False Alarm

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Preparing for the 21st Century by Paul Kennedy
    HarperCollins, 428 pp, £20.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 00 215705 5

In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which touched the anxieties of conservatives as well as liberals at the end of Reagan’s expensive two terms in the White House, Paul Kennedy suggested that like other great powers before it, the United States was dissipating the resources that had made it great. It was in ‘imperial overstretch’. And its political system, like that of Britain earlier in the century, would make the decline more difficult to stop. But Rise and Fall, a critic said to Kennedy at the Brookings Institution in Washington in 1988, was too conventional a book. It mistakenly supposed that the problems we faced were the problems of states, and that the solution to them, if solutions there were, were political.

One might think that Kennedy was right. The war in the former Yugoslavia; the slaughter of one group by another in Shaba – the old Katanga – in southern Zaire, and in neighbouring Burundi also, both on a similar scale to that in Bosnia and just as horrible; the collapse of Somalia; the revival of the war in Angola; the fragility of South Africa; skirmishes through the southern parts of the Russian Federation; the persecution of Kurds in Turkey, Palestinians in Israel and marsh Arabs in Iraq; incipient civil war once more in Cambodia; running battles in the further reaches of Indonesia; communal violence in Kashmir and parts of India, the dispute between the Singhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, Dhaka’s suppression of the native inhabitants of the Bangladesh Hill Tracts, and a new crisis in Pakistan; guerrillas and drugs in Peru and Colombia; Northern Ireland; the deteriorating situation of blacks and urban violence in America itself: the sites of violent death and destitution in the world now, and the seeming inability of the United Nations, the Western European powers, the United States, and other governments – where they’re not themselves the cause – to do much about them, suggest that it’s politics that presents the problems and politics that stands in the way of solving them.

But Kennedy took the critic of Rise and fall at his word. The big issues that face us, he was persuaded, are global, not local, and not immediately political. In thinking about Preparing for the 21st Century, he came to believe that four of these big issues – population growth, changes in patterns of international investment, the implications of biotechnology and ‘robotics’, and environmental damage – are especially threatening. He talks about them in the first part of the book. In the second, he guesses at the impact each might have on various parts of the world, and at the likely capacity of states in these places to cope with them. ‘If ever there was a book which no globally-thinking person can safely ignore,’ his publishers declare, ‘this is it.’ They are mistaken. Kennedy confuses symptoms with causes, the shorter term with the longer, and what’s truly ‘global’ with what isn’t. He also avoids the central issue.

He starts with an alarm about population. The most reasonable projection is that by 2025, there will be about half as many people again in the world as there are now. Nearly all the increase will be in the poor South and the non-white communities of the North. In the 1790s, setting the fastest known rate of population growth (in the North American colonies) against the highest known rate of increase in the production of food (in late 18th-century England), Malthus argued that unless there were to be ‘preventive checks’ – the ‘vice’ of birth control and restraints on marriage – the poor would starve and die. As he himself came later to see, this was too bleak. Further advances in agriculture, industry and overseas migration enabled more people to survive and eventually to prosper than he’d thought possible. But in the 1990s, Kennedy argues, the Malthusian fear is a fact. Many of the most critical problems in the world now are the result of ‘population pressure’, and they can no longer be solved by migration or improvements in production.

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