Book Summary: “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul Kennedy

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

Title: The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000
Author: Paul M. Kennedy
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Kennedy examines the rise and fall of Great Powers since 1500 with particular emphasis on Spain, France, Germany, the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union.

If you would like to learn more about how competition between the Great Powers influenced human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

One of the most popular and important non-fiction books of the 1990s. This book still holds up quite well. His argument that military power ultimately comes from economic forces is quite persuasive.

Key Take-aways

  • The relative power of nation/states are constantly rising and falling.
  • Technological and organizational innovation are keys causes in the changes of this relative power.
  • The winners of major wars are generally those that can mobilize the most economic resources.
  • States gain their military power from economic development, but they must be careful not to spend too much of those resources on the military or go to war with too many enemies at once.

Important Quotes from Book

“The relative strengths of the leading nations in world affairs never remain constant, principally because of the uneven rate of growth among different societies and of the technological and organizational breakthroughs which bring a greater advantage to one society than to another.”

“Once their productive capacity was enhanced, countries would normally find it easier to sustain the burdens of paying for large-scale armaments in peacetime and of maintaining and supplying large armies and fleets in wartime. It sounds crudely mercantilistic to express it this way, but wealth is usually needed to underpin military power, and military power is usually needed to acquire and protect wealth. If, however, too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes, then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term. In the same way, if a state overextends itself strategically—by, say, the conquest of extensive territories or the waging of costly wars—it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all—a dilemma which becomes acute if the nation concerned has entered a period of relative economic decline.”

“a very significant correlation over the longer term between productive and revenue-raising capacities on the one hand and military strength on the other.”

“This does not mean, however, that a nation’s relative economic and military power will rise and fall in parallel. Most of the historical examples covered here suggest that there is a noticeable “lag time” between the trajectory of a state’s relative economic strength and the trajectory of its military/territorial influence. Once again, the reason for this is not difficult to grasp. An economically expanding Power—Britain in the 1860s, the United States in the 1890s, Japan today—may well prefer to become rich rather than to spend heavily on armaments. A half-century later, priorities may well have altered.”

“In these more troubled circumstances, the Great Power is likely to find itself spending much more on defense than it did two generations earlier, and yet still discover that the world is a less secure environment—simply because other Powers have grown faster, and are becoming stronger.”

“Great Powers in relative decline instinctively respond by spending more on “security,” and thereby divert potential resources from “investment” and compound their long-term dilemma.

Another general conclusion which can be drawn from the five-hundred-year record presented here is that there is a very strong correlation between the eventual outcome of the major coalition wars for European or global mastery, and the amount of productive resources mobilized by each side.”

“The one feature of Europe which immediately strikes the eye when looking at a map of the world’s “power centers” in the sixteenth century is its political fragmentation.”

“For this political diversity Europe had largely to thank its geography. There were no enormous plains over which an empire of horsemen could impose its swift dominion; nor were there broad and fertile river zones like those around the Ganges, Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Yellow, and Yangtze, providing the food for masses of toiling and easily conquerable peasants. Europe’s landscape was much more fractured, with mountain ranges and large forests separating the scattered population centers in the valleys; and its climate altered considerably from north to south and west to east. This had a number of important consequences. For a start, it both made difficult the establishment of unified control.

“Europe’s differentiated climate led to differentiated products, suitable for exchange; and in time, as market relations developed, they were transported along the rivers or the pathways which cut through the forests between one area of settlement and the next. Probably the most important characteristic of this commerce was that it consisted primarily of bulk products—timber, grain, wine, wool, herrings, and so on, catering to the rising population of fifteenth-century Europe, rather than the luxuries carried on the oriental caravans. Here again geography played a crucial role, for water transport of these goods was so much more economical and Europe possessed many navigable rivers. Being surrounded by seas was a further incentive to the vital shipbuilding industry, ”

“Because much of this trade was carried through the rougher waters of the North Sea and Bay of Biscay—and also because long-range fishing became an important source of nutrient and wealth—shipwrights were forced to build tough (if rather slow and inelegant) vessels capable of carrying large loads and finding their motive power in the winds alone.”

“The political and social consequences of this decentralized, largely unsupervised growth of commerce and merchants and ports and markets were of the greatest significance. In the first place, there was no way in which such economic developments could be fully suppressed.”

“Europe was different in that each of the rival forces was able to gain access to the new military techniques, so that no single power ever possessed the decisive edge.”

“Because there existed a number of competing political entities, most of which possessed or were able to buy the military means to preserve their independence, no single one could ever achieve the breakthrough to the mastery of the continent.”

“What it did, above all else, was to engender a primitive form of arms race among the city-states and then the larger kingdoms.”

