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February 01, 2007

The Kennedy Thesis Considered: Jeremy Black reconsiders Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000
by Paul Kennedy
London: HarperCollins, 1988
Paperback edition, £14.99

Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 was - at least in terms of copies sold - one of the most successful history books of the 1980s. Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter and the author, amongst much else, of the just published The Slave Trade - offers a considered reassessment.

Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (1988) was a key book of the late-1980s. It is valuable to review its approach today in order to consider how best to discuss great power politics.

Presentism is a problem for all historical analysis, particularly that of the long-term. To argue now that an analysis of world power has to take more note of non-Western societies and states might seem to be particularly presentist. Indeed, it could almost be seen as declinist, most clearly as a product of the decline of the Western empires and of Europe, but also, in the shorter term, as a consequence of the crises that affected American power as the confidence brought by the end of the Cold War was tarnished. Thus, to call for attention to China, South Asia and the Islamic world might be located in terms of the issues and anxieties of the 2000s.

That might well be the case as far as the discussion of the present situation is concerned, but there is also a good case to be made for a re-examination of our discussion of past great powers. In particular, there is a tendency among Western commentators to advance a definition of great powers that restricts the subsequent list to Western states, as a key aspect of the way in which the rise and fall of great powers is a good structure for pulling together books, but much less secure in its explanatory value. This is a problem with the Kennedy analysis, and one that is compounded by his discussion in terms of a power-economy linkage, with the latter seen in terms of modern industrial and financial power. As a consequence, non-Western states apparently only merit attention if they meet Western definitions in these terms. Thus, Japan, and then China, in the twentieth century are considered, but earlier they are ruled out.

This is problematic both methodologically and empirically. China from 1680 to the close of the eighteenth century is the most serious qualification of the standard approach. During that period, China not only made major territorial gains at the expense of non-Western states, especially Tibet and the Xinjiang-based Zunghar Confederation, but also drove the Dutch from Taiwan and the Russians from the Amur valley. The large quantities of silver brought by Western traders to Canton in order to purchase Chinese goods was another sign of Chinese strength. In addition to China, it is apparent that there are problems with Kennedy's treatment of alleged conservatism in the Muslim world, specifically the early-modern Turkish and Mughal empires, and the supposed responsibility of this conservatism for a failure to keep up with Western military technology. [G. Ágoston, 'Disjointed Historiography and Islamic Military Technology: The European Military Revolution Debate and the Ottomans', in M. Kaçar and Z. Durukal (eds), Essays in honour of Ekmeleddin ihsanoğlu (2 vols, Istanbul, 2006), I, 567-82, esp. 473-82]

If the neglect of China raises questions about the role of Orientalist assumptions in discussion of the great powers, any concern with China conversely punctures the idea of the rise and fall of such powers in some unitary sequence set by Western power. This sequence is commonly employed not only as a way to give narrative shape to the past, with designations of periods in terms, for example, of the rise of British power or the age of American hegemony, but is also used as an analytical method. This is particularly so with the concept of a paradigm power which allegedly serves both as a source of example and emulation for contemporaries and as a key for scholarly examination. [J. Lynn, 'The Evolution of Army Style in the Modern West, 800-2000', and W.R. Thompson, 'A Test of a Theory of Co-evolution in War: Lengthening the Western Eurasian Military Trajectory', International History Review, 18 (1996), pp. 505-45, 28 (2006), pp. 473-503]

Instead of the usual suspects, however, it is necessary to move beyond Western concern with maritime range and naval strength. This concern was very much that of Kennedy. His important early study on The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976) encouraged him to adopt a navalist approach to power, and also reflected his identification of military and economic strength. This is particularly apparent with naval power, as fleets require an infrastructure that is a product of economic strength. It is no accident that navalists tend to emphasize economic strength and technological proficiency.

