Thursday, May 3, 2018

Paul K. MacDonald & Joseph M. Parent's "Twilight of the Titans"

Paul K. MacDonald, an associate professor of political science at Wellesley College, is author of Networks of Domination. Joseph M. Parent, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, is author of Uniting States and coauthor of American Conspiracy Theories. They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Twilight of the Titans: Great Power Decline and Retrenchment, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford issued this advice as a quick way to cut out the middlemen and sidestep publishing houses’ public relations departments. In our case, the page 99 test is a fair representation of our style and substance, but then we also penned the material on the jacket. Yet page 99 is a fascinating Fordian prism that reveals how strong hindsight bias is, and how that might blind us to our present possibilities.

Of course, Ford was not his real surname. He changed it to Ford after the First World War because Hueffer sounded too German (his father’s family was from Westphalia; his mother’s from London). And everyone knows about the longstanding antipathy between Germany and the United Kingdom, which contributed to war’s outbreak in 1914. Yet this too is not necessarily so.

Our book is about how states deal with decline, specifically when they fall a notch in the great power pecking order. The conventional wisdom on the subject is pessimistic: either great powers fall into a hostility spiral that tends to end in war, like Athens and Sparta did in the Peloponnesian War, or domestic dysfunction hampers their ability to adjust strategically, like the brittle collapse of the Soviet Union. We argue that logic and evidence suggest the opposite: declining states tend to retrench promptly, proportionately, and peacefully. They do this to stay strategically solvent, reducing their foreign policy costs, revamping their institutions, and redistributing their resources and commitments to be more competitive in the long run.

On page 99, we’re discussing how the United Kingdom reacted to the expensive win in the South African War in a surprising manner. Rather than crow about victory or carry on with business as usual, leaders from both parties cut defense costs, closed peripheral military bases, concentrated resources at home, made new friends abroad, and put a premium on efficiency. This was not primarily aimed at Germany until much later - even after the Anglo-German naval arms race, the British were not intent on fighting Germany - but it gained the United Kingdom much needed strength at critical strongpoints, better prospects for long-term economic growth, and strategic flexibility across its empire. Had leaders not acted with such agility and alacrity then, World War I could have ended much differently, and Ford’s last name might still be Hueffer.

These debates about decline echo today as many people aspire to make America great again. Torn between earlier commitments and current challenges, the United States is ambivalent about whether to double down on the status quo or place new bets. Even if change were desirable, many doubt that the country can overcome its inertia and internal squabbles. Our book is the first to look at all states in such situations since 1870, when reliable data becomes available for the great powers, and shows what combinations of policies tend to bring about desirable outcomes in different conditions. It showcases promising paths to recovery and catastrophic courses to avoid. It offers reasons for hope and optimism. Just not all on page 99.
Learn more about Twilight of the Titans at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue