The rise and fall of great predictions

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy“Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.” (attrib. to Niels Bohr)

Someone mentioned Paul Kennedy’s 1988 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers on Twitter the other day. I owned a copy of this book as a teenager, but never finished it – and my copy has disappeared somewhere in the intervening couple of decades. So I was glad to find a copy in the library at work, because I was interested to see how Kennedy’s predictions had stood the test of time. 

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers caused quite a stir at the time. Kennedy’s central thesis was that the power and influence of nations depends on their economic growth or decline, relative to that of competing powers. So it was possible for a great power to continue growing its economy, while nevertheless slipping to second-rank status as other countries outstripped it economically. On that basis, Kennedy predicted that the US would find its hegemony challenged over the coming decades by a rising Japan. Oops.

The bulk of the book is an analysis of five centuries of shifting global power balances, showing how these were determined by changes in relative economic performance. In the closing chapter, however, Kennedy sets out his predictions of what the future might offer for the five great powers of the late 80s: China, Japan, the EEC, the USSR, and the USA.

Here’s a very brief summary of his predictions (though please note that I can’t pretend to have done more than flick through the chapter over the course of a few minutes):

  • China: Kennedy quotes extensively from a 1986 article in The Economist predicting that China’s economy would quadruple between 1980 and 2000, and that it was therefore only a matter of time before China would become a significant military power. He probably now wishes that the book had been marketed on the basis of that prediction rather than on the next one.
  • Japan: Kennedy predicted that, while Japan’s economic growth might slow a little, it would continue to grow faster than any other major power, leading it to become “much more powerful” than it was in 1988.
  • EEC: Kennedy predicted that the EEC was likely to continue in relative economic decline compared to other major powers – not helped by the extreme unlikelihood of the USSR ever agreeing to a reunification of the two Germanys.
  • USSR: the Soviet Union was facing formidable demographic and economic problems, but “this does not mean that the USSR is close to collapse”. Oops.
  • USA: the USA would face problems of military overreach, and on the current trends its deficit would reach $13 trillion by 2000. However, despite its relative economic decline, the USA would remain “the decisive actor in every type of balance and issue”.

The point of this is not to take cheap potshots at the differences between Kennedy’s predictions and what actually came to pass. He seems to have been broadly right about China, and about Europe’s relative economic power, for example, and (for what its worth) his overall argument about the importance of relative economic performance strikes this layperson as basically sound.

What’s interesting, though, is to see what eventualities were clearly unthinkable even as recently as 1988:

  • Japan’s post-war “economic miracle” being succeeded by two decades of economic stagnation and deflation, from which the country is still struggling to emerge.
  • German reunification.
  • The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end to the bipolar world of 1945-89.

In fact, all three of these had come to pass within four years of Kennedy’s book being published. The lesson to learn is banal, but remains useful: when it comes to social, economic and political affairs, extrapolating confidently from current trends is always a dangerous business.

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