A navalist approach underpinned The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, helping ensure an emphasis on the accustomed list of great powers, particularly Britain and the USA. Indeed the whole edifice rests on an analysis of Britain and its application to the USA. In turn, this, and more generally the familiar cast, encouraged the very positive reception the book received. This remains the case very widely. The book remains a key text on a large number of courses and also influences work on other periods. [Eg. L. Loreto, Per la Storia Militare del Mondo Antico: Prospettive Retrospettive (Naples, 2006), pp. 252-3]

Although, however, there were indeed major advantages in being the prime oceanic power, such an approach risks both underrating other definitions of relative strength and treating the signs of a global maritime economy, as if an indication that prominence within this economy clearly established relative power.

While attractive for analytical purposes, this approach risks exaggerating the extent to which long-range trade was the crucial enabler of relative power, certainly prior to the nineteenth century. Trade was certainly a crucial source of liquidity that could otherwise only be readily obtained for economic development by means of government action and control. The latter was less efficient in economic terms and led to more authoritarian governments, but it was not incompatible with power. Naval strength moreover was in part a matter of different priorities, rather than material factors. This can be seen by contrasting changing American and German force structures in the nineteenth century.

Linked to this is the suggestion that the concepts of a great power and of state behaviour have been over-determined by Kennedy and others. This is a process eased by the fact that Kennedy, like so many writers, relies on what Richard Hamilton terms "Truth by Declaration" [R. F. Hamilton, President McKinley, War and Empire: President McKinley and the Coming of War, 1898 vol. 1 (New Brunswick, 2006), p. 252]. It is easy to understand why this is the case. To cover the subject at sufficient depth, providing chronological precision to test the thematic generalizations within specific conjunctures, would have required a level of knowledge too great for any one individual. Had there either been a collective work providing such knowledge, or an individual work with more qualifications and caveats, it would have been necessary to produce a book that is far longer than this study, and it is far from clear that the exigencies of publishing economics makes this possible.

This then creates a problem as to how best to proceed. Popular interest requires the clarity of narrative and analytical thrust provided by Kennedy, not least in order to justify the commercial decisions of length and pricing, decisions that conspicuously were not addressed by the reviewers. In scholarly terms, however, it is better to offer a more indeterminate approach, one in which the assertions of clear-cut causal links are replaced by a more cautious noting of the complexity of circumstances and relationships. For example, the concept of great power has been generally standardized for analytical purposes when, instead, it is far more helpful to think in terms of shifting meanings, not least meanings that were relative to particular contexts.

Great powers in short were those recognized by others in this role and, at any one time, there were different and contrasting definitions of power. This was true both within specific state systems, which themselves varied greatly in size and type, and also more generally, not least between competing state systems.

As a consequence, the precision offered by analysts who measure great powers, sometimes indeed in terms of models with prescriptive mathematical conclusions, is inappropriate. This is the case not only as a guide to the attitudes of the past but also to the extent to which these attitudes were themselves constitutive of great power status. There are, for example, no obvious differences in policy between "great" and lesser powers. Ideological factors can be as important for both in explaining assumptions and activity.

Furthermore, it is mistaken necessarily to assume a materialist underpinning to ideological factors. Instead, the latter may turn on the choices of particular moments, and thus be as prone to counterfactuals as the more usual topic of war and dynastic chance. A major recent study of the development of the New World concluded that [J. H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (New Haven, 2006), p. 411]:

behind the cultural values and the economic and social imperatives that shaped the British and Spanish empires of the Atlantic world lay a host of personal choices and the unpredictable consequences of unforeseen events.
There is no reason to believe that the same was not the case for other great powers, not least when they were competing.

This approach is a major departure from the materialist conceptions of great powers that play such a large role in the literature, not least in Kennedy's work. Large-scale resources, not least the major economic capability that sustained conflict, are indeed important, and Kennedy and others understandably make considerable play with them. These resources could grip the imagination, as with the presentation of industrialization in Britain in the late-eighteenth century, for example in paintings of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale, with the night illuminated by flaming furnaces. Power was readily suggested, and it impressed. The journalist William Cobbett wrote from Sheffield in January 1830:

All the way along, from Leeds to Sheffield, it is coal and iron, and iron and coal… Nothing can be conceived more grand or more terrific than the yellow waves of fire that incessantly issue from the top of these furnaces … it is impossible to behold it without being convinced that … other nations … will never equal England with regard to things made of iron and steel.
In essence, Kennedy's argument is that there is a correlation between economic and technological trends and the given international balance; and that economic capacity and productivity and the capacity to generate revenues are key ingredients of military power which, in turn is the necessary foundation of states as a great power. Kennedy was willing to suggest that other factors also mattered: geography, national morale, military organization, and even individual action, although here only ever in the case of a particularly egregious folly particularly in the shape of encouraging imperial overreach.

Ultimately, although a harsh critic might suggest that Kennedy wishes to have it both ways - stressing the economic underpinnings of great power politics, and yet also arguing that other factors mattered whenever it suits his overall argument and when economic facts point the other way, he tends to come back to the longer-term forces profondes, and that means primarily economic forces.

Aside from resources defining and sustaining power, power, in the material conception, was also designed to seize resources. The acquisition of land and labour, the two key inputs of production were especially important in this sphere, although they could be by-products of conflict as much as its goal. This was true, for example, of much of the warfare in sub-Saharan Africa that fed the slave trade. The quest for resources was also seen as important in nineteenth-century imperialism and more generally in modern warfare. The Boer War (1899-1902) is often seen as a classic instance of capitalist-driven empire-building, with British policy allegedly dominated by the gold and diamonds of the region. This parallels the argument that concern over nitrates played a key role in providing the War of the Pacific (1879-83), and prefigures recent accusations about the role of oil in American policy toward the Middle East. [L. Ortega, 'Nitrates, Chilean Entrepreneurs, and the Origins of the War of the Pacific', Journal of Latin American Studies, 16 (1984), pp. 337-80]

These arguments, however, suffer from a tendency to homogenize policymakers, policymaking and policy and to neglect or underrate the multiplicity of factors that affected the last. In each of the cases issues of geopolitics and prestige were also important.

Industrialisation also accentuated a Western tendency, seen with the rise of political arithmetic or the application of statistics from the seventeenth century, toward a utilitarian, measurement-based, outcome-oriented mentality. In his novel Hard Times (1854), set in Britain's industrial heartland, Charles Dickens noted,

It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the [steam] engine will do.
This looks toward the materialist reductionism seen in some scholarship.

However, several caveats are required even at the materialist level. First, Kennedy presents the ability to sustain a large-scale great power conflict as the key definition of great power status, but such conflicts are unusual. It is far more common to fight limited wars, or, at the least, wars that are, from the perspective of the major power, limited wars. The Vietnam War was very much a limited one for the USA, even if it was very different for the states of Indo-China that were the battleground. The USA indeed possessed the capability that Europeans had relative to the Far East in c. 1840-70 and to Africa in c. 1884-1914, in that they cold wage what in effect was total war - and could destroy societies as constituted - without having to mobilize in the way that the term total war came to mean in the first half of the twentieth century.

Recent limited struggles have shown that the ability of great powers to lead allies was restricted, however much they may have supported them in economic, financial and military terms. This was driven home in 1991 and 2003 when Turkey refused to support the USA in the wars with Iraq by providing either troops or transit for American forces. Massive American aid to Israel did not leave the latter particularly responsive to American Middle East peace initiatives.

