By Paul Kennedy, Professor, Yale University
Review by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
In a lecture at the Naval War College on January 30, the renowned historian Paul Kennedy identified and explained strategic lessons from three global conflicts: the Wars of the French Revolution and Empire (1793-1815), the First World War (1914-1918), and the Second World War (1939-1945).
Kennedy, the author of The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and other important historical works, has frequently been criticized for being a prophet of American decline. His lecture to the students and faculty of the Naval War College betrayed no evidence of “declinism.” Instead, he urged his audience to explore the history of the three global conflicts to inform their understanding of a prudent American grand strategy for the 21st century.
Each of the wars Kennedy reviewed was a struggle for global hegemony. France under the Jacobins and Napoleon, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Germany under Hitler challenged the global balance of power and were defeated by alliances anchored by British and American sea power.
Kennedy highlighted three lessons that are most relevant to America’s strategic position in the 21st century world: sea power; alliances; and a productive economic base.
Predominant sea power translates into geopolitical flexibility. The United States can choose whether, where, when, and to what extent it will intervene in a conflict. This flexibility, however, must be informed by prudential judgment. As Kennedy noted, the U.S. cannot go everywhere.
Alliances are essential to any realistic grand strategy. Victory in the three global wars required strategic alliances. Allies provide bases, manpower, and regional perspective.
Finally, and most important according to Kennedy, is a productive economic base. The three global wars were won, ultimately, by the productive capacity and economic power of the British and U.S.-led alliances.
Kennedy acknowledged that history provides no fixed blueprint for the United States as it navigates the world of the 21st century. The past, he concluded, informs us but does not control us.