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Paul Kennedy’s Imperial Overstretch Revisited

Wide-ranging topic coverage in this interview with Paul Kennedy in Al-Ahram … includes commentary on Palestine and Israel, Egypt, Iraq and US Foreign Policy.

I remember reading the broad-brush history of his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers when it came out in the late eighties.

It took Washington by storm at the time, apparently it was fashionable at the time to be seen with the book tucked under one’s shoulder or in one’s briefcase. Because it related to my study, I did read more than the intro and conclusion, and am interested in what he now has to say about the fate of the American Empire Republic.

America goes too far

Historian Paul Kennedy tells Ezzat Ibrahim that the great wheel of history is turning against the United States

Al-Ahram :: 28 Sept – 4 October 2006 :: Issue 814

Paul Kennedy, the renowned historian and author of the classic study of international history, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, has long warned America of the dangers of what he dubbed “imperial overstretch”. Since publication in 1988, Kennedy’s thesis that imperial powers tend to involve themselves in adventures that sap their energies and resources has provoked immense debate within the US. Neo-conservatives and other cheerleaders of American empire labelled the 61-year-old British scholar a doomsayer, but the current direction of the war in Iraq seems apt illustration of his point.

Paul Kennedy

Kennedy is an engaged public intellectual. Not content to write books from his perch at Yale University, he is also active in political and policy realms. In 1995, as a member of the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations, Kennedy helped author a report on the UN that sought ways to make it a more effective and purposeful actor on the world stage. Recently Kennedy published a book on the UN entitled, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations.

Since you coined the term “imperial overstretch” pundits have been mapping the possible fall of the American empire, especially following recent military expansions. Do you see real peril resulting from American military endeavours?

My book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers came out in January 1988. It was strongly attacked by American conservatives who said that the economic recovery of the United States in the 1990s proved the thesis wrong. I would rather say that if they had read my book carefully they would have seen I was talking about the tendency or the dangers of imperial overstretch for America by the year 2010.

US Army generals would definitely say that America is overstretched. We are overstretched in two dimensions: military overextension across the globe, especially in Iraq, and financial overstretch because of budget and trade deficits.

My argument is that economic power goes hand in hand with military power. If your economy is becoming less competitive, in the long-term your military position will become less easy to sustain. If we continue having almost 200,000 troops in Iraq, and troops in other places like central Asia, Afghanistan and Korea, we will be seeing overstretch.

You wrote, “in the Middle East the difficulties present not just another case of traditional societies having to come to terms with the forces of modernisation. The unvarnished truth is that the tensions there are of a different order of magnitude. The region extends over a vast, sprawling area, where a badly damaged though powerful and religiously driven order is locked in confrontation with global trends more penetrating and unsettling than could ever have been imagined when Muslim self-confidence was at its peak some centuries ago.” Does this remain your analysis?

The take-off in Western Europe or the West was consequent of the growing separation of church and state. Yes, there is a national religion — the Church of England or the Lutheran Church both have a special place — and we are not anti-religion, but there is a secular sphere and in that sphere some societies began to change without risk of religious censure or of neo-entrepreneurs being considered anti-religion.

The clear example is The Netherlands in the 17th century. They were very strongly Protestant, fought 80 years against catholic Spain, and were devoted churchmen and ministers but they recognised the difference between the secular commercial sphere and the religious sphere. So the Dutch developed as the great bankers and financiers of Europe, engendering the great trade and overseas commercial companies, and the biggest fishing industry of Europe.

Such a separation between the church and the business/ commercial secular sphere undoubtedly helped the West to gain advantage over the rest of the world. By 1600, mediaeval church restrictions on lending money with interest had gone. Finance, investment, capital and taxes were all in new forms. People were paying taxes to the state and the state, in turn, was paying salaries to church ministers. People no longer paid one tenth of their income to the Church of England so long as a modernised government taxed them and the government was paying the churchmen. So there was a free space between the contours of the church and the contours of the state. The relationship with the church is mainly about private morality.

Having said that, a similar situation existed in the commercial cities of the Middle East, including Cairo. And when I go now to Abu Dhabi or Dubai it is clear that they have created a separate world of finance and commerce from the world of religion. So there is no problem being a devoted Muslim and also a businessman, a banker, a shareholder, and so on. But there must be some worry about more extreme religious groups that are saying that there cannot exist a divide between the secular and the spiritual. Such groups are calling for the dominance of the spiritual.

How can Arab societies move towards reform? How do you assess American efforts to transform the region?