Material support for hostile or neutral powers could be even less effective, as it did not necessarily create a community of shared interest that affected policy choices. This was seen in the 1960s, when American food aid for Egypt did not prevent the animosity of the Nasser government. The same issue recurred with North Korea in the 2000s. [T. T. Petersen, 'How Not to Stand Up to Arabs and Israelis', International History Review, 25 (2003), p. 621]

Secondly, success in wars is not necessarily the product of economic resources, or of a variant thereof. Such an explanation of success has several flaws, including underrating the potential dynamic between events and goals, and thus the extent to which the latter can alter. Instead, a resource-based approach is apt to downplay the role of goals, or, in military terms, tasks, and to treat the matter as an elemental struggle for total victory. As an instance of the opposite, in the American Civil War (1861-5), the war goals of the Union (North) were up for debate and election in 1864, and had Abraham Lincoln been defeated by George McClellan in the presidential election, then the Union would have been willing to offer the Confederacy (South) more moderate terms. This provided the Confederacy with a viable military goal - trying to create among Union public opinion a sense that the war was going badly, a goal that encouraged offensives into the Union, offensives designed to suggest that the Union could not win.

In the event, in large part because of Sherman's success near Atlanta, the Confederate strategy failed. It was not, however, unviable, as might be assumed if the emphasis instead, as is frequently the case, is on the marked disparity in resources in favour of the Union, a position emphasized by those who adopt the materialist position. As far as the French Revolutionary forces are concerned, Kennedy is willing to put weight on the role of ideological zeal and Allied disunity, rather than finance and commerce.

Thirdly, wealth and other material determinants of power are important, but it depends on how they are applied. Organization and institutions matter, and so does culture. The last relates directly to the question of what power means in a given context. Cultural factors also greatly affect the material sphere, and this highlights several of the contradictions in Kennedy's argument. On the whole he argues that economic power allows for the acquisition of the necessary technologies that enable a state to maintain and equip an expanded military establishment which, in turn, is used to fight wars. On the other hand, he also argues that it is the wars that stimulated the economic growth and technological advances which then allowed states to rise to become great powers.

Fourthly, the provision of resources in conflicts is not an automatic consequence of capability, but, instead, in part, reflects the willingness to support goals. The parameters and nature of the willingness to support goals varies, but public opinion is a potent factor even in autocratic regimes. This ensures that powers, whether great or otherwise, have to be considered in part in terms of their capacity to elicit consent. This capacity is a many-layered one, embracing the terms of agglomeration seen with composite states, which is true of most empires.

Furthermore, the practice of agglomeration may be different to the terms of the combination, and this can lead to a tension between competing interests and between varied goals as with Charles V's Habsburg empire in the early-1550s and also the Burgundian and Spanish cores of the empire of his son Philip II later in the decade. [M. J. Rodríguez-Salgado, The Changing Face of Empire: Charles V, Philip II and Habsburg Authority, 1551-1559 (Cambridge, 1988)]

As an extension of this, it is necessary to see international coalitions themselves in terms of the issues of eliciting consent and co-operation. If this approach is extended to the domestic sphere, and the search for backing there when raising resources [J. Glete, War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States, 1500-1660 (London, 2001)], then materialist conceptions of power indeed take on part of the characteristics of political history. The latter have to be understood in the widest terms to include the political dynamics and consequences of social relations. The economic sphere also involves alliances, as management, government, consumers, investors and labour all possess agency, interacting in a shifting fashion in which material considerations are not the sole factor. [S. Striffler, In the Shadows of State and Capital: The United Fruit Company, Popular Struggle, and Agrarian Restructuring in Ecuador, 1900-1995 (Durham, North Carolina, 2002)]

Lastly, as far as co-operation is concerned, it is important to note that this is also a case of co-operation and consent within government. Looked at differently, the pursuit of goals and tasking requires co-operation between various branches of government, and it is frequently difficult to secure this co-operation because there are no clear structural relationships or patterns of agreement between these branches. In the case of the military, this can be seen in the repeated deficiencies of joint planning. Indeed, clashes between army, navy and air force views make the military dimension of the longterm assumptions described as strategic culture far more shifting and tentative than the term might suggest. This can be taken further, if other branches of government, such as finance and diplomacy have to be included.