“It is important to recall here that when cannon were first employed, there was little difference between the West and Asia in their design and effectiveness… Yet it seems to have been only in Europe that the impetus existed for constant improvements”

Hapsburgs 1519-1659

“What was not yet decided, however, was whether any one of the rival European states could accumulate sufficient resources to surpass the rest, and then dominate them. For about a century and a half after 1500, a continent-wide combination of kingdoms, duchies, and provinces ruled by the Spanish and Austrian members of the Habsburg family threatened to become the predominant political and religious influence in Europe.”

“By 1659, when Spain finally acknowledged defeat in the Treaty of the Pyrenees, the political plurality of Europe—containing five or six major states, and various smaller ones—was an indisputable fact.”

“But perhaps the greatest military advantage possessed by the Habsburgs during these 140 years was the Spanish-trained infantry. ”

“It was these spiraling costs of war which exposed the real weakness of the Habsburg system. The general inflation, which saw food prices rise fivefold and industrial prices threefold between 1500 and 1630, was a heavy enough blow to government finances; but this was compounded by the doubling and redoubling in the size of armies and navies. In consequence, the Habsburgs were involved in an almost continual struggle for solvency.”

“This, then, was to be the Spanish pattern for the next thirty years of war. By scraping together fresh loans, imposing new taxes, and utilizing any windfall from the Americas, a major military effort like, say, Cardinal-Infante’s intervention in Germany in 1634–1635 could be supported; but the grinding costs of war always eventually eroded these short-term gains, and within a few more years the financial position was worse than ever.”

“The second chief cause of the Spanish and Austrian failure must be evident from the narrative account given above: the Habsburgs simply had too much to do, too many enemies to fight, too many fronts to defend.”

“As such, it provides one of the greatest examples of strategical overstretch in history;”

“there was a third, related cause: namely, that the Spanish government in particular failed to mobilize available resources in the most efficient way and, by acts of economic folly, helped to erode its own power”

“Until the flow of American silver brought massive additional revenues to the Spanish crown (roughly from the 1560s to the late 1630s), the Habsburg war effort principally rested upon the backs of Castilian peasants and merchants; and even at its height, the royal income from sources in the New World was only about one-quarter to one-third of that derived from Castile and its six million inhabitants.”

“The post-1450 waging of war was intimately connected with “the birth of the nation-state.” Between the late fifteenth and the late seventeenth centuries, most European countries witnessed a centralization of political and military authority, usually under the monarch (but in some places under the local prince or a mercantile oligarchy), accompanied by increased powers and methods of state taxation, and carried out by a much more elaborate bureaucratic machinery than had existed when kings were supposed to “live of their own” and national armies were provided by a feudal levy.”

“Above all, it was war—and especially the new techniques which favored the growth of infantry armies and expensive fortifications and fleets—which impelled belligerent states to spend more money than ever before, and to seek out a corresponding amount in revenues.”

“The governments in London and St. Petersburg wanted a balance of power on the European continent, and were willing to intervene repeatedly in order to secure an equilibrium which accorded with their interests. In other words, the European states system was becoming one of five Great Powers—France, the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, Britain, and Russia.”

“ the most significant changes occurring in the military and naval fields during the eighteenth century were probably in organization, because of the enhanced activity of the state. The exemplar of this shift was undoubtedly the France of Louis XIV ”

“The creation of a French war ministry, with intendants checking upon the financing, supply, and organization of troops while Martinet as inspector general imposed new standards of training and discipline; the erection of barracks, hospitals, parade grounds, and depots of every sort on land, to sustain the Sun King’s enormous army, together with the creation of a centrally organized, enormous fleet at sea—all this forced the other powers to follow suit, if they did not wish to be eclipsed.”

“Much more important than any of these strictly military developments in explaining the relative position occupied by the Great Powers in the years 1660–1815 were two other factors, finance and geography.”

 “This problem of raising revenue to pay for current—and previous—wars preoccupied all regimes and their statesmen. Even in peacetime, the upkeep of the armed services consumed 40 or 50 percent of a country’s expenditures; in wartime, it could rise to 80 or even 90 percent of the far larger whole! ”

“The inadequacy of Dutch resources in the various wars against France between 1688 and 1748 meant that they needed to concentrate about three-quarters of defense expenditures upon the military, thus neglecting their fleet”

 “France also suffered from being a hybrid power during the eighteenth century, with its energies diverted between continental aims on the one hand and maritime and colonial ambitions on the other.”

“In the period between 1660 and 1815 it was a maritime nation, Great Britain, rather than these continental giants, which made the most decisive advances, finally dislodging France from its position as the greatest of the powers.”

“The war against Britain [by France in 1779] would be fought only overseas, thus dislocating the “continental from the “maritime” arm of traditional British strategy. For the first time ever, the French would concentrate their resources upon a naval and colonial war. The results were remarkable,”

“To a large if incalculable degree, in fact, Napoleonic imperialism was paid for by plunder.”

