January 1988, when Ronald Reagan’s America was caught between the twin challenges of Soviet military power on the one hand and Japan’s seemingly irresistible economic rise on the other. It was a time when notions of “decline” and “declinism” were continually evoked in the press, seminar rooms, on talk shows, and in the halls of power. University departments in the West, and many scholarly journals, had been engaged in the study of what was called the “Grand Strategy of the Great Powers”, but that had tended to focus on the diplomacy and military decisions of states during the Second World War, or the early years of the Cold War. Now, it seemed, great-power shifts were occurring in real time, and pundits seemed fascinated by what might happen if America lost its ascendancy. By 1989 it was obvious that the militarily overstretched Soviet Union was declining fast. With attention focused there, few noticed that, at the end of 1991, Japan’s economy was also waning, while China had begun its economic and military ascent.
Nevertheless, when Rise and Fall appeared in January 1988, Reagan’s America was seen to be grappling with so-called imperial overstretch, while the Soviet Union still appeared secure and Japan’s growing economic clout was seemingly assured.
How fast the wheel of fortune turned during the following months. Had the volume appeared three years later, in 1991, when an American-led coalition defeated Saddam Hussein’s armies in the first Gulf War, while Japan’s 30 years of economic expansion had sputtered to a dismal halt and Mikhail Gorbachev was dissolving the USSR, the book may well have missed its moment.
Still, there was something incontrovertible about the argument that a great power’s relative imperial and military position in the world hung upon its relative productive and economic capacity at home, and that uneven growth rates altered the pecking order of states over time. Of all the quotations used in Rise and Fall, perhaps none was more memorable than Lenin’s question to a Bolshevik colleague in 1918:
“Half a century ago, Germany was a miserable, insignificant country, as far as its capitalist strength was concerned, compared with the strength of England at that time. Japan was similarly insignificant compared with Russia. Is it ‘conceivable’ that in ten or 20 years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? Absolutely inconceivable.”
One did not need to share Lenin’s views on capitalist/imperialist states to agree that, as I wrote, “the rule seems common to all national units”. But didn’t this imply that, however far away its time might be, America’s fall would eventually come? When entering the “declinism” debate in the late 1980s, the political scientist Samuel Huntington liked to quote Voltaire’s line: “If Rome and Carthage fell, which country is then immortal?” The US couldn’t remain at the apex of the global order for ever.
As Moscow fell and Tokyo stagnated, Washington’s power rose in relative terms. The US, as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer put it, enjoyed “the unipolar moment”. That moment has gone. China has risen, and now threatens US hegemony in a way that the Soviet Union and Japan never did. China’s population is much larger than the US’s: the USSR’s had only slightly exceeded it and Japan was half its size in 1988. Although China spends a growing share of its economic power on its military, the country is not, as in the late Soviet era, burdened by its armed forces in a way that is starving its domestic industry of resources. (That is a familiar trap that strong nations have historically fallen into, as Rise and Fall detailed.)
It has been a long time since the USSR disintegrated, and a long 30 years since the international landscape looked different. The 2003 Iraq War now seems like a relatively swift act of American retribution against a local troublemaker. And the 20-year-long war in Afghanistan is already fading from collective memory, becoming a historical case study in the military textbooks at West Point.
In 2009, only 14 years ago, President Barack Obama was preparing to deploy a further 30,000 US troops to join the existing 68,000 in Afghanistan. Yet in August 2021, Joe Biden recalled all remaining American forces from Afghanistan, marking, he said, the end of “an era of major military operations to remake other countries”. That was a significant statement. It implied that a 90-year stretch of US strategic interest in distant regions of the globe was over.
In 1943, Franklin D Roosevelt’s secretary for war, Henry L Stimson, had observed that there was no place in the world that was not, “literally, in the interest of the United States…”. In the future, or so it seems, there will be many places where that simply will no longer be true. The American security blanket will be tighter, smaller, limited to those well-known places such as Nato-Europe, Japan, Australia, Israel, Korea, maybe Taiwan, and not much else.
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The relative stability of our great-power world since the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 is worth repeating. Compare the past 25 years of our recent great-power scene with the quarter-century after 1900, for example – there has been no equivalent to the disappearance of a major actor such as the Habsburg empire. Nor has there been anything akin to the quarter-century between 1920 and 1945, with the rise and then total defeat of Europe’s fascist powers.
Our own era of global politics has been much more pacific. The UN’s Department of Peace Operations is currently down to supervising 12 peacekeeping missions, some of them ancient and small (watching over the demarcation lines in Cyprus or Kashmir). Even the larger UN forces (in the South Sudan, or those in Mali) are not that large. None of today’s more powerful nations – Japan, Germany, India, China, the US – are on a war footing, and most of their armed forces are ageing, in varying states of disrepair and shrinking.
The Pentagon is spending vast sums of money on expensive “smart weapons” that mostly stay at home, rather than on a war-alert army, navy and air force. Despite what the media report, not everyone in Washington assumes that a US-China conflict is inevitable.
