Paul Kennedy: Neocons’ Greatest Nightmare

LONDON: Two words changed Paul Kennedy’s life. That they were just two words in a book of some 150,000, and that the whole phrase was three words long, was neither here nor there. No one was that interested in the qualifying adjective relative when the other two words were US and decline.


By John Crace


February 11, 2008


United Arab Emirates – Gulf Times – Original Article (English)


The year was 1988, the presidency was up for grabs as the Reagan era wound to a close, and Kennedy’s new book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, had touched a raw nerve.


“It was actually a study of more than 500 years of global empires”, he smiles, “but I don’t think many people read more than the final chapter on the US and the USSR”.


The Democrats seized on the two words to prove the failure of postwar US imperialism and military spending; the Republicans regarded them as little short of heresy and the neocons went into overdrive.


Paul Wolfowitz and Caspar Weinberger declared open season on Kennedy and George Schultz was sent on a tour of Asia to attack his thesis.

Kennedy ended up defending himself against Jeane Kirkpatrick (Reagan’s former foreign policy adviser) in front of the Senate foreign relations committee.


It wasn’t at all what the naval and diplomatic historian from Yale had expected. “Many people assumed I was a cunning bastard and had planned the controversy to coincide with election year, he says, but it was totally serendipitous.”


“The book was originally planned to come out in 1986, but my editor kept asking for rewrites. And I hadn’t originally intended to go beyond 1945. It was only when I started looking at the unbalanced fiscal policies and heavy military spending of the US and the USSR that I decided comparisons could be made. Even then, I thought I was being quite detached when I wrote that the main challenge for policy-makers was to manage relative decline.”


Initially, Kennedy felt overwhelmed. “I got thousands of requests for interviews, masses of hate mail and some just weird mail”, he says.


“At first I tried to defend my arguments intellectually, and to point out I had been quoted out of context. But then I realized I would drive myself nuts doing this, and I remembered my grandmother saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones…’. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me, and I just decided to let people take whatever they wanted from the book. Besides which, I felt no great ownership of the central idea that all empires lose their coherence over time.”


If the immediate fallout was hard to deal with, the longer-term consequences have proved positive. The book became an international bestseller and has been translated into 23 languages; only last year the Chinese issued a reprint to coincide with a new 10-part TV series based on it. It has made Kennedy financially secure.


“It came at a good time”, he concedes. “My wife was desperate to leave a job she hated, but she was earning more than me and we needed the money to put our sons through college. My first royalty check enabled her to do what she wanted, and take a year out to start an Aids hospice in Connecticut.”


The book catapulted Kennedy from his position as a respected academic comparatively unknown outside his own subject area to the status of a prominent international figure.


Over the years, he has been asked to advise on US national policy, speak at the World Economic Forum, and conduct a three-year audit on the running of the United Nations on behalf of its then secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.


He has also been offered visiting academic appointments. And it’s his decision to take a year’s break from his post of professor of history at Yale to become the first holder of the Philippe Roman chair in history and international affairs at the London School of Economics (LSE) that places him in the UK for this academic year.


Despite Kennedy’s reputation as something of an iconoclast, at heart he remains a pragmatist. His inaugural lecture for the LSE last October may have been called Reforming the UN – Mission Impossible, but it was not all negative. While many academics have been debating the UN’s impotence after its failure to insist on the US and the UK obtaining a second resolution before going to war in Iraq in 2003, and to intervene successfully in Darfur, Kennedy has remained a loyal if not uncritical – ally.


He says his support has nothing to do with getting too close to the UN in the three years he spent on the audit, and everything to do with maintaining a historical perspective.


“Of course there are things one would ideally like to have seen done differently”, he says, “but you have to accept the UN’s political limitations. The League of Nations failed because so many of the larger countries, including the US, USSR and Japan, were not members and everyone understood that if you wanted to create an effective global organization, it had to be inclusive.”


“Inevitably, there had to be compromises, and allowing a country the right of veto on issues that were perceived to affect its national interest was one of them. Then there is understandable frustration of some of the larger emerging countries, such as Brazil and India, at not becoming permanent members.


“But there have been some undeniable successes; its peacekeeping missions have become more effective over the past 10 years, and it has become more transparent.