“[British Empire] for fifty years and more following 1815 the armed services consumed only about 2–3 percent of GNP, and central government expenditures as a whole took much less than 10 percent—proportions which were far less than in either the eighteenth or the twentieth century.24 These would have been impressively low figures for a country of modest means and ambitions. For a state which managed to “rule the waves,” which possessed an enormous, far-flung empire, and which still claimed a large “interest in preserving the European balance of power, they were truly remarkable.”

“While the coming of steam power, the factory system, railways, and later electricity enabled the British to overcome natural, physical obstacles to higher productivity, and thus increased the nation’s wealth and strength, such inventions helped the United States, Russia, and central Europe even more, because the natural, physical obstacles to the development of their landlocked potential were much greater. Put crudely, what industrialization did was to equalize the chances to exploit one’s own indigenous resources and thus to take away some of the advantages hitherto enjoyed by smaller, peripheral, naval-cum-commercial states and to give them to the great land-based states.”

“The Prussian “military revolution” of the 1860s, soon to produce what Disraeli would grandly term the “German revolution” in European affairs, was based upon a number of interrelated elements. The first of these was a unique short-service system, pushed through by the new King Wilhelm I and his war minister against their Liberal opponents, which involved three years’ obligatory service in the regular army and then another four in the reserve before each man passed into the Landwehr—which meant that the fully mobilized Prussian army had seven annual intakes. Since no substitutes were permitted, and the Landwehr could take over most garrison and “rear area” duties, such a system gave Prussia a far larger front-line army relative to its population than any other Great Power had.”

“The body imparting control to this force was the Prussian General Staff, which rose from obscurity in the early 1860s to be “the brains of the army” under the elder Moltke’s genius. Hitherto, most armies in peacetime had consisted of combat units, supported by quartermaster, personnel, engineering, and other branches; actual military staffs were scrambled together only when campaigning began and a command was established. In the Prussian case, however, Moltke had recruited the brightest products of the War Academy and taught them to plan and prepare for possible future conflicts”

“The real point about the Prussian system was not that it was free of errors, but that the general staff carefully studied its past mistakes and readjusted training, organization, and weapons accordingly.”

“all of these wars—whether fought in the Tennessee Valley or the Bohemian plain, in the Crimean Peninsula or the fields of Lorraine—pointed to one general conclusion: the powers which were defeated were those that had failed to adopt to the “military revolution” of the mid-nineteenth century, the acquisition of new weapons, the mobilizing and equipping of large armies, the use of improved communications offered by the railway, the steamship, and the telegraph, and a productive industrial base to sustain the armed forces”

The Berlin West Africa Conference [in 1884-85] can be seen, symbolically, as the zenith of Old Europe’s period of predominance in global affairs.”

“Within another three decades—a short time indeed in the course of the Great Power system—that same continent of Europe would be tearing itself apart and several of its members would be close to collapse. Three decades further, and the end would be complete; much of the continent would be economically devastated, parts of it would be in ruins, and its very future would be in the hands of decision-makers in Washington and Moscow.”

“Two factors ensured that the rise of imperial Germany would have a more immediate and substantial impact upon the Great Power balances than either of its fellow “newcomer” states. The first was that, far from emerging in geopolitical isolation, like Japan, Germany had arisen right in the center of the old European states system… The second factor was the sheer speed and extent of Germany’s further growth, in industrial, commercial, and military/naval terms.”

“But the German Empire was weakened by its geography and its diplomacy. Because it lay in the center of the continent, its growth appeared to threaten a number of other Great Powers simultaneously.”

“Germany did possess unique features which were of great import. It was the one Great Power which combined the modern, industrialized strength of the western democracies with the autocratic (one is tempted to say irresponsible) decision-making features of the eastern monarchies. It was the one “newcomer” Great Power, with the exception of the United States, which really had the strength to challenge the existing order. And it was the one rising Great Power which, if it expanded its borders farther to the east or to the west, could only do so at the expense of powerful neighbors”

“After 1870, however, the shifting balance of world forces was eroding British supremacy in two ominous and interacting ways. The first was that the spread of industrialization and the changes in the military and naval weights which followed from it weakened the relative position of the British Empire more than that of any other country, because it was the established Great Power.

“The second, interacting weakness was less immediate and dramatic, but perhaps even more serious. It was the erosion of Britain’s industrial and commercial preeminence, upon which, in the last resort, its naval, military, and imperial strength rested.”

“For what was happening [in Russia] was that a country of extreme economic backwardness was being propelled into the modern age by political authorities obsessed by the need “to acquire and retain the status of a European Great Power. Thus, although one certainly can detect considerable self-driven entrepreneurial activities, the great thrust toward modernization was state-inspired and related to military needs—railways, iron and steel, armaments, and so on. ”

“by 1913 the average Russian had 50 percent more of his income appropriated by the state for current defense than did the average Englishman, even though the Russian’s income was only 27 percent of that of his British contemporary.”