These are not points dependent on a particular stage in material "progress", and also serve as a reminder of the extent to which great powers are not uniquely different polities to lesser powers. Indeed, an emphasis on consent directs attention to the role of ideas, and here a typology can be offered that is the opposite of materialist. Some states have an ideology in which obedience is owed to a leadership that is deisistic or semi-deisistic, while others accept a different situation, sometimes extending to recognizing the formal legitimacy of opposition. The former might be treated as anachronistic, but twentieth-century ideologies and political practices in fact threw up similar situations, and future ones may continue to do so. It is not obvious how best to assess ready consent, or at least - accepting the caveat Kennedy makes - ostensible consent as a constituent aspect of strength, but it is unclear why it should necessarily take a far smaller role than material factors.

This indeed can be seen in past analyses of states in which commentators saw domestic regeneration as entailing not solely improvements in material factors, but also processes of political, social and ideological renewal. These have been strident in the case of authoritarian regimes with messianic ideologies, such as the China of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, but are also readily apparent in the content and vocabulary of democratic politics, for example, in the early twentieth century, tariff reform in Britain and Progressivism in the USA.

This, again, is a reminder of the multiple perceptions of strength and weakness, and therefore of the number of possible narratives that can be followed in assessing the rise and fall of great powers. Ideologies also play a more direct role in foreign policies in the shape of strategic cultures. These vary with reference to a range of factors, but ideas cannot be taken out of the equation. This is particularly seen with the relationship between "accommodationist" strategies and those that were more assertive. [A. I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, 1995), pp. 215, 253]

Kennedy devotes considerable attention to the idea that expenditure on the military can be counter-productive. He sees this so in a number of ways, most arrestingly with reference to his theme of strategic overreach as powers take on excessive burdens. More generally, overspending on security is seen as undermining security by causing structural problems due to a weakening of the productive investment necessary for sustaining a developing economy. The later period of the Soviet Union probably best fits this analysis, certainly more so than the contemporaneous USA of the Cold War to which Kennedy applied his model.

However, there are problems with this analysis and, indeed, the converse, that military considerations and economic development were frequently so closely linked as to suggest that the model only applies in exceptional circumstances. To take the case of Russia, Peter the Great (1689-1725) deliberately promoted industry, particularly metallurgy in the Urals, to provide military power, and did not see them as separable. Similarly, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator from 1924 to 1953, saw industrialization and military security as so intertwined as to be generally not separable.

In both cases, it is possible to argue that the more general stimulating impact on the economy was that of a type of defence Keynesianism. It clearly limited the investment possibilities for other sectors of the economy, but such a liberal conception meant little within the authoritarian political parameters and opportunistic paranoid strategic cultures of each period. Furthermore, this defence Keynesianism did bring important economic benefits. In some respects, authoritarian societies were partially immune from the types of detrimental tradeoffs that Kennedy identified, just as they were not necessarily able to benefit from the more benign counterpart he outlined.

In the case of Imperial and Soviet Russia, there were costs in mass-militarisation. Conscripts had to be fed, clothed, housed and equipped, however poorly. There was also an opportunity cost to the individual conscripts, most of whom would have preferred to be doing something else, and an opportunity cost to society, which lost their productive labour. However, Imperial and Soviet conscripts alike were paid essentially nothing, and so represented less burden than they otherwise might have.

Moreover, Russia and the Soviet Union, like many Eurasian societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were characterized by a surfeit of unskilled labour and an overcrowded countryside. Taking unskilled eighteen-year-olds off the crowded land, and out of a labour market characterized by too many illiterate peasants, was not necessarily unhelpful. Furthermore, the military had vital internal policing duties irrespective of its ostensible purpose of fighting wars. These policing duties can be seen as a crucial aid to the economy, as they ensured a basic level of stability, including labour control. [D. R. Stone, A Military History of Russia (Westport, 2006)]

Russia also provides an instructive demonstration of a major problem with materialist reductionism, namely which set of data is to be employed. Kennedy, understandably, picks data that supports his argument. For example, in the 1830s and 1840s, Russia had the largest GNP, but this is downplayed because it is presented as being in longer-term decline, having the largest population (and thus a low per capita GNP); and being an agricultural country [Kennedy, Rise and Fall (1988), pp. 219-21]. Fair enough, but similar caveats could be offered to other uses of data in the book.

