Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

I have mentioned a number of times a book of my dad's from the late 80s called The Rise and Fall of theGreat Powers. It took me a long time to finish, which is I guess why I mentioned it over a long course of time in multiple blog posts.

I finally finished this book, and wanted to share a few final impressions. First off, I was surprised time and again by the analyses and projections at the end of the book, which lay out possible futures for the US, China, Japan, the EU, and the USSR. Many of them were remarkably prescient—the inevitable demographic and political decline of the Soviet Union (and the radicalization that would work at the heart of its Muslim populations in the wake of the Afghanistan invasion), the uncertain future of the EU which could either go really well or really poorly, the meteoric rise of China. Obviously the author didn't precisely predict the fall of the Eastern bloc, and was pessimistic about the possibility of the EU's consolidating a common currency. He underestimated the pace of China's economic growth, and didn't foresee the stagnation of 1990s Japan.

Most striking to me though was the continued relevance of the themes explored in the book thirty years ago. There is a lot of discussion of nuclear war planning, of the rise of ethnic nationalism and totalitarianism in the 20th century around the Second World War, the inevitable tensions between the US and Russia as leading superpowers, the unresolved detente of the Korean War.  I am sad to say that these themes are regaining relevance today.  If I'd read the book ten years ago, I probably would have thought that it was dated, that nuclear war and a renewed Cold War with Russia were a threat that we just didn't have to worry about anymore.  I likewise wouldn't have dwelled too much on the 1980s tensions in the Korean peninsula.  And the appeal of ethnic nationalism to a defeated people would have been an interesting study in German history, but I wouldn't have so tangibly and immediately applied it to my own country, today.  But these themes that I would have glossed over as relics of the past now seem more relevant than ever.

Another major theme throughout the book's arc, from the Hapsburg era to the 1980s, is the escalating cost of war and weaponry. In this respect, Kennedy predicts that the US and maybe a few others will remain the only superpowers, since it is so expensive to build up a modern military and weaponry systems. However, this is somehwat challenged by the recent trend toward disruption as opposed to full-on major power confrontation. Even important powers like China and Russia are apparently opting for morevolume of lower-tech weapons, because with low-tech weaponry you can disrupt the dominance of a high-tech superpower at a fraction of the cost of maintaining that dominance.  From a recent Reuters article, "Carriers, ... give Washington’s rivals a cheap opportunity to score big. For the cost of a single carrier, ... a rival can deploy 1,227 anti-carrier missiles".

I will close with a long quote from a long-time employee of the State Department on the occasion of his more or less forced retirement.  I think it does a good job of explaining how the US can, or cannot, succeed in diplomacy.  He says that the only way for us to continue to advance our interests in the long-term is by stressing our values and principles.  If we try to dominate through propaganda and misinformation, we will lose out to Russia; we can't compete with them in that field.  If we try to treat diplomacy as a commercial transaction, we will lose out to China, the master of that approach.  But if we appeal to the hope, liberty, the ideals and principles that we stand for, we can continue to hold the attention and the sympathy and the admiration of the rest of the world.

The United States is the world’s greatest economic power, the world’s greatest military power, and with your vigilance, it always will be.  But the greatest power we project is hope, the promise that people can establish liberty in their own country without leaving it....

If we wall ourselves off from the world, we will extinguish Liberty’s projection, as surely as if, as the Gospel says, we hid our lamp under a bushel basket.  If we do not respect other nations and their citizens, we can not demand respect for our citizens.   If our public statements become indistinguishable from disinformation and propaganda, we will lose our credibility.  If we choose to play our cards that way, we will lose that game to the masters in Moscow.  If our interaction with other countries is only a business transaction, rather than a partnership with Allies and friends, we will lose that game too.  China practically invented transactional diplomacy, and if we choose to play their game, Beijing will run the table.

Business made America great, as it always has been, and business leaders are among our most important partners.  But let’s be clear, despite the similarities.  A dog is not a cat.  Baseball is not football.  And diplomacy is not a business.  Human rights are not a business.  And democracy is, most assuredly, not a business.

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