“Of all the changes which were taking place in the global power balances during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there can be no doubt that the most decisive one for the future was the growth of the United States.”

“The United States seemed to have all the economic advantages which some of the other powers possessed in part, but none of their disadvantages.”

“U.S. national income, in absolute figures and per capita, was so far above everybody else’s by 1914.”

“It was, in fact an entire rival continent and growing so fast that it was coming close to the point of overtaking all of Europe.”

“These [pre-WW I] coalitions meant that even if one belligerent was heavily beaten in a campaign or saw that its resources were inadequate to sustain further conflict, it was encouraged to remain in the war by the hope—and promises—of aid from its allies… the alliance system itself virtually guaranteed that the war would not be swiftly decided, and meant in turn that victory in this lengthy duel would go—as in the great coalition wars of the eighteenth century—to the side whose combination of both military/naval and financial/industrial/technological resources was the greatest.”

“By concentrating lopsidedly on producing munitions, the military managers of the German economy thus brought the country to the verge of starvation by the end of 1918.”

“While it would be quite wrong, then, to claim that the outcome of the First World War was predetermined, the evidence presented here suggests that the overall course of that conflict—the early stalemate between the two sides, the ineffectiveness of the Italian entry, the slow exhaustion of Russia, the decisiveness of the American intervention in keeping up the Allied pressures, and the eventual collapse of the Central Powers—correlates closely with the economic and industrial production and effectively mobilized forces available to each alliance during the different phases of the struggle.”

“The United States in those years [1920s] was producing “a larger output than that of the other six Great Powers taken together”

“The Allies possessed twice the manufacturing strength (using the distorted 1938 figures, which downplay the U.S.’ share), three times the “war potential,” and three times the national income of the Axis powers, even when the French shares are added to Germany’s total. By 1942 and 1943, these figures of potential power were being exchanged into the hard currency of aircraft, guns, tanks, and ships… What is more, the Allies were producing many newer types of weapons (Superfortresses, Mustangs, light fleet carriers), whereas the Axis powers could only produce advanced weapons (jet fighters, Type 23 U-boats) in relatively small quantities.”

“The most staggering change came with the more than eightfold rise in American arms output between 1941 and 1943, which meant that by the latter year the Allied total was over three times that of its foes—thereby finally realizing that imbalance in “war potential” and national income which had existed embryonically at the very beginning.”

“The years 1940 to 1944, industrial expansion in the United States rose at a faster pace—over 15 percent a year—than at any period before or since… Among the Great Powers, the United States was the only country which became richer—in fact, much richer—rather than poorer because of the war.”

“It has been argued throughout the book that so far as the international system is concerned, wealth and power, or economic strength and military strength, are always relative and should be seen as such. Since they are relative, and since all societies are subject to the inexorable tendency to change, then the international balances can never be still, and it is a folly of statesmanship to assume that they ever would be. Given the anarchic and competitive nature of rivalries between nations, the history of international affairs over the past five centuries has all too frequently been a history of warfare, or at least of preparation for warfare”

“The outcome of all of the major, lengthy wars among the Great Powers which have been surveyed here repeatedly points to the crucial influences of productive economic forces—both during the struggle itself, and during those periods between wars when differentiated growth rates cause the various Powers to become relatively stronger or weaker. To a large degree, the outcome of the great coalition wars of the period 1500–1945 confirms the shifts which have been taking place, over a longer period, at the economic level. The new territorial order established at the end of each war thus reflects the redistribution of power which has been taking place within the international system. The coming of peace, however, does not stop this process of continual change; and the differentiated pace of economic growth among the Great Powers ensures that they will go on, rising and falling, relative to each other.”

“The conundrum which has exercised strategists and economists and political leaders from classical times onward. To be a Great Power—by definition, a state capable of holding its own against any other nation—demands a flourishing economic base… “Yet by going to war, or by devoting a large share of the nation’s “manufacturing power” to expenditures upon “unproductive” armaments, one runs the risk of eroding the national economic base, especially vis-à-vis states which are concentrating a greater share of their income upon productive investment for long-term growth.”

  1. “War in World History (Vol 1)” by Morillo, Black and Lococo
  2. “War in World History (Vol 2)” by Morillo, Black and Lococo
  3. “Conquests and Cultures” by Thomas Sowell
  4. “The Pursuit of Power” by William McNeill
  5. “War: What is It Good for?” by Ian Morris
  6. “A History of Warfare” by John Keegan
  7. “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators…” by Peter Turchin
  8. “Military Revolution and Political Change” by Brian Downing
  9. “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John Mearsheimer

If you would like to learn more about how competition between the Great Powers influenced human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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