Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:46 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:46 | SYDNEY

I'm confused by Paul Kennedy


Rory Medcalf


28 February 2008 12:55

A truly odd argument by eminent historian Paul Kennedy in a recent International Herald Tribune. Ever since his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which I and my fellow international relations undergraduates endured in the early 1990s, I have been a little wary of his grand theories and predictions: Japan hasn’t quite supplanted the US, after all.

His argument this time is that the leading military-technology power of the day – supposedly the UK pre-1914, the US now – needs to think twice about introducing new military advances for fear that up-and-coming rivals (Germany then, China now) will eventually field those weapons perhaps more potently than ever their originator could.  The early 20th-Century example was the submarine. I’m confused.

For a start, this presupposes that some powers are capable of real innovation in military technology while others somehow inherently are not. Who is to say that a moratorium on US military technological advances tomorrow would somehow mean that China (or Russia, India, or any other power) would automatically cease to innovate? The article also implies that new weapons are automatically more threatening than those that preceded them. Yet there is a good case to be made that conventional military technology is becoming less lethal, not more. Even the US would prefer, I suspect, to sustain a few precisely-targeted cruise missile strikes than a round of old-fashioned WWII-style carpet bombing, were the choice ever as stark as that.