Lesson from five centuries of history: there's no imperial free lunch

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The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy. New York: Random House. 677 pp. $24.95. Here is an imposing book, awash with data, generalizations, and cautionary themes, its purpose nothing less than the interpretation of five centuries of imperial ebb and flow, first in the European peninsula, then the world as a whole.

The focus is on geopolitics, war and weaponry, military and diplomatic trends, and the economic and technological power underlying it all. The thesis is simple, perhaps overly so: that great powers, with hegemony their inevitable goal, eventually overstretch themselves, becoming trapped between growing commitments and dwindling income - and resistance to taxes - and so stumble downhill while competitors emerge.

The relevance to Reagan's America is obvious, as are allusions to restraint, prudence, accepting pressure gracefully. Kennedy, a British diplomatic historian now at Yale, has lived with imperial retreat. ``The rise and fall ...'' is a favored construct of his as its corollary, ``the orderly management of decline,'' is for other Britons. Do these constructs, however, fit American conditions? Kennedy is noncommittal, but the message is implicit in his paraphrase of George Bernard Shaw: ``Rome fell; Babylon fell; Scarsdale's turn will come.''

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Recent books have prepared the way. Walter Russell Mead's ``Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition'' and David Calleo's ``Beyond American Hegemony: The Future of the Western Alliance'' both speak to anxiety about deficit and trade problems, the Wall Street crash, and the upsurge of Asian competition. Kennedy's book has received admiring reviews that have boosted its sales in Washington particularly, while propelling him onto the television talk shows.

The book begins with the 16th-century Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs, strong in polyglot armies and wealth from the Americas, but ultimately weakened by continual wars. There is France from Louis XIV to Napoleon, its pretentions to European hegemony consistently defeated by British-organized and subsidized coalitions. There is 19th-century Britain, swelling with industry, colonies, and naval power, but ebbing away as its monopoly of industrialization ended. There is the rise of Russia and Japan as ``flanking states,'' the one an unconquerable and self-sufficient continent, the other a new Venice after 1945, rising econimically while eschewing military and diplomatic action. Above all, there is the United States, confusing its temporary hegemony after 1945 for permanency, and irresponsibly accepting deficits, even as eager competitors appeared in the western Pacific.

The crucial concept throughout is the transformation - via taxes, loans, plunder, and fiscal policy - of economic growth into military power, a process that Kennedy treats as vastly more significant than specific battles or diplomatic events, let alone individual leaders. His is a mechanistic, almost deterministic world in which policymaking is ignored, while history unrolls inexorably, shifting men and states on the global chessboard.

Professional historians are therefore certain to be very critical. Anyone familiar with the diplomatic classics of A.J.P. Taylor or William Langer, or with David Landes's ``The Unbound Prometheus,'' will recognize that ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers'' is not a work of innovation or imagination, but of haut vulgarisation, with Kennedy summarizing for a lay audience the specialized research of other scholars. Oversimplification is the price, for Kennedy's grasp loosens as he addresses issues - especially statistics - that overstretch his expertise in late 19th-century diplomatic history.

These caveats may not disturb the general reader. But it is disturbing that Kennedy's presentation is slow, ponderous, some 540 jampacked pages, precisely the sort of quasi-textbook that Americans blame when excusing their ignorance of history. Kennedy is no stylist; his paragraphs trudge toward infinity and urgently require blue penciling. So the first two-thirds of the book is likely to be skimmed, with journalistic and political readers plunging in only with the cold war and the '80s.

So much for the debits; the credits, nevertheless, are substantial. Kennedy points out that, first, the US has joined the age-long processional of empire. No doubt its empire is informal, virtually invisible, with conquest replaced by bases, treaties, client states, intelligence operations, and sporadic military intervention. And no doubt this empire springs from anticommunist invitation and generosity rather than plunder: witness the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps. Nevertheless, the traditional American state has evolved, unknowingly, into an imperial Republic.

Second, empire is costly; deficit financing merely intensifies the crisis. Global hegemony is not the reward for virtue that American nationalists believe but stems from taxes drawn from economic power: There is no imperial free lunch.

Third, American ignorance also is costly. Wise hegemony requires understanding - which Americans lack - of the history and attitudes of others. Kennedy's book is a crash course, remedial reading for the ill-informed. Perhaps those Washington sales are a good sign.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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