Rise and Fall of The Great Powers (Book Review)

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (affiliate link) traces the development of major empires since the 16th century and seek to explain the reasons for their rise and fall. Compare to other works in the literature, this book focuses on the interaction between economic factors and strategy rather than finding one general rules about the formation of states and empires. Kennedy’s main thesis is a state’s power increases as its production capacity grows. The larger economy makes it easier for the state to sustain armaments during peace and finance military fleets during wartime. However, if a state overextends itself by allocating too many resources in its military or conquering territories more than what it can manage, other rivals can catch up with them.

The first chapter surveys the strengths and weaknesses of great powers in the dawn of the 16th century – Ming China, the Ottoman Empire, the Mogul empire, Tokugawa Japan, Muscovy, and the smaller states in western Europe. Kennedy argues that despite having large economies and sophisticated inventions, these empires suffer from having centralized authority which limits the formation of new ideas, military development and commercial endeavours. On the other hand, due to the lack of a central authority, European states manage to develop newer technologies and inventions. 

The book did well in providing a broad yet detailed survey of each empire’s economy and political structure on its own. For example, in the first chapter, Kennedy provides a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of great powers in the dawn of the 16th century – Ming China, the Ottoman Empire, the Mogul empire, Tokugawa Japan, Muscovy, and the smaller states in western Europe. Kennedy argues that despite having large economies and sophisticated inventions, these empires suffer from having centralised authority which limits the formation of new ideas, military development and commercial endeavours. On the other hand, due to the lack of a central authority, European states manage to develop newer technologies and inventions. 

What the book lacks however is explaining why other regions did not develop like Europe despite not having a central authority. An example of this is the African subcontinent. Despite political fragmentations, the region never developed anywhere close to Europe. In the book, Kennedy never dealt with this issue. In addition, Kennedy did not explain how empires such as Ming China and Tokugawa Japan could develop in the first place despite having centralised authorities.

To sum up, in Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (affiliate link), Kennedy argues that a state’s power increases as its production capacity grows. As a state overextends itself by allocating too many resources in its military or conquering territories more than what it can manage, other rivals can catch up with them. Finally, the state declines and is replaced by another state. I recommend this book to those who are interested in detailed history of the rise of empires. However, the book spans 500 pages and its deep flaws suggest that you should consider to invest your time in other similar books such as Toynbee’s A Study of History or Kissinger’s Diplomacy.

Click here to visit the Amazon book page (affiliate link), where it is available in multiple formats.

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