Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

Sunday, May 20th, 2022

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What Happens Next is a podcast where an expert is given just SIX minutes to present his argument. This is followed by a Q&A period for deeper engagement.

Today’s topic is the rise and fall of the great powers.

Our speaker is Paul Kennedy.


Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein.

What Happens Next is a podcast where the speaker gets to present his argument in just Six Minutes and that is followed by a question-and-answer period for deeper engagement.

Today’s discussion will be on the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

Our speaker today is Paul Kennedy who is the J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History at Yale. Paul is one of our greatest living historians and he will discuss his classic work The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. This book that was published nearly 35 years ago, and it was an immediate sensation. It became a best seller because the book tells the story about why Great Powers decline and explores which countries will likely take their place. Paul predicted that the US and the Soviet Union would decline and that China was an ascending power because of its large population and that with productivity growth would have the resources to build a world class military.

I want to learn from Paul about why certain empires succeed and others fade away, and what America can do to succeed in a multipolar world. I want to find out about whether India will be the next great power, and how a country’s geographic position can determine its destiny.

Buckle up.

If you missed it, check out last week’s program with Princeton Professor Aaron Friedberg on how we screwed up our engagement with China. Why we gambled on sharing our technological knowhow, and our trade relations with an ever-increasing authoritarian state and what we can do about it now.

All right, let’s begin with historian Paul Kennedy.


Paul Kennedy

Topic: Reflections 35 Years after The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
Bio: J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History at Yale
Reading: Rise and Fall of Great Powers is here
I’m interested in the story of great power relations. But it isn’t diplomatic histories of Bismarck or Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement, or Stimson and the coming of a Cold War. I’m interested in the great underlying shifts that happened in world affairs. And boy, in this past 20th century, so much happened.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was competition between seven great powers. They staggered into the First World War which exhausted some of them, so they fell away like Imperial Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire. And then in the Second World War the United States came along to win the war.

For me, watching the United States reassert itself in the early 1980s under President Reagan provoked in me the query, to what extent is this story of America’s rise a wonderful historical echo of the rise and fall of a great power? Could a historian using economic comparative data, tell the whole story of the great powers, not in diplomatic terms, but in terms of the shifts of their competence on the battlefield, the coming of the new economic resources, the shift in the productive balances of population size, and the success and failure of these great powers.

You had a wonderful spread of history from approximately 1500s to the year 2000. And you could end the book by reflections on whether the coming 21st century would have the same story of the rise and fall of the great powers, only this time, a question mark would be over whether the Soviet Union could exist or fall behind. Remember, I’m writing this in the 1980s. And whether the United States could, as Mr. Reagan wanted, reassert itself and still be the number one great power. It was a wonderful challenge for the historian who likes big long-term history and great power shifts.

Paul Kennedy Q&A:

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