While reading Paul Kennedy’s book, what struck me most is the cyclical characteristics of the rise and fall of great powers. There seems to be a chronic disease that all major powers are bound to catch: what makes you is what breaks you. A certain quality would turn out to be both the strength and the weakness of a nation.
When Strength Becomes Weakness
The ancient Chinese empire became a great power largely thanks to the Confucian culture. It taught people to value learning, to respect knowledge (and hence to respect the elderly), and to use their talent to serve the state. These qualities enabled China to become the most sophisticated and prosperous society in the globe for a long time. But, as Kennedy points out in the first Chapter of his book, the same Confucian culture also planted the seed of the empire’s eventual decline. For example, the backward-looking characteristic of the national leaders is derived from the respect for the past and ancestor worship. The value of learning placed on particular fields of knowledge crowded out innovation in commerce and technology. The prosperity and the Central Kingdom mentality also made the empire conceited and self-righteous. Confucianism, it seems, has exhausted its momentum after two millennia, and has become the obstacle of any further progress in the Chinese society.
Fast forward to today’s United States, we also see a similar phenomenon: those qualities that once made America great are causing today’s decline. Democracy is getting messier and is tied up in bipartisan struggles. Property rights, land ownership, and state autonomy make it hard for the federal government to carry out any major infrastructure projects like high-speed rail or wind turbine installation. Even free speech is being used to protect the unlimited corporate donation to political candidates. Some of America’s most distinct greatness seems to stand in the way of the future of this country. It makes people wonder if these past greatness could shine once again and solve the problems of its own making.
When Weakness Becomes Strength
Japan is probably the best example of how one’s weakness could turn into strength. Japan has extremely limited natural resources. It heavily relies on imports for almost all commodities that are vital to Japanese economy. As a result, Japan has developed a deep sense of crisis and alarm. This vigilance and restlessness have made Japan the expert in energy saving and resources management. Among all industrial nations, Japan has the highest energy efficiency, and it separates trash into eight categories for recycling. Japan also developed “urban mining”, extracting precious materials out of waste electronics and other urban garbage. In turn, Japan is exporting its recycling technologies and hybrid cars, and leading the world in energy saving efforts.
China’s authoritarian government is another example of weakness turning into strength. Chinese government has been constantly criticized by the West for its heavy-handed rule and lack of respect for human rights. But recently, many western countries have been quite jealous of the fact that Chinese government can build a high-speed rail across anybody’s backyard. Chinese citizens do not enjoy as many rights as Americans do, but this lack of right has turned into one of the biggest bonuses that history has given the Chinese government: the government can afford to push forward unpopular construction projects and social programs that are indeed necessary for the long term wellbeing of the nation.
So what is the logic behind this alternation of strength and weakness in exactly the same quality? There’s an old Chinese saying: “a proud army is bound to lose”. And we can also say that a winning army is bound to be proud. Success leads to pride, and pride leads to defeat. Defeat will prepare you for another success. An English saying goes like this: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. And observing today’s America, we can also say that too much liberty takes away people’s vigilance. Too much prosperity undermines a nation’s work ethic. And this loss of vigilance and work ethic will in turn destroy the liberty and prosperity. It seems that history is quite fair: no nation could stay at the top forever; no single quality could propel a society for a long time. And, no one will really learn this lesson from history.