I think the road is full of obstacles and some cultural arrogance. Some people say we [Americans] know how to run democracy and we have solved the greatest constitutional and political problems. All others need to do is imitate us! Thus we have a policy of spreading democracy throughout the world. I don’t agree with that and my friend Henry Kissinger dislikes it also. He dislikes the neo-conservative crusaders who promote spreading democracy from Saudi Arabia to China. Kissinger sees it does not work. What you want is peace, stability and a chance to give individuals and families opportunity to grow.

A strong, non-corrupt system, as Middle East countries need, is founded on uncorrupted judges and courts, non-corruptible police, and straight and level commercial law. This might seem very distant from what democracy is, but Adam Smith, the greatest economist of the 18th century, put it best. He said society needs little more than stability, predictability for businessmen who want to invest in something unpredictable, and respect for law. The existence of these three elements would encourage other positive developments.

Eighteenth-century England was not a democracy. Only 10 per cent of men voted for parliament. It was a parliamentarian and representational system but it was not a democracy. On the other hand, it had secure commercial law. King George III could not take your shipping company away from you. You had protection under law and that encouraged you to invest. A predictable legal system is crucial. After a while, with growing prosperity, the middle class grows and likely asks for greater political freedom. Full democracy can come in 20 years.

If by spreading democracy Americans mean “one person, one vote” without considering the other elements (a good commercial foundation backed by a system of order and law) it could be chaotic. If two thirds of the population are Shia and one third Sunni, or two thirds Protestant and one third Catholic, and you have a majority vote, the minority will get scared. That is exactly what happened in the former Yugoslavia 10 years ago. When Serbia and Bosnia were created and there was a Serbian majority and a Bosnian minority. So democracy could lead to ethnic bloodshed.

Regarding terrorism, do you agree that the West has only two choices: to appease or fight? Is there a third way?

I’m convinced there must be a third way. If you appease completely you expose your population. But the idea that you can have unflinching war on terrorists — a war that expands over borders into city backstreets and is purely military — seems to me impractical. The third way consists of maintaining continuous dialogue with moderate political groups in any given country or society. It consists of recognising that some of the grievances that drive young men to terrorism could be socio-economic or racial, and that you need a set of instruments to deal with them.

If you have four million Muslim men who are living in ghettos around cities like Paris or Marseilles, and if unemployment rates among them are high and their housing conditions are poor, and if they are looked down upon by the domestic population, resentment is being created. Resentments do not automatically turn somebody into a terrorist; that needs another additional input, which sometimes is twisted religious fervour.

In history, after the Napoleonic Wars most European regimes were scared about revolution, peasant unrest, social unrest, and the uprisings that occurred in Paris between 1830 and 1848. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was quite belligerent and patriotic. He said: “take away the causes of grievances” — the lack of jobs, the lack of education, the lack of security, and the lack of food — and you will reduce the number of truly radical revolutionaries. But it is a hard struggle, and tackling the reasons of grievance takes a long time and you are going to have setbacks.

Some in the Arab world attribute slow regional development to the Arab-Israeli conflict while others point to ruling regimes as the main source of backwardness. How do you see it?

I would agree with the distinguished Egyptian, Jordanian and Lebanese academics that put together the Arab Human Development Report for the UNDP. The report asked why there are significant difficulties for many societies in the Arab world to deal with the challenges of modernisation, of human, economic and social development. The writers were courageous and sobre in listing the broader structural, demographic and cultural issues.

Since 1947, the Israeli-Palestinian territorial problem has created enormous problems for the Arabs live in that area, in the Gaza Strip, in Lebanon, or on the borders of Jordan. Of course, there are enormous personal losses. It is also true, I believe, that certain manipulative leaders use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to whip up support for themselves domestically, and to whip up hatred of Israel and the United States for their own purposes too.

That is not to deny that there is an enormous humanitarian and political problem. But it would be unwise for Arab governments to spend so much time campaigning against Israel rather than dealing with domestic challenges and problems.

To be sure, the conflict has complicated the relationship between the Arab world and the United States and I don’t see this problem going away. But I see the problem exacerbated by other trends: rising population pressures, lack of water, environmental pressures, and lack of educational opportunities in Gaza and the West Bank. Such pressures exacerbate the historical and political rivalry.

But Arab public opinion would like to see the return of Palestinian land and rights before talking about other issues and considers the US responsible for the present stalemate…

True. The biggest problem would not be border adjustments on the West Bank. New Israeli governments could pull back some illegal Jewish settlements. The big problem, still, is the Palestinian Diaspora, or Palestinian refugees, because there are now so many. If they were given full right for free return the Jewish population of Israel would be outnumbered.

The biggest problem, if you think about it, is the issue of numbers as long as numbers count and matter. If the numbers of potential migrants from North Africa to Europe was a known number that is quite reasonable, say 150,000 a year, we would say those numbers are fine. If the numbers of Palestinians who want to return was known and the number limited — if there was 200,000 Palestinian refugees who would return and not everybody would be given the chance to return — the Israeli government would say okay but we can not take six million.

