Friday, November 5, 2010

On Decline

So the United States is the greatest empire that the world has ever seen. But are its best days behind it? Spain and Britain are empires that have risen and declined, and in some ways America is like a combo Spain-and-Britain deal. And so, asks oh-so-smart Yale Professor Paul Kennedy, isn't America soon going to decline and be overtaken by Japan?

Japan? Oh, sorry. Got 1987 confused with 2010 again. Seems Paul Kennedy got himself a job at Yale on the strength of  a pretty solid early writing career, notably dilating on the "rise and fall of British naval mastery" (thesis: "you kids stop mucking around and get out of that there Mediterranean afore you get an infection!") . Then he hit the sweetspot with a book about the imminence of American decline. That's what we expect of a man using up one of the precious few chairs at Yale. Unfortunately, he then returned to the library and produced the monstrous Preparing for the Twenty-First Century. My copy of same was free, because someone moving  out of a basement apartment up the street left his copy lying on the grass behind him. Which seems like a pretty generous review to me --my own first diagnosis was incipient cerebral shutdown, but Professor Kennedy has gone on to write seriously and appropriately in the last decade, and Preparing is no doubt just the product of a book tour, which would drive anyone batty.

The interesting point here is that Kennedy is a Briton, born in Northumberland, saddest and most autumnal of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (where now the glory of Bamburgh, the holiness of Lindisfarne? In whom survives the blood of Ida?) and the progression from writing about the Royal Navy to the decline of empires is naturally British. There being more money in Yale than at the University of East Anglia in the 1980s, it is perhaps not surprising that he exported his act across the Atlantic, at just the right time for Americans to receive it with open arms. With American declinism in the news right now, all I'm really saying is that these things are cyclic. Like empires, y'know? First you have your principal declinists, then a golden age of philosophical declinism followed by an influx of severe military officers, then a crisis in the literature, followed by the emergence of the dominant names.

And somewhere in there, at least one declinist names his horse a consul. In his 1986 book, Collapse of British Power: The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Power, a sometime journalist turned amateur historian named Correlli Barnett made an impressively detailed argument that pretty much everything that happened in 1939--1945 proved that Britain was in "decline." As far back as the immediate wake of the industrial revolution, Britain had turned its back on engineering, business, science, realistic foreign policy, military staff planning, and practically everything that is rational. Then it blithely skipped through the 20th Century until it ran into the ruthless, warlike rationalism of Prussian militarism filtered through the state-planned dynamism of National Socialism and....

Oops. Won the war. But the point is, it shouldn't have. Or it should have won the war even more. Or it was all down to American assistance. Or, mostly, all of the above. It is clause 2 that fascinated me as a boy, and in some ways fascinates me still because it is so apparently, obviously true. Imagine replacing the arsenal of British power as it existed in 1939 with the one that existed in 1959. Don't even throw nuclear bombs in there. With Victors and Centurions and Hunters, the British armed forces would have kicked Nazi butt! And wasn't Britain 20 years ahead of the rest of the world industrially in 1820?* So, really, the dispiriting events of 1939--45, where Britain had to play second fiddle to those darn Americans was down to someone, or many someones, who screwed up in 1820--1939.

Audit of War is only loosely about that, however. It faces the rather difficult problem that what with Spitfires and radar and all, World War II certainly looks like a war fought by an industrially superior power, and the book is Barnett's extended demonstration that it really isn't so. So that is why Barnett talks about monocoque fuselages, Ebbw Vale, four wheel drive, and vacuum tubes at great length. It leaves the historian a little ill at ease. Barnett seems to know a lot about these subjects, and it is hard to know just where to start with unpicking the tapestry he weaves. In my graduate student days, discussions of Audit (which I really, really wanted to discuss) tended to be turned away with waves in the direction of Martin Wiener, whose attempt to discover the identity of Barnett's villains seemed at least open to critique.

Now, Wiener's attempt at cultural history is just plain weak. (One word, Dr. Wiener: prosopography.) And Audit of War is a pretty hard book to attack. I've spent much of the last two decades preparing to write a substantive reply, and I still get pretty important technico-industrial details wrong in public. I mean, there's aluminum and electrical cable and steelmaking and organic chemistry and aerodynamics and mine engineering I really have no idea how Barnett achieved the level of mastery required to make such confident claims ...No. Wait. I do. And you don't need Audit to see it, too. Before Audit, Barnett rehearsed his argument with a brief section of his book The Swordbearers that "proved" that the British Grand Fleet at Jutland was technically inferior to the German High Seas Fleet, and this happens to be a subject on which you can find an easily predigested summary of the technical issues. Battleships soaked up a lot of government money in the years before 1914, and there was a lot of journalism on this subject. Shipyards that got contracts (and the officers who directed the contracts to them) leaked one line to journalists ("our battleships are awesome"), and shipyards that didn't get the contracts (and opposition politicians) fed another line to different journalists ("our battleships suck.")

In the final analysis, it is pretty hard to sort out these claims to the last detail, but you can go to a high level review of the arguments (I think you'll find a good one, Brassey's Naval Annuals, in with all the other detail here.)  A point by point review of the things that Barnett apparently thinks are true about the Grand Fleet in 1916 demonstrates that he just swallows every criticism, no matter how inaccurate, and rejects every defence, even when such things are easily tested in the more recent technical literature that Audit of War implies that he has mastered. This is not research. It is indictment.

Which we already get from Wiener's critique, anyway. And, actually, even further back, from Lord Snow's "two cultures" argument. "The politicians just don't respect us engineers and scientists. They're all flouncing about quoting Latin, and they just pat us and say, 'there's a good boy,' when we say we should build something totally awesome!") Wiener and Barnett are pretty clear on what's to blame for all of this: labour unions, public schools, Nonconformism, Gladstone.... I'm surprised that they don't mention Home Rule. Or maybe they do. The important point is that Britain had a chance to embrace Prussian-style technocracy, and went all wet.

And this brings me back to my last few posts, where I've talked about Brabazon and Lord Weir and the National Grid scheme and even Messrs. Balfour and Atlee. Because it looks to me like Britain between the wars was bloody well as technocratic as all get out. This leads me to the unsurprising conclusion that we worry most about what we care most about. In short, it is likely to be a technocracy that worries that science is not getting enough respect from policy makers, and a world-bestriding empire that worries that it is about to go the way of Nineveh and Tyre.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go check out one of my own links and read some more about fire control at Jutland. Cool stuff!

*Well, no. But that's another story.

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