The anomaly is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The regime’s war against Ukraine is the opposite of what a truly realist strategy should be – namely, a national effort to arrest the country’s long-term economic and structural weaknesses. The rebuilding of Russian power after 1991 has been slowed by a multitude of social and physical weaknesses, above all its awful demographics, poor technological structures and industrial decay. While it relies on exports of oil and gas, in the production of high-tech products (microchips) and consumer goods (cars) it will fall further behind both the newer Asian economies as well as the US. Even if Russia’s politics had been democratised and stabilised during these last few decades, and its economy restarted, it would still have looked far less formidable than a faster-growing India, Korea, Indonesia and China.
Seen from Beijing’s standpoint, the Ukraine war weakens Russia, further separates Moscow from the West, distracts the US from east Asia, and allows China to purchase supplies of Russian gas and oil at heavily discounted prices.
Maybe, in some dark corner of the US State Department, there is a lonely voice bold enough to point out that a Russia bogged down for years in the Ukrainian forests is a relative gain for American power, so we should let it go on. But one doubts it.
Now, in the 21st-century world order, there are six great powers – or slightly-less-than great powers: the EU, Japan, Russia, India, China and the US (with a mere 2.3 per cent of world GDP, the UK is no longer a great power). Of those six, the first two, rather like a post-1815 Spain or Sweden, appear unlikely to precipitate a war that will alter the territorial status quo – although they may be caught up in one as a defensive act. Putin’s Russia remains intent on rewriting the Eurasian map, but it is only damaging itself by trying to do so. That leaves the three largest national powers of all: India, China and the US. If they continue to grow at the rates forecast by the World Bank, their respective shares of total global GDP will look something like this graph by 2050, a mere 27 years away.
It is in these figures that one witnesses the so-called pivot to the East, and the decline of the West. If these projections hold true, then, by the middle years of this century, four or five of the world’s top national economies would be in Asia. Only the US, given its economic heft, would remain in the top ranks. But none of the European states – Germany, Russia, France, the UK or Italy – would individually count for much, as how could a nation be ranked among the great powers if it possessed only 3 or 4 per cent of world GDP? How could a European government claim to be a world player if, say, its navy was only the fifth or sixth largest among the powers? As Rudyard Kipling put it in his prescient 1897 poem “Recessional”: “Far-called, our navies melt away…/Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”
It would, however, be a mistake to treat the EU as an ossified, status quo power. Since the time of the original European Economic Community in 1957 – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany – this European federation has been on the move, peacefully admitting more and more members, and steadily altering the continent’s boundaries as it has brought further countries into the organisation.
It’s not impossible that sympathy in Brussels for Ukraine’s struggle against Russia will lead the EU to offer Kyiv EU membership – if not immediately, then in some cautious, step-by-step fashion. This may even represent a less provocative measure to Moscow than Ukraine’s potential membership of Nato.
Still, if by 2030 there could exist a European Union that includes Ukraine it would be a historic transformation of affairs. A larger EU would have a “Low-Countries-to-the-Caucasus” look to it, similar to that order envisaged by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, with the British (owing to Brexit) and the Russians (thanks to Putin) on the outside. Europe’s arrival on the world scene might be welcomed by policymakers in Washington, hoping that a larger EU, even if a powerful trading competitor, would at last stabilise this historically turbulent continent – and further isolate Russia.
But whatever the size of the EU by the 2030s and beyond, all economic forecasts suggest that it will grow at a slower pace than much of Asia and even Africa, so that its overall share of world GDP will steadily shrink. Richer and older it may become, but never a threat to world order.
No more likely to upset the present territorial status quo is Japan. In the long sweep of history, this fact is remarkable. Eighty years ago, a triumphant Japanese military had conquered almost the entire western Pacific region as far as Burma and occupied a great chunk of Manchuria and most of the Chinese port cities. Even in late 1944 the Japanese army was well over a million men in number.
Today, all that seems hard to remember. Japan has testy relations with Russia regarding disputed islands in the north Pacific, wary relations with South Korea, looks nervously at a rising China, and clings to its bilateral defence pact with the US. Consequently, Japan has a large surface navy – it has more destroyers than the British, French, German and Italian navies combined – and a modern air force; but in both cases, it intends them to be used solely for defensive purposes. Economically prosperous, and with an ageing population, and a steadily diminished share of world GDP, Japan sees no benefit in starting a war.
[See also: What Putin learned from Hitler]
All of this does not mean that in a quarter-century’s time there will exist a tripolar world of America, China and India. For all its swift economic growth, India’s global ambitions may still be hampered by its low-per-capita income, its rural poverty and its internal disparities. Yet a nationally assertive India, which is already evident under Narendra Modi, would be a major and growing player in world affairs. Scorning the fact it was never made a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it will go its own way, sometimes tilting to the West but not for long.