Moreover, Kennedy finds it difficult to engage with Russia. Its role in fighting the French, not least holding them in 1807 more successfully than Austria and Prussia, is downplayed, and conceptually, Kennedy's preference is very much for a different type of society. The argument that free competition, religious toleration and individual independence and initiative are vital ingredients in a state's ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to harness them to its grand strategic objectives, and that centralization and conformity impede progress and, ultimately, lead to the downfall of a great power, is sympathetic, but as an historical explanation it has only limited explicatory powers.

This is particularly so if a "pick and mix" approach is taken. For example, such factors may help explain the fall of the Soviet Union but are far less pertinent for Imperial Russia. If over-centralisation is seen as a cause of decline, it needs to be considered why the Habsburgs are criticized for lacking the necessary centralization, and seen as also declining.

Kennedy was far from alone in adapting a materialist account of power politics. William Thompson, the most sophisticated political scientist recently to address long-range issues in power-politics, has seen technology as key to Western power [Thompson, 'Co-evolution', p. 497]:

Expansion in the size and discipline of armies eventually was accompanied by a full array of transformed military technology made possible by a series of industrial revolutions after the late eighteenth century. In support of these transformations, European states became more complex and powerful, their populations were transformed from subjects into citizens, and warfare moved towards the total involvement of citizen populations experienced in the two World Wars. None of these developments was coincidental, but were the product of a co-evolutionary spiral in technology, organization, and warfare that transformed Europe in ways not experienced to the same extent by much of the rest of the world.
This approach is a marked advance in the materialist approach, but, however, also leaves out issues of perception and culture, while, more specifically, there are problems in assuming any equivalence between modern, industrial, and total war [J. Black, The Age of Total War 1860-1945 (Westport, 2006)].

Political science is apt to assume a standardized form of state behaviour. Thus, John Mearsheimer, in his The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, 2001), depicted a continual striving for advantage in the form of power, with this striving driving the behaviour of the great powers. This realist interpretation, however, underplays the different ways in which advantage and power can be construed, as well as the role of political circumstances. This can be seen in Kennedy's treatment of British decline. There is a implicit teleology in his treatment of the 1870-1914 period, with everything pointing to a war with Germany because of shifts in the global balance of power. This overlooks the extent to which the trans-oceanic empire was far more important to British thinking in much of the period, with Germany appearing as far less significant than France and Russia.

Moreover, the alliance of the two ensured that Britain's overall strategic position was much more precarious, both strategically and financially, in the 1880s and 1890s, than in the later naval race with Germany, which indeed Britain won. The role of circumstances, perception, the dynamics of diplomacy, and cultural influences are all pertinent. So also is the assessment of interwar Britain. An emphasis on the economic and financial costs of World War One, on industrial decline, and imperial over-stretch, appears in part to explain appeasement [Kennedy, Rise and Fall (1988), p. 375], but does not really deal with the question of political choices. Furthermore, if Germany could spend more of her GNP on the war in 1918, and then, within two decades, re-emerge to challenge the other powers for supremacy in Europe, it is not clear why a structuralist and materialist approach should be taken for Britain.

Kennedy's thesis, like those of other materialist approaches, explicitly offered a guide not only to the past, but also to present and future, which exposed him to the dangers of doing contemporary history. It is easy and tempting to present observations about the past as universal rules with a predictive quality. For example, the "fact" that Britain succeeded because of its commercial wealth (a fact that itself requires qualification) can be presented as a rule that commercial success leads to military and diplomatic dominance. However, there are serious methodological flaws with this method. Furthermore, events have a way of making predictions seem wrong.

In considering materialist approaches, it is also worth noting the extent to which the emphasis within economic history has itself changed. The stress on "things" has declined in favour of a greater emphasis on the cultural, social and political characteristics of growing economies. This is seen in particular in work on Britain's rise, not least with a shift from a concern with canals, coal and cotton toward one on mercantile capitalism. This emphasis provides another basis for the discussion of alliances already referred to. [P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914 (London, 1993)]

Turning to a different aspect of the cultural approach, it is also pertinent to underline the extent to which great powers are great because they wish to be so and are ready to focus their efforts accordingly, not least by shelving or otherwise resolving internal disagreements. An historicized sense of national exceptionalism and mission is part both of the sense of power, and of thinking on an imperial scale, as with twentieth-century France. Such a sense is an important element that cannot be analysed in materialist conceptions. This relates directly to the strength of nationalism which great powers are apt to underrate in the case of their weaker opponents.

Conversely, when nationalism is put under great strain, which is one interpretation of French divisiveness and political culture in the late-1930s, then it becomes harder to act as a great power. This does not imply that France fell to German attack in 1940 because of internal crisis and moral weaknesses, as is sometimes argued. Such an interpretation dramatically underrates the military and international circumstances in 1940. However, the response to crisis under these heads, particularly to the success of the German offensive, was greatly affected by a wider political malaise that fed through into a crisis of confidence incompatible with great power status.

Ideas of the latter generally drew on a sense of exceptionalism that was presented in terms of alleged specific characteristics and also of a praiseworthy inheritance: for example, nineteenth-century Britons as successors to imperial Rome. One consequence was the seizure of power-symbols from other societies. For example, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-6 led to the seizure of antiquities including a granite obelisk from Aksum which was re-erected at a road junction in Rome. The notion of a unified culture is an important aspect of power. This is particularly the case with authoritarian regimes, but is also relevant to their non-authoritarian counterparts although culture is then understood in terms of parameters including the rule of law and religious tolerance.

Racist interpretations of identity helped provide a sense of states as operating with particular strengths and in distinctive fashions, with this identity a clear cause of relative strength. Racial self-confidence might be seriously flawed, as was shown in 1942 when British views about the Japanese were exposed as badly flawed, with repeated British defeats, in particular in Malaya, Singapore and Burma; and again with German assumptions about the Russians. Nevertheless, however flawed, such assumptions were an aspect of assessments of relative power. This is the case both with domestic and with international support for such assumptions. The degree to which this remains the case is unclear, but resonances include American and Iranian views of Arabs.

Conversely, decline can occur when societies lose the willingness to act as great powers, as, arguably, happened with the United Provinces (modern Netherlands) in the eighteenth century and with Britain from the late-1950s. One aspect of this in the case of Britain was a disenchantment with colonial rule. This was widespread in the West in this period (although not in Portugal), but elsewhere powerful states were keen to continue rule of areas where the majority had a different view, most obviously China in Tibet and India in Kashmir.

The extent to which such rule earlier was normative in the West also opens up the question of how best to assess overseas territories when considering great power status. Spain retained control of most of its New World empire until the rises of Napoleonic invasion of the metropole (1808-13) followed by colonial wars of independence, but was not generally seen as one of the key European powers in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, Spain is an instance of how many "declining states" proved quite resilient. Employing Kennedy's theory, it is difficult to explain why Austria survived for so long and continued to be regarded as a great power. In part, the treatment of Spain and other "declining" or "rising" powers was, and is, a matter of perception. Thus great powers are great because they wish to be so and are regarded in this fashion.