Do you think we might end up with a “Jewish state” within current Israel under fear of the Arab population?

We have to remember that there is a significant Israeli-Arab population, though a hybrid state could not be a religious state. A hybrid secular Israeli state is possible.

I often wonder if the Swiss model might work in Iraq and Israel, because in Switzerland there are 18 cantons with powers of self- government and taxation. Nine of 18 cantons are German speaking. Seven are French speaking. The rest are Italian speaking. In school, everybody in German cantons learns French while the French learn German. The French cantons do not feel threatened by the German cantons.

Relative to Iraq, I wonder whether the country will not eventually have to go back to something similar to what existed under the Ottoman Empire: the three separate “velayate” of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad. Each of them would have to have regulations against prejudice, enjoy the rule of law and have incorruptible judges. Iraq may only attain long-term stability by local self- government, just like Switzerland.

From a historical perspective, how do you view President George W Bush and the wars on Iraq and on terrorism?

I make a very clear distinction in my mind between the American government’s response to the 11 September attacks — the decision to go after the Taliban and Al-Qaeda — and President Bush’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein. I never agreed with the latter. I think there were ways to contain Saddam, even more than he had been contained in the past.

Bush was very badly misled by his neo-conservative advisers who were, in return, misled by the optimism of exiled Iraqi politicians like Ahmed Chalabi and others. I think they totally underestimated the depth of rivalry in the Muslim religion. Not all, but some Shia and Sunni groups are very fundamentalist. The American administration had so little cultural knowledge of the history of Iraq and its religion.

Can the US administration say, “we were wrong”?

This administration can never admit to mistakes. A real leader and a mature administration can say, “we made a mistake. We failed in our policy. We have to rethink it and do it better.” It takes a mature leader to admit mistakes and the American people would actually be happier if George Bush admitted that the administration was over-optimistic about Iraq.

Ironically, George Bush’s great hero in history is Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister. Bush is always talking about Churchill but he does not realise that Great Britain, in the course of World War II, suffered many great defeats and was driven out of France in 1940, nearly lost Egypt in 1941, and Malay and Singapore in 1942. Nonetheless, Churchill went to parliament to say, “we failed. We lost. And we are going to have to change our policy and pick ourselves up and work harder.”

Churchill did not say, like Bush today, “Oh everything is going okay and we are winning.” Actually, few people in the outside world believe Bush, and a large number of Americans started not to believe him. He is blinkered and not able to say, “we made a real mistake.”

Will the US withdraw from Iraq anytime soon?

It seems to me that Bush will leave it to his successor to pull out. The successor will then get the blame — he will be the weak one, the appeaser, the one who did not stay the course; the same course that was wrong headed and desperately unfair. In a recent speech, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the US would stay unflinchingly in Iraq until the job gets done. That means more casualties and more American overstretch.

Will anything be left of Iraq?

It is already gone. I cannot see how to put the different ethnic and religious groups together again, especially the Kurds in the north.

It seems that reforming the United Nations, especially the Security Council, is an elusive aspiration. Do you agree?

I have two different covers for my last book on the United Nations, The Parliament of Man. The American cover stresses the United Nations of hope, of vision, of international cooperation, and of idealism. The British edition cover says we hope for peace and prosperity but you have to be realistic.

There are always big powers and when those powers agree you get lots done. When the big powers disagree, much less is done. We know that there are three countries, the United States, China and Russia, who feel if they want they can act independently. There is nothing the rest of the world can do about it. It is no use saying to China, “you must change your policy on Tibet,” or telling Mr Putin, “you must change your policy on Chechnya.” Both countries will tell you go away.

I would rather say the United Nations is always the scapegoat and if it were not there we would invent it.

Doesn’t the international community need a strong central actor?

I think we need to achieve a balance between the two visions. It does not have to be quarrelling all the time or deadlock or gridlock, but it will never be ideal either. We have to be realistic and accept that sometimes there will be little or no progress because one of the great powers is threatening to veto. We are making very slow progress in terms of sending UN forces to Darfur because the Chinese government has a lot of reservations on it. Do not expect too much. People need to understand where the UN can work and where it does not. The UN can work in Lebanon if we get in 15,000 UN-NATO troops, and if Hizbullah and Israel do not break the ceasefire.

You wrote, “the greatest test for human society is to find effective global solutions that free the poorer three-quarters of humankind from the growing Malthusian trap,” referring to the idea that population tends to grow faster than requisite means of subsistence. To what extent is this “trap” deepening in underdeveloped nations and can standards of living be improved through the three conditions that were crucial to progress in the West, namely migration, agrarian revolution, and industrialisation?