Wary of China’s rise, respectful of US military capacities, happy at times to play the “Russia card”, having little time for Europe and still less for Japan, a proud and touchy India will be increasingly happy to rest upon its own growing strength. With a fleet of a half-dozen or more aircraft carriers by, say, 2050, and with enhanced naval bases around its coastline, it will resent any other great power being active in its own “Indian” Ocean. Long gone will be the need for those joint fleet exercises of Australian, Japanese, American and Indian warships – unless, of course, aggressive actions by Beijing make that still seem necessary. India will look out for itself, and it will be foolish for other governments, such as the US, to think that there exists a “special relationship” between themselves and New Delhi.
While China offers no equivalent to the once giant Red Army threat to western Europe, it may already have a total GDP larger than America’s. This would be the first time in 150 years – since the early 1880s, when Britain remained the paramount power – that the US did not boast the world’s largest national economy. If true, it would be a remarkable geopolitical fact. All the real-politik writers and pundits of yesteryear – Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Samuel Huntington – who uniformly assumed America’s pre-eminence would shake their heads in disbelief. And yet it might be true.
It is easy to find other indicators of China’s fantastically larger output than other nations in sectors such as electric-car production, steel output, and the number of countries worldwide with which it is the main trade partner. But such data do not reveal much about China’s continued weaknesses such as its environmental fragilities, youth unemployment, battered rural conditions, housing bubbles and over-reliance on food imports. And the US’s military advantages (aircraft carriers, attack submarines, global bases, force projection, not to mention its nuclear assets) remain considerable.
Nor do any tables about comparative automobile output help us understand what may happen to our world, and to the situation of the great powers, if the dire forecasts about global warming and its consequent environmental damage are to transpire in the next 30 or 40 years. Ironically, those former great powers, such as France and Britain, that are located in temperate regions and enjoy steady rainfall are much better positioned than stressed-out giants like China and India to handle a world that is 2 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than it is now. It may be that China, which is the world’s largest contributor of greenhouse gases, is the great power that (along with much poorer countries across Africa) experiences the most acute shortages to its water and food supplies as our planet heats up.
If it is difficult to pinpoint China’s real power position in the world today, then it is just as hard to offer a summary of America’s place, let alone to offer a credible forecast of where that nation may be by 2050. When one searches for certain indicators of American strength – its scientific-industrial resources, its unmatched university sector, its fiscal power, its global military and naval reach – it might seem that it could stay ahead of all other powers for a long time to come.
But can the US, whatever its strengths, stay ahead everywhere in an era when both relative productive strength is shifting to the east and there is a general devolution of international power? If it cannot, then from which areas of the globe should it pull back? How should it manage its relative decline? That was the question asked in the closing chapter of Rise and Fall, and the fact that for the past three decades the world order has been relatively stable does not make the issue any less pertinent. If a newer order of things tilts to America’s disadvantage, could the US make hard choices about where to withdraw? Number-one powers that sprawled across the globe in the past – imperial Spain, Edwardian Britain – found it near impossible to prioritise their assets and obligations.
With the EU and Japan in states of genteel retirement, and with the big three of America, China and India displaying a preference for stability – despite the threat of Taiwan – a dramatic transformation in the order appears unlikely. But economic projections also suggest a world order by 2050 that will look very different from the days of Reagan and Bush.
Could this cosy assumption of long-lasting peace between the great powers be wrong? Wasn’t it in May 1914 that Arthur Nicolson, the knowledgeable under-secretary at the Foreign Office, opined that Europe had never appeared so peaceful? So, who could say whether the world today might be about to experience some latter-day July Crisis or Manchurian Crisis that would herald a different era?
“How could you tell at the time,” the late Cambridge historian Zara Steiner used to ask, as she wrestled to complete The Lights That Failed (2005) and The Triumph of the Dark (2011), her two-volume history of interwar diplomacy, “when you had crossed the watershed between two eras?” “How did a diplomat know when you had entered the pre-Second World War period, and were no longer dealing with the post-First World War age?” “Was there anyone around at that time who sensed things were now different?” She persisted: “Did people think things might be truly different after news of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931? Or with the breakdown of the land disarmament talks in 1932? Or with the news that a strongman had been appointed German chancellor in January 1933?” Finally, she would ask: “If they didn’t know back then that a new age had arrived, how could we in our turn recognise if and when we were in a fundamentally different time?” “Most probably,” she answered, “we wouldn’t recognise it at all.”
One can only conclude, then, on a contingent note. Yes, those economic shifts that affected our great-power order in the past are still at work. But now such shifts seem to be taking place only at the subterranean level of relative GDP changes, and not directly affecting the order of states at the top level. It would be a folly, then, to suggest that the pattern of the rise and fall of the great powers has somehow ended, after those centuries of change.
As I put it in Rise and Fall: “Those who assume that mankind would not be so foolish as to become involved in another ruinously expensive great-power war perhaps need reminding that that belief was also widely held for much of the 19th century.” And it would also be a folly to claim to know where the next big change is going to take place, and what the first harbinger of a future hegemonic war could be. But it will arrive.
[See also: The making of EP Thompson]
This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers