May 01, 2002

A Strange and Sinister Sect of British Imperial Conservatives

So I'm on the plane, hopping back from Claremont-McKenna College in suburban LA to Berkeley, reading a little book that Strobe Talbott (former Clinton DepSec State) and Nayan Chanda (author of a wonderful book about postwar Vietnam) edited about 911, when I come across what I hope will be the most boneheaded thing I read this month. Paul Kennedy, British historian residing at Yale, writes that:

"... the overtaking of Britain by the U.S. a century ago also involved two democracies, and the declining country found the process a painful one..."*

"Painful," I thought. "Painful compared to what? More painful than practicing the Hitler salute and sending one's Jewish neighbors off to the extermination camp?" That is, after all, what Paul Kennedy would be doing today if Britain had not been "overtaken" by the U.S.: a Britain that had successfully curbed the growth of American economic and strategic power around 1900 would have been a Britain where Hitler slept in Buckingham Palace in 1944. Paul Kennedy's failure to imagine that the "overtaking" of Britain by the U.S. was a powerful force multiplier for Britain where it counted most is one of the most boneheaded statements by a British historian I have read since... since... since... Donald Cameron Watt wrote that that Romans won the Battle of Cannae, or John Keegan wrote of Bulgaria's common border with the Soviet Union...


*Paul Kennedy (2002), "Maintaining American Power," in Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chandha, eds., The Age of Terror (New York: Basic Books: 0465083560), p. 72.

Posted by DeLong at May 1, 2002 03:21 PM | TrackBack

Comments

You missed Kennedy's point. If Britain had not wasted it's resources maintaining it's colonial empire and kept it's growth rate upin the late 19th century, the United States would not have passed Britain as quickly. Further, a more commercial/economical minded Britain might have not been so upset about Belgium neutrality in 1914 and stayed out of the war.

Posted by: on September 16, 2002 10:21 AM

what a silly comment! just because it was good for Britain (says De Long) doesn't mean it wasn't painful - particularly as it wasn't perceived so at the time! and what a silly, bone-headed comment anyway - the cheap dig at 'British historians' (would you use the phrase 'Jewish historians')... since the rise of the US and our eclipse partly contributed to loss of empire you can hardly call it a 'force multiplier'. economists will never get history.

Posted by: mark bearn on March 11, 2003 06:41 PM

What Kennedy meant as painful for the British. Was that they could no longer look on themselves as the masters of the world they once were.

It's a different kind of painful. Like the kind of painful way the average British citzen winces whenever they see someone as thick as George Bush lording it over the world. (The "Where did it all go wrong" kind of painful)

Posted by: killian on May 12, 2003 11:31 PM

Kennedy belongs to a school of historians and foreign policy gurus which is interested solely in the relative shifts of power between countries. Kissinger is perhaps the high priest of this bunch. They have no interest in competing ideologies or social history or anything like that, only in the shifts of military and economic power. Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is a good example of this approach to history.

The weakness of this school is that they would think that everybody else thinks like them, so it would bother Britain just as much to be overtaken by America as if it had been overtaken by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. SOME people, like Robert Cecil (later the great Prime Minister Lord Salisbury) were undoubtedly greatly resentful of the United States. But most were not, and some are only too glad to let the Americans do most of the work. Whereas of course Britain fought a six-year war against Nazi Germany when it looked to be too powerful, and organised, with the United States, the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union, it passed the torch as the world's leading democracy more or less gracefully to the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

For the record, I doubt we would have seen Germans in London in 1944, whatever America had done. They were already in such trouble by the time of Pearl Harbor, halted in Moscow having completely underestimated the Soviet Union. Americans may have helped the British and Canadians liberate Western Europe from the Nazis, but without them, the British, Germans and Russians might well still be fighting.

Posted by: PJ on May 13, 2003 01:38 PM

Kennedy belongs to a school of historians and foreign policy gurus which is interested solely in the relative shifts of power between countries. Kissinger is perhaps the high priest of this bunch. They have no interest in competing ideologies or social history or anything like that, only in the shifts of military and economic power. Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is a good example of this approach to history.

The weakness of this school is that they would think that everybody else thinks like them, so it would bother Britain just as much to be overtaken by America as if it had been overtaken by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. SOME people, like Robert Cecil (later the great Prime Minister Lord Salisbury) were undoubtedly greatly resentful of the United States. But most were not, and some are only too glad to let the Americans do most of the work. Whereas of course Britain fought a six-year war against Nazi Germany when it looked to be too powerful, and organised, with the United States, the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union, it passed the torch as the world's leading democracy more or less gracefully to the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

For the record, I doubt we would have seen Germans in London in 1944, whatever America had done. They were already in such trouble by the time of Pearl Harbor, halted in Moscow having completely underestimated the Soviet Union. Americans may have helped the British and Canadians liberate Western Europe from the Nazis, but without them, the British, Germans and Russians might well still be fighting.

Posted by: PJ on May 13, 2003 01:39 PM

De Long's counterfactual about Hitler living in BP in 1944 is stupid both in principle and in detail. Any attempt to analyse the "what ifs" in such huge international events is prone to flawed assumptions of ceteris paribus.

For example, there is no guarantee that the US would have entered the 1st WW in a repeated (classical) time series sample - and furthermore, if they hadn't entered and the Germans had still been defeated, the cut-and-run tactics of Wilson wouldn't have been employed. This would have lessened the probability of the ridiculous division of Eastern Europe, which in conjunction with the economic constraints imposed on Germany allowed a certain mad Austrian to get to power in the first place.

This is the perfect place to attack the most decadent form of politics - Communism. If it hadn't been for those idiots whose entire ideology is based on envy (and so can be dismissed on an intellectual basis), 'the West' would not have relatively preferred the Fascism of Germany and Spain so much, dramatically reducing international strife and appeasement by the British of the man with the amusing little moustache.

Posted by: CPG on June 6, 2003 03:27 AM

De Long's counterfactual about Hitler living in BP in 1944 is stupid both in principle and in detail. Any attempt to analyse the "what ifs" in such huge international events is prone to flawed assumptions of ceteris paribus.

For example, there is no guarantee that the US would have entered the 1st WW in a repeated (classical) time series sample - and furthermore, if they hadn't entered and the Germans had still been defeated, the cut-and-run tactics of Wilson wouldn't have been employed. This would have lessened the probability of the ridiculous division of Eastern Europe, which in conjunction with the economic constraints imposed on Germany allowed a certain mad Austrian to get to power in the first place.

This seems the perfect place to attack the most decadent form of politics - Communism. If it hadn't been for those idiots whose entire ideology is based on envy (and so can be dismissed on an intellectual basis), 'the West' would not have relatively preferred the Fascism of Germany and Spain so much, dramatically reducing international strife and appeasement by the British of the man with the amusing little moustache.

Lastly, Kennedy needs to read a high school economics textbook. A country's welfare is dictated chiefly by its own productivity, not relative productivity. For illustrative purposes, say the UK is undergoing productivity growth of 1% and the rest of the world is at 3%. The UK's welfare is improving at 1%, not declining at 2%. If you are now annoyed with the rest of the world then you are envious, so pull on anything red, climb to the top of the nearest building and perform a 'random walk', leaving your fate to the gods - they always exact justice;)

Posted by: GPC on June 6, 2003 03:34 AM
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