If population pressures are great and agricultural and domestic resources are limited, the more populations you have the more impoverished you become. It is clear when you look at a country like Mozambique. Even if Mozambique would increase its domestic product by 50 per cent in the next two decades if the country’s population doubles in the next two decades everybody in Mozambique will be poorer.

That is why we look back to the example of Great Britain in the 18th century and see how they escaped the Malthusian trap. The agricultural revolution increased food supplies. Later on, because of the transportational revolution, you could get food supplies from Argentina or America or the Ukraine. The industrial revolution meant higher levels of production and higher levels of prosperity. Migration also lowered the pressure as there were a fewer human beings to consume limited resources. Many hundreds of thousands immigrated from England, Scotland and Ireland in the 19th century.

Europe is facing a daunting problem concerning the decreasing population and that reflects, right now, on how the Western European countries react to migration from the South or the Middle Est. What are your expectations for such painstaking issue?

High fertility rates cause problems as do low fertility rates. In European countries like Poland there are two problems: population rates have been going down and because Poland is now a member of the European Union, latterly millions of Poles have left the country. There are almost two million Poles working in England, which might be helpful for England not so much for Poland.

Regarding the countries of the Middle East or West Africa, the impoverished heavy-populated ones don’t have places for their people to immigrate to as European countries have become more biased against people coming from these areas. So, we have entered the 21st century with 20 per cent of world population enjoying a good standard of living and the rest, 80 per cent, facing low standards of living. In my opinion, this is the biggest challenge for humankind and so far we are not doing a very good job of addressing it.

What is the most striking negative aspect of the curbing of immigration from the Middle East and West Africa?

In the case of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and the small countries of Central America, the largest source of income comes not from bananas or hardwood or ecological tourism but from remittance wages back coming from the United States. In the case of Turkey, for more than 30 years one of the largest sources of income has been the remittance of three million Turkish workers in Germany. It is a reciprocal benefit on both sides: migrants benefit host countries by doing jobs the host country’s people don’t want to do and they benefit their own societies by the remittances of earning.

But Europe, now, is a very frightened continent. It is worried about disparities of population numbers. The five North African countries — Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco — are growing by the million. Further, cultural or racial concerns come to the fore. It is well known the way conservative and chauvinist European newspapers describe the northern Africans. Large numbers of immigrants are regarded as threatening.

Now, the question is: What are the governments and social planners of North African countries supposed to do? There is no single solution. It would be nice to secure better access to education for girls and young women so they will postpone getting married until 21 or 22 instead of 17. And families should comprehend that having three children is better than having seven. But that is a long-term social trend.

Perhaps, we will see more immigration between different Arab states. There is migration to rich Gulf States, but the number of people who want to move to work there is larger than those who will be permitted to work in these countries.

As to the other two other solutions, India and China, which have much larger population to worry about, have managed in the last 15 years to enhance agricultural output. If you get your agricultural output increasing, you get a healthier population and give yourself a chance to beat the trap, even with a growing population.

European countries are reluctant to absorb agricultural products from countries like Egypt. Yet, from what you are saying, there is a moral responsibility to do so.

Western Europe should be more helpful as we all know the states of Western and North Africa could produce large amounts of grain, maze, wine, dates, olive oil and olives. It would be much better for the economies of these countries to have open access to rich European markets instead of getting financial aid from Europe. And if you can get to the European market for olive oil, you can hire many more workers to work your farm.

European farmers are in strong opposition. They want agricultural protection tariffs for their goods. It is fair to say that the single best help to North and West Africa is to lower European agricultural tariffs.

The third element is the productivity revolution: the introduction of light industries. Instead of importing German beers or soft drinks, for example, you can have assembly plants in importing countries. The same for cell phones. This is the success story of Thailand and Malaysia. Thailand was an agrarian society. Now, assembly factories raise standards of living.

None of these solutions is guaranteed and all of them take time to put into effect. In the case of Egypt, the rise in population by almost one million a year prompts the question of whether Egypt still has time to absorb another 10 million before it sees significant rises in productivity and manufacturing.

According to the thesis of Harvard economist Amartya Sen, societies need efficient, honest and strong governments to deal with varied challenges. If the government can deal with food supply issues it can deal with other challenges, such as the building of infrastructure, eradicating corruption, and enhancing respect for the rule of law.

The interviewer is deputy head of the Political Department of Al-Ahram daily and a world fellow at Yale University.

2 comments on “Paul Kennedy’s Imperial Overstretch Revisited

  1. Pingback: Stabilizing the Middle East: lessons from U.S. rapprochement with China « bnaught1

  2. Pingback: Lessons from the Vietnam War: part 2 « bnaught1

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"