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The delicate process of writing history comes in the form of mastering all sources well, often having to master multiple languages. The Ph.D. degrees in Harvard and other top universities in the United States require the fluency of no less than two additional languages other than English. Paul Kennedy, a British historian at Yale University, has been exceptional in the sense that most of his books, including the “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, which is literally a classic, is written almost in its entirety with English sources.
But what makes the book an amazing read is the exceptional thesis it peddles: when great powers begin to overreach, what Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch”, they will undergo the process of withering in their own weight. The Japanese, Chinese, British, Ottoman, and American empires, according to Paul Kennedy, have and will continue to face this dilemma. Potentially, China too, when it’s demography begins to get old due to the previous one child policy confined to Han but now seems to have extended to the Uyghur Muslims wholesale in Xinjiang. The latter has invited the outrage of the world.
Anyway, Paul Kennedy has urged the United States to exercise due caution, especially after the United States has, by 1989, “won” the Cold War. People in the now defunct Soviet bloc were liberated by the millions, and the Communist regimes were toppling down one after the other between 1989–1990. In the book, Paul Kennedy spoke amply of the importance perpetual economic reform, or, restructuring, what in another parlance in the Islamic world would probably be called “tajdid” or Revival, which Malaysian Reformist Anwar Ibrahim has served as the icon of the Muslim world. Be that as it may, Paul Kennedy affirmed a country, no matter how powerful, should not become overly engrossed, and involved, in the affairs of others. Both tasks are entailed with enormous risks of entrapment.
This cardinal sin, according to Paul Kennedy, seems to be the major faux pas of the United States. But between 1989, when the book was first published, and now, the United States is still standing, albeit flummoxed by a raging pandemic that, ironically enough, started in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 further displayed the zeal of the Americans to be even more gung on to “Make America Great Again (MAGA). In fact, right after Paul Kennedy’s book was published in 1989, one should note that Joseph Nye immediately wrote “Bound to Lead” to challenge Paul Kennedy’s thesis. In the book, Nye argued that coercive power alone cannot save the day. What is needed is the soft power of seduction too. In this sense, Nye is right, what is just as important is the notion of “soft power,” where the appeal of the US seems to verge on its concept of “open society”, not in the current context, a “totalitarian surveillance state”, which China seems to be becoming.