Over the last couple of decades, a number of British historians have been building up formidable reputations in the US. And by taking up positions on contemporary political debates, their names have become well known outside of academic circles; consider Niall Ferguson on empire and intervention, Tony Judt on Israel and antisemitism or Linda Colley on British identity. Paul Kennedy is another; the Newcastle-born diplomatic historian, who has been at Yale since 1983, turned himself into a hate figure for proponents of American power in 1988 with the publication of his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The final chapter, which looked at the prospects for the world’s two cold war superpowers, became infamous for its uncontroversial thesis that the US, following all great civilisations and empires of the past, was entering a period of relative decline and that the challenge for policymakers was to manage this decline.
Last night I saw Professor Kennedy speak at the LSE, where he has just taken up a new chair in international relations. In his lecture—which is well worth hearing; the LSE assures me it will be available as a podcast from its website within the next few days—he looked at the prospects for American power over the coming years, asking us to consider if a country with declining shares of the world’s population (5 per cent) and its GDP (20 per cent) can continue to account for over half the world’s defence expenditure, particularly considering the military challenges it faces from forms of “asymmetrical warfare” (though he considers these threats to come largely from other states rather than terrorist groups) and economic challenges, both in the form of its own massive deficits and the rise of international economic multipolarity.
Yesterday was “super-duper” Tuesday, of course, and Kennedy was inevitably asked who he thought would emerge victorious from the primary campaigns. He wisely chose not to make any specific predictions, warning us only that if we planned to bet on the outcome to do so with our heads and not our hearts. He told the story of how he held an election night party back in 2004. While his Democratic friends were depleting his wine collection by drowning their sorrows as it became increasingly clear that Bush had won, he was consoled by the thought that the £750 he had put on Bush to win at a British bookies, presumably at rather favourable odds, was about to come good.
(The Guardian ran an interview with Professor Kennedy yesterday, to mark his appointment at the LSE. Ignore the irritatingly cod-provocative headline; it’s worth a read.)