Historians are not known for their prescience. There’s something about studying the past, with all its complexity, that discourages many of us from looking forward with any sense of confidence. Those of us who can’t resist the temptation as often as not–perhaps moreso–get things wrong. I remember that in the fall of 1980 I decided for the only time in my life so far to vote for a Republican for president. I calculated (predicted) that since Ronald Reagan obviously could not keep all of his promises, especially all at once to lower taxes, balance the budget, and sharply increase defense spending, he would likely lower taxes and raise defense spending less so he would at least have a chance of balancing the budget. I mean, how was I supposed to know that the old fella actually believed the “voodoo economics” he was espousing? At least I got it right that he wouldn’t be able to destroy the welfare state and that he wouldn’t blow us all up. (I changed my mind on the last point in 1984 and voted for Walter Mondale.)
Calculated voting necessitates prediction, of course, and at times selling books does so as well. So back in the mid-1980s a relatively young Yale historian, Paul Kennedy, decided to add a section to his opus, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, to not only move his story up to the present but to peer into the future. The result was a best seller that provoked a huge debate over his argument that the United States was in a position of “relative” decline and was likely to stay there for the forseeable future.
Reading the National Intelligence Council’s November 2008 report “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World” recently got me thinking about the debate over The Rise and Fall. How much, from the perspective of a generation hence, did he anticipate? How do his explanations for patterns seen during the second half of the 1980s jibe with those that we view as in place today and project into the future? My search for answers served both to renew my respect for Kennedy’s work and to reinforce my sense of the limits of the historian in forseeing the future.
Kennedy was criticized at the time, most notably by Joseph Nye, for using the years immediately after World War II as the starting point for evaluating the current (circa 1987) and future place of the United States in the world’s pecking order. It was a fair point, I thought, as the United States was in an extraordinary position during those years as a result of the tremendous destruction suffered by the other great powers during World War II. As that event receded into the past, that position could not help but erode. If one compared the U.S. position in the early 1970s to its position in 1987, on the other hand, that erosion, it appeared, had slowed down or, arguably, even stopped.
What’s more, Nye asserted, Kennedy failed to take “soft power” (the attractiveness and influence of American ideas and ways of doing things)into account. In that area the United States was clearly not losing ground to its competitors.
Whatever the flaws in Kennedy’s methodology, the trends in the 22 years since publication of his book do appear to confirm his central argument, and such widely respected works as “Global Trends 2025″ cited above and Fareed Zakaria’s The Rise of the Rest suggest that a growing portion of government elites and public intellectuals in the United States accept that conclusion. Moreover, Kennedy’s central explanation for the American decline, “imperial overstretch,” seems to be a central part of the mix, even if he did not appreciate the degree to which the over-commitment of material resources (“hard power” in Nye’s schema) to enterprises abroad also would undermine U.S. soft power.
At the same time, Kennedy clearly saw the Soviet Union as in a state of more rapid decline than the United States. After reciting the litany of problems facing the Soviet Union, to be sure, he hastened to add that “this does not mean that the USSR is close to collapse [but] … it does mean that it is facing awkward choices.” (513) And while he did not ignore the “nationality problem” as a threat to Soviet rule, he went so far as to suggest that characterizations of the Ukraine as a “‘hotbead’ of disaffection … ought perhaps to … [be taken] with a pinch of salt.” (502) Still, he did no worse than Soviet specialists of the time!
Overall, Kennedy viewed “the pattern of world politics as continuing in its “present ‘pentarchy’ of the United States, the USSR, China, Japan, and the EEC in the future.” (538). However, the “tilt” was likely to continue toward Japan and China (in that order) and away from the other three. Clearly he did not anticipate Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990s, nor did he anticipate the rapid rise of India or Brazil.
Why did this intelligent and erudite historian get some things wrong? Various reasons could be cited, but “The Global Outlook 2025″ offers a message worth singling out. As C. Thomas Finegar, the chairman of the NIC points out in his letter of transmittal, “leadership matters, no trends are immutable, and … timely and well-informed intervention can decrease the likelihood and severity of negative developments and increase the likelihood of positive ones.” Kennedy would not dispute this, yet while he talks about nation’s being faced with difficult choices he makes no effort to make predictions in that area, perhaps in part because it is virtually impossible to do so beyond the short term. Even for the short term, how many people predicted in 1986 the extent to which Mikhael Gorbachev would be a transforming leader in Soviet and world politics? How many people predicted just how wise Reagan’s and the first Bush’s responses to Gorbachev would be? More recently, how many foresaw just how unwise many of George W. Bush’s decisions would be when he took office in 2000?
The above exercise should encourage humility among historians, while not, I would argue, discouraging us from using our knowledge and skills to make predictions. If we have and will continue to make mistakes, policymakers and practioners of other disciplines are certainly no better qualified than we are to peer into the future and put forth educated guesses. The exercise should also remind us that the hole the United States has dug itself into over the last eight years may not be too deep to dig ourselves out of, that new leadership truly can make a difference. Since in 1984 I thought Reagan was likely to blow us all up, I’ll resist the temptation to burden my audience with any predicitions about Barack Obama.