Thirty years ago Yale historian, Paul Kennedy, published an influential book titled: "The Rise and fall of the Great Powers." He traced the rise and decline of empires over the past 500 years, including Spanish, French, Dutch, and British, and concluded that their decline resulted from an inability to finance all the overseas possessions they had acquired during their rise as great power status.
Great Britain's rapid rise and gradual decline in the 19th and early 20th centuries is especially relevant today because of its similarity to America's emergence as a superpower after World War II. Like Britain, which became a world power after defeat of Napoleon's France in 1815, the United States found itself in 1945 following its victory over Germany and Japan, as the preeminent world power. U.S. policymakers then had to decide whether America should limit the areas where vital national interests were at stake, primarily the Western Hemisphere, or use its power to defend Western Europe and eventually spread its influence world-wide. President Truman decided that America would assume an expanded world role.
Great Britain's decline as a great power is instructive for policymakers, both in Obama and Trump administrations. During the 19th century, the British navy dominated the seas around the world which made it possible for London to expand colonies and markets in Africa, India, and the Far East. These imperial possessions became a lucrative source of income for investors and lessened the need for high taxes to pay for a world-wide empire, on which its leaders asserted "the sun never sets."
Britain's preeminent position was challenged in 1890 by a unified Germany under Prussian control. Berlin decided to build a powerful navy to challenge Britain's dominance of the seas and carve out a colonial empire in Africa. Meanwhile, costly wars in Crimea and South Africa had damaged Britain's economic power as it was preparing to fight Germany on the continent when war broke out in 1914.
The First World War produced a major drain on Britain's economy, but London chose not to cut back on its vast empire obligations, especially in India. That enabled British leaders to postpone overseas retrenchment until the Second World War left their country all but bankrupt. A new Labour government, elected in 1945, decided to raise taxes on the wealthy, dismantle its far-flung empire, and raise living standards of the British people. Pulling out of Greece and the Middle East and giving India its independence made Britain dependent on the United States for protection and economic support. The reality is that Britain could not sustain great power status because of its economic decline.
Many of the country's political leaders, both Republican mad Democrat, acknowledge that the United States is overcommitted militarily around the world and should cut back. Two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soured the public on military interventions abroad and set the stage for Barack Obama's and Donald Trump's efforts to disengage from costly and politically questionable commitments abroad. Obama refused to commit ground to troops in Libya, he declined to intervene in Syria to oust Bashar al-Assad, and he set deadlines for withdrawing U.S.; troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today Trump appears determined to end the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, and he ordered the Pentagon to withdraw the small U.S. contingent from Syria presumably because it might become a larger commitment there. Trump also says he may reduce U.S. troop presence in South Korea if negotiations with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, prove successful.
Even on Europe, America's earliest postwar commitment, U.S. leaders question the value of keeping large combat forces there. Barack Obama withdraw an armored division from Germany during his tenure, and Donald Trump threatens a drawdown if Europe doesn't soon build its own forcess to cope with Russia's growing pressure in Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea.
The real issue for U.S. leaders in both parties is this: Do the large costs of maintaining forces abroad serve vital U.S. interests in the 2020s? With the federal budget deficit now approaching $1 trillion, many think it's time to retrench overseas and concentrate more seriously on priorities here at home. The strong U.S. economy suggests that decline is not a danger today.
File last modified on Monday, 11-FEB-2019 8:47 AM EST