How do Great Powers fall? – Paul Kennedy’s ‘lag time’ and a New World Order



Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is undoubtedly one of the most important books one should read to understand the changing dynamics – the ebb and flow – of world politics.

The spinal idea around which the book is constructed is this – wealth is needed for (military) power and power for wealth. Consequently – “there is detectable a causal relationship between the shifts that have occurred in time in the economic and productive balances and the position occupied by individual powers in the international system.” This is an (almost) certain theory in International Relations study, observable over the ages and very relevant to our times.

Another interesting idea one gleans from Kennedy’s argument is of the ‘lag time’ between ‘the trajectory of economic strength’ and ‘influence.’ Kennedy talks specifically of military and territorial influence. (In pure realist terms, as any work that studies hardcore power dynamics is bound to be, it would be enough to focus on this dimension. However, to understand the whole gauge of a state’s weight on the international stage we need a more nuanced understanding of influence. I refer to what is popularly known as the soft power/hard power dynamic. But, of course, the ultimate reckoning of power is the ability, in the words of Samuel Huntington, to inflict organised violence.)

To make any reasonable assessment of future global political scenarios one needs to, extending Kennedy’s argument forward, look at the strategy of current and future great powers during this lag time.

For a rising power. It may choose to consolidate its economic advantage, like the USA in the pre-War era. It may overspend on military to expand its clout, like Germany.

For a waning power(better than falling which has a rather deterministically ominous sound to it.) A waning power, Kennedy says, is more likely to increase its defense(-offence) spending in an effort for renewal of its fading glory. He gives the example of Imperial Spain. One could quite rightly add post-War France with its troubled experience with de-colonization. My question is : could one add the United States to this list?

There is a real and tangible basis to the rise and fall of great powers – the economic dynamic. However, equally importantly, there is a perception of ‘the fall’ and states which fall under its sway are bound to make foolish mistakes. While USA’s war in Afghanistan would, except by very few mostly hardcore pacifists, was seen by a majority of observers as a legitimate, ‘just’ and necessary war, its extension and ‘incorporation’ into a larger ‘Global War on Terror’ could be seen, in this light – an effort of a waning power towards  (re)establishing its global dominance. Especially so, with the war in Iraq. Now this matter has been discussed and re-discussed so many times that it would be rather banal to go over it again. But it does offer us an interesting insight into ‘lag time’ strategy of rising and waning states in the international system.

While the USA set off in pursuit of its neo-con Project for the New American Century and escalating quite dramatically its military spending China remained, to the anguish of some, rather hands-off in pursuit of its harmonious rise. Now, as the USA pivots to Asia and seems to be licking its wounds from the decade of war, China is increasingly rubbing off with its neighbours. Of course, there is no parallel equality of proportions in the grand strategies and between the policies and actions of the two great powers. But it is an opportunity for us to think about the ‘lag time.’

Flag_Map_of_USA_China (1)


While the pursuit of power is the central pillar of classical realism the mid-twentieth century variant of neo-realism seeks to understand global/international relations in terms of structures – loosely put, patterns of interaction between great powers. This takes the metaphysics out of realist theory and provides a ‘more scientific,’ in the view of neo-realists, understanding of the world. Also, its terminology helps political scientists sound intelligent which is no mean achievement.

In neo-realist terms, the international structure is either uni-polar, bi-polar or multi-polar – referring to how many great powers, with more or less equal capacity, exist in the international system. The pre-WWII world was, therefore, multi-polar. The cold war world was bi-polar. Consequently, the current world order is uni-polar, with the Unites States as the only great power, or rather, superpower.

This is not so simple actually. Like all theoretical traditions any neo-realist perspective is abuzz with counter-perspectives. A superpower, the greatest of great powers, should, in structural terms, have untrammeled power – the ability to do whatever it wants wherever it wants. Does the United States? Not really due to a number but mainly two factors. First, the presence of other nuclear weapon states. Second, the limited ability to project power over vast distances, especially across oceans. So, even the by far superpower has its powers limited by the possibilities of annihilation in case of a nuclear war or strategic defeat in certain regions of the world, as in Vietnam or even, one could argue, though not yet, in Afghanistan. But neither can we discount the unmatched military capabilities of the United States.

How should we understand the world structure then? It would be better to understand it in terms of what I call a ‘hierarchical multipolarity.’ The United States in undoubtedly in the top tier of the hierarchy – solely because it is the only power that can challenge every other power anywhere in the world. In the second tier are powers that can challenge the United States in their regional backyards. Only two (barely) qualify. Russia and China. In the third tier I would put the EU together, UK and possibly France. Germany could qualify too in light of its central position in the EU. In the fourth tier, one could put upcoming powers like Brazil, Turkey and India and also, possibly, geo-strategically vital actors like Pakistan. Japan, too, should be placed here. The fifth tier is then the containing category of ‘all the rest,’ which could have its own sub-tiers.


This model of hierarchical multi-polarity allows us to do two things. First, it allows us to control for both continuity and change, especially with regard to movement between tiers. Second, it allows for a framework for understanding national power – that is : due to what factors do we place a certain actor in a certain tier. Also, it allows us greater flexibility in applying other theoretical concepts like that of Paul Kennedy’s ‘lag time.’

(Note: Paul Kennedy only mentions the idea of the ‘lag time,’ and does not explicitly refer to it as a theoretical tool for analysis. he does mention the relevance of his work for theory building, especially with regard to balance of power. Balance of power is itself key to structural stability in the neo-realist conception of international politics.)


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