This helps lead to a focus on issues of honour and prestige which can be important not only as precipitants of policy but also as affecting its basic thrust. Thus, financial over-extension in the pursuit of goals was not simply a product of the availability of credit, but also reflected the secondary role of financial considerations, a point pertinent for the Habsburg rulers of sixteenth-century Spain, but not only of them [J. D. Tracy, Emperor Charles V, Impresario of War: Campaign Strategy, International Finance, and Domestic Politics (Cambridge 2002)]. Honour and prestige are a matter not simply of international perception but also of its domestic counterpart [G. Melancon, Britain's China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence, and National Honour, 1833-1840 (Aldershot, 2003)], and are related not only to support and perception, but also to the self-image of policymakers.

This is important to how they analyse problems and consider responses, including resources [F. Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley, 1999)]. Such themes take the great power studies consideration of power into the cultural sphere and toward such issues as insecure and provoked masculinities. This may be particularly pertinent for "revisionist" regimes unhappy with their current international position, such as those of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and imperial Japan in the 1930s, with the fanaticism of their ideologies in part explained in cultural terms [G. B. Strang, On the Fiery March: Mussolini Prepares for War (Westport, 2003)].

Without suggesting any equivalence, it is also relevant to discuss cultural factors for a general consideration of the determination to assert power and to rule. This determination however has different manifestations, as during World War Two when the USA sought power without empire, in contrast to Britain, France and, even more, the revisionists, Germany, Italy and Japan. [G. L. Weinberg, Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders (Cambridge, 2005)]

The emphasis on perception can be matched with reference to the means by which powers interact. Use of the language of norms suggests a high degree of predictability, but, whatever the view of commentators, norms are very much moulded by political actors. This is brutally obvious in revolutionary contexts, when norms can be publicly rejected, but, at other times, there is a similar porosity about conventions. This is most pertinent for great powers because their range and commitments are likely to be most extensive. As a result, these powers are most likely to confront other interests whose views on norms are very different, just as their military practice may well be asymmetrical. These clashing views need to be taken into account when assessing the goals of states, because perception was an aspect of their power.

Perception is not simply a method, therefore, but, as an aspect of power, it is far less fixed and quantifiable than readily apparent material considerations, such as the number of troops or the production of pig iron. This helps undermine assessments of other states based on such considerations and that underlines the problem of assessing power on a uniform basis. Thus, the capacity to understand the complexities of the strength and intentions of other states becomes an aspect of power. This is true not only of opponents but also of allies, with the assessment of the latter involving short-term factors, for example what could be contributed in a particular conflict, as well as long-term considerations, such as gratitude and the inculcation of a sense of empathy. [N.E. Sarantakes, 'One Last Crusade: The British Pacific Fleet and its Impact on the Anglo-American Alliance', English Historical Review, 121 (2006), pp. 429-66]

Structuralist interpretations, which see situations in terms of systems, tend to underrate the role of perception, but the latter is emphasized in specific analyses, especially those based on archival sources that cover the views of those involved. Contemporary commentators are also apt to stress the extent to which moods affect policy, with these moods sometimes owing much to events, such as the attacks on the USA in 2001 [W. Kristol, 'Postscript - June 2004', in I. Stelzer (ed.), The Neocon Reader (New York, 2004), p. 75]. The long-term consequence of such moods is a matter of debate, but aside from their contribution to the assumptions formalized as strategic cultures, political history is formulated and acted out in the short-term. In contrast to this emphasis on cultural elements, materialist interpretations tend to emerge from those who do not use archival sources, and particularly those of the political actors involved.

A focus on the actors can also suggest that their capacity to respond in a coherent fashion to developments, and, still less, shape events was generally limited. These limits were those of political circumstance [P. Bushkovitch, Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671-1725 (Cambridge, 2001)], as much as any structural considerations, but these circumstances underline the extent to which great as much as lesser powers reacted in a context in which constraints need to be emphasized. This ensures a realist concept of international relations in which the realism is as much to do with domestic politics as with intra-state relations.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author, amongst much else, of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).


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