History and geopolitics begin with the tectonic forces of geography, economics, military power, and so forth, that Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) conveys in a sweeping, brilliant manner. His reflection, 35 years after the book’s publication, is in its own way equally magisterial. However, as Kennedy himself suggests, global history isn’t only about grand deterministic forces, but about the scarcely predictable contingencies that arise from the psychologies and decisions of leaders themselves, who are often in the throes of passion when they make such decisions. This is why, while you can map out great power movements and changes over the decades and centuries, knowing what will happen next, even in five years, say, is so maddeningly elusive.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been the greatest geopolitical event since the end of the Cold War. But it was a very personal decision that resided within the realm of Shakespeare, as most of the Russian elite did not think that in the final analysis the president would actually invade; nor did they want him to. But once he did so, this essentially Shakespearean act set off a chain reaction of vast geopolitical events. To wit, following its shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan the year before, the Biden administration had to consider what its reputation for power would be if it had denied weapons to Ukraine following Russia’s multi-pronged tank assault, the start of massive human rights violations, and after the Ukrainians had showed a demonstrable willingness to fight. A Trump administration probably would have chosen not to support Ukraine nearly to the same degree, leading to a whole cascade of different geopolitical consequences in Europe than those we have seen emerge from Joe Biden’s decision to arm Kyiv. And while the 2020 presidential election in the US was not stolen, it was extremely close. This is why Kennedy has gotten as close as humanly possible to revealing the movements of history, but still can’t close the deal; because at the end of the day, as Tolstoy suggests in War and Peace, the summation of so many complex and numerous phenomena making up human events are simply impossible to fathom in advance.
[See also: The tragedy of John Mearsheimer]
Furthermore, the Biden administration now has a decision to make. It cannot continue to spend tens of billions of dollars on a war with limited goals indefinitely, especially as some of the armaments being sent were meant as stockpiles for a potential war over Taiwan. That could constitute a quagmire of its own, albeit of a lesser sort compared to Iraq and Vietnam where the Americans had untold troops on the ground. So what will happen, and what will the second- and third-order geopolitical effects be? A great historian like Kennedy can set the stage, but ultimately he cannot tell us what will transpire. It’s actually not his job, nor within the realm of human knowledge.
The most arresting insight that Kennedy has given us is that change in the distribution of power is constant, and therefore dominance is fleeting. The only question is when and how a great power’s moment in the sun will come to an end. This is a particularly poignant principle when it comes to the United States, which seems to be able to cheat decline, despite all the declinists in its midst. Why is that so? For one thing, America has an inordinate abundance of geographical bounty: bounded by two oceans, yet close to the globe’s principal sea lanes; located in the temperate zone, with only its southern land border with Mexico problematic; an internal, navigable river system beyond comparison which creates a domestic market of scale; and an abundance of natural resources. There are also America’s sturdy institutions and separation of powers, along with its boisterous democracy, which several times in the past 250 years allowed it to emerge from internal crises, including a civil war, with renewed dynamism. The United States, just as 35 years ago when Kennedy published his book, remains his greatest challenge. When will we know that the United States is truly in decline?
China is another mystery. Its economic and financial problems are mammoth. And with Xi Jinping’s renewal of strict Leninist autocracy, there are now Communist ideologues entrusted with more and more financial decisions. That might not end well. A true economic crisis in China could ignite widespread social unrest. Xi’s obsession with Taiwan, moreover, might constitute a death wish on a scale with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Yet China has gone through several iterations over the past century: Chiang Kai-shek’s Confucian warlordism; Mao Zedong’s revolutionary anarchy; Deng Xiaoping’s far-sighted mandarinate; and Xi Jinping’s rigid Leninist autocracy. The future could see other leaders and styles of rule in China that will pivotally affect great power relations. One thing I am confident about, though, is that whatever geopolitics holds in store for us, it will loosely fit within the rubric of Kennedy’s book.
This is the second of a series of replies to Paul Kennedy’s recent New Statesman cover story: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers redux