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History is a wonderful study, a professor of mine once commented, of the interlocking circles of influence, whereby one can find often that an obscure arranged marriage in the Dark Ages could be responsible for a thermonuclear exchange or a hostile corporate takeover today.
Of course, he was exaggerating, but only by a matter of degrees. History is the study of the interconnexions of human beings in their actions over time, and to that end, the more we understand of the past, the better chance we have of surviving and flourishing into the future.
Paul Kennedy's book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is an insightful, sweeping examination of the centuries of the growth and dominance and, lately, relative decline of the European powers over the rest of the globe. To a lesser extent (because they were lesser players) he draws in Asian, and finally, American players, although as will be seen, they began to play the game according to the European rules.
He pays particular attention to the economic and military aspects of the motivations of national and ethnic decision-making; so often history (or at least popular history) has portrayed such as purely political, religious (at least until the last few centuries), or royal-family intrigues. Kennedy explores the forgotten aspects in a popular format; hence the question (as the Gulf War is almost universally recognised as, in reality, a war of economic necessity rather than for political or moral purpose, which tended to be added later)--were the Hapsburgs responsible? Rather, that is a way of asking, are the same motivations that were at play with Great Power relationships in 1500 still at play today? Have we learned anything?
At the beginning of 1500, it was by no means certain that Europe would become the dominant region of powers in the world. China was in decline but still perhaps the greatest power. Empires in India, Japan, and around Muscovy were also contenders. To their detriment, however, each of these powers tended to be isolated and introspective, more concerned with internal consistency and preservation of 'a way of life', whereas the smaller European powers had to compete with each other, and adapt and improve to survive. 'This dynamic of technological change and military competitiveness drove Europe forward in its usual jostling, pluralistic way.'
Occasionally, Europe tended toward the Asian models, particularly with the dominance of the Hapsburgs who, at their height, controlled much of Europe and began to insist on the same kinds of religious, historical, mercantile and cultural conformity that cost the other empires their vitality.
Great power struggles that occurred between 1660 and 1815 are difficult to characterise briefly, but chiefly is marked by the emergence of a cluster of powerful states which came to dominate diplomacy and militarily. After the Napoleonic era, there was a lull in Great Power warfare, until this century, when even the flank powers of Britain and Russia were a bit too central to the conflicts to survive with both military and economic strength intact.
'Given this book's concern with the interaction between strategy and economics, it seemed appropriate to offer a final (if necessarily speculative) chapter to explore the present disjuncture between the military balances and the productive balances among the Great Powers; and to point to the problems and opportunities facing today's five large politico-economic power centres...as they grapple with the age-old task of relating national means to national ends. The history of the rise and fall of the Great Powers has in no way come to a full stop.'
These Kennedy identifies as The United States, Japan, the EEC, the Russian States, and China. Of course, this has the possibility of shifting, too, as countries such as India and Brazil acquire more military and economic strength; countries such as Indonesia that are resource- and population-rich could also achieve Great Power status before long (historically speaking).
Kennedy pays homage to the Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke, who wrote about die grossen Mächte in 1833, following since the fall of Spain. von Ranke also produces speculative chapters; perhaps it is natural for historians to want to chart the course of the future as well as mapping out the past.
This book reads like an epic, but is generally accessible (though somewhat intricate) and gives interesting insights, and is significant for what is does not address (many political scientists and historians will find some major theories ignored) as well as for the fresh approaches it does employ. Best read with other history books.