Kennedy is equally pragmatic about his chair at the LSE. When a university first starts talking to you about a visiting post, it always makes it sound as if you won’t have to do very much, he laughs. But once you arrive, it keeps saying, could you just do this as well?’ and before you know it?


Not that he’s moaning. He knows the score and enjoys his work.  Besides which, the UK is just where he wants to be for his current research. So when he’s not in London, he’s nose deep in archives at Cambridge.


It’s not immediately obvious how Kennedy expects to get everything done: he’s due to deliver two books for publication next year and he makes it sound as if he’s got a lot still to do. But deadlines don’t seem quite so tight when the books themselves are labors of love.


After years of teaching and writing about big-picture politics, Kennedy has embarked on what he calls an act of self-liberation. The first book is an analysis of the critical turning points of the Second World War but with a typically down-to-earth Kennedy spin.


Most histories either fall into the category of top-down decision-making, or first-hand accounts of the grunts at the front, he says. I’m aiming for something in between.


When you read the accounts of Churchill and Roosevelt’s Casablanca meeting, at which they outlined the seven preconditions control of the Atlantic, control of the air and so on for Germany’s unconditional surrender, and then follow the progress of the war, it can appear as if it was straightforward to achieve those seven tasks.


Yet the reality was very different. In the months following Casablanca, our shipping losses actually got worse and it appeared as if we were losing the war in the air. My book will look at the people who figured out how to get things done: the man who miniaturized radar to fit in the nose of a Sunderland (flying boat), the man who invented the system that allowed bombers to follow a radio signal in the fog, the man who discovered that small slices of aluminum could blind German radar?


The other book is on Rudyard Kipling not a biography, as there are plenty of very good ones already, but an attempt to form a coherent picture of the person who wrote children’s stories and the person who embodied a particular sense of British imperial values.


His choice of subject is not quite as offbeat as you might think for someone who has taught at Yale for the past 20 years; Kennedy is, in fact, British.


He was born in 1945 exactly halfway between VE and VJ day into an Irish working-class family in the north east of England.


His father worked at the local shipyard, his uncles worked the trawlers.  Even after he passed the entrance exam and got into St Cuthbert’s grammar school, most of the family assumed he’d leave school as soon as he could and get a proper job.


I wasn’t just the first member of the family to go to university, he says. I was the first to stay at school beyond 16.


Not that he left home. It didn’t occur to him to go to any university other than the local Newcastle University. And he certainly did not imagine himself as an academic. I had a job lined up as a journalist, he says.


I’d been earning some pocket money as a bookie’s runner, so I knew a lot about horseracing from the inside and I wrote to (press baron) Lord Thompson, asking for a job on the Sporting Chronicle. He offered me a job as chief sub-editor and racing correspondent, and I was all set to start.


What changed things was that to his – and everyone else’s – amazement, Kennedy got the first ever first-class degree in history at Newcastle, and the university arranged a scholarship for him to do a PhD at St Anthony’s College, Oxford.


I was fortunate to end up in a college with a whole load of Americans, Australians, Germans and Finns who were just as bewildered by the Oxford experience as me, he jokes.


Even at that age, I’d only been south once, and that was a trip around the UK in a Bedford van with four friends.


Once again, though, Kennedy’s luck held. While at Oxford, he was asked to work two days a week on Basil Liddell Hart’s last great work on the history of the Second World War, researching and drafting chapters on the strategic air campaign, the Italian campaign and the Battle of the Atlantic. His career as an academic was up and running.


He was offered a job at the University of East Anglia, England, and quickly made his mark, becoming its youngest ever reader (lecturer). But by the early 80s, teaching history at a modern university had become increasingly unfun.


Mrs. Thatcher was cutting higher education funds relentlessly, he says, and I seemed to spend my whole time advising colleagues over 40 to take redundancy, and younger ones that they would never get tenure. So I decided it was time to move on; three great professorships had become vacant and I was on the shortlist for all three.


Those jobs all vanished after a new round of UK Treasury cuts, but in the same week he got a call from Yale, offering him a newly created chair in international history. It wasn’t an easy decision to uproot his sons were 15, 13 and five at the time but it’s one he’s never regretted and he’s remained happily Stateside ever since.


So what next? He looks bemused for a minute. The one thing history teaches you is that you can never really be sure of anything, he says, returning to his opening theme. Empires come and go.

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