Great power history


in Politics, Rants

While revising, I have realized that ninety percent of all the history I have ever done has been the history of six countries between around 1900 and the present. Here they are, complete with a crude trend line for their overall influence/affluence:

  • United States (Up)
  • Britain (Down)
  • Russia (Down, Up, Down)
  • China (Down, Up)
  • Japan (Up, Down, Up)
  • Germany (Up, Down, Up, Down, Up)

Top performer: USA
Most improved: Japan
Most troublesome: Germany
Most dramatic: Russia / China, tie
Most graceful decline: Britain

The history of other countries has mostly been bound up in their importance, vis a vis this crew. For instance, the transition from British to American hegemony in the Middle East, the role of France in developing and maintaining the interwar order in Europe, India as the jewel of the British Empire, American containment strategies in Europe and Latin America, or the various imperial phases of all and sundry.

I am fairly sure you could get a distinction on my International System 1900-50 qualifying test without mentioning any other states.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

B April 7, 2006 at 11:02 am

My picks for around 2000 to 2100:

Top performer: USA
Most improved: India
Most troublesome: China
Most dramatic: China
Most graceful decline: Japan

Milan April 7, 2006 at 11:11 am

I think predicting the next century is a fool’s errand.

Imagine trying to do so in 1900. Think of the state that all of these countries were in then. Could you possibly have imagined what the next one hundred years would hold for them?

Admittedly, there are only 94 years left before 2100, but the same idea holds.

Anonymous April 7, 2006 at 6:47 pm

This is because IR has an absurdly parochial understanding of history – just as it does of many disciplines. It’s training for decision-makers, who simply cannot be comprehensive thinkers.

Anonymous April 7, 2006 at 7:04 pm

Also, those trend lines are clearly for relative influence and affluence. Which is the right kind. If you are a hardcore neorealist.

Anonymous April 7, 2006 at 7:06 pm

It’s also notable that none of the countries on your list are the ones that intelligent people would want to live in / raise children in.

Says something about great powers.

B April 7, 2006 at 7:13 pm

Kicking ass and educating the young / maintaining a decent culture and environment would seem to require different skillsets. How odd.

Kerrie April 7, 2006 at 8:11 pm

Ok I’m going to go for a Third World best of 20th century:

Top Performer under duress: Cuba.
Most Improved: China.
Most Troublesome: Palestine.
Most Dramatic: DR Congo
Most Graceful Decline: any contenders?

I should add it’s a lot harder to choose from the non-G8/Security Council countries, as there are a hell of a lot more of them.

Ok and here is Nolan and my MILLENIUM CONTEST! For the past 1000 years:

Top Performer: KT chose Britain but Nolan chooses China (heritage pride anyone?). Nolan is probably right though. “They ruled before and they’ll rule again”

Most Improved: Britain.

Most troublesome: Nolan says Britain (troublesome to other people), I say India (to itself and troubled by waves of colonialism over 1000 years)

Most dramatic: Japan, Incan Empire tie.

Biggest letdown: Nolan says Sub-Saharan Africa, and I would like to specify the Malian and Zulu empires for failed potential. Stiff competition!

Honorable mention awards: to Greece and Egypt, for being around for so freakin’ long.

Honorable mention also to First Nations of North America, for still being around. They didn’t have big, empire-building dreams like Egypt but we respect that.

Kerrie April 7, 2006 at 8:28 pm

Ok edit:

Most graceful decline in 3rd World in past 100 years is



Nolan would like to add that Tibet doesn’t count because it was never more than a rebellious province of China, a “rogue state” if you will. This is authenticated by “real Chinese people” interviewed by Nolan.

But you gotta admit, that was one hell of a graceful decline.

Robert Jubb April 7, 2006 at 8:28 pm

“It’s also notable that none of the countries on your list are the ones that intelligent people would want to live in / raise children in.”

What? I can see China and Russia, since both are comparatively poor, and Russia has terrible weather. But the others are all basically OK. What’s wrong with them?

Robert Jubb April 7, 2006 at 8:43 pm

This post has been removed by the author.

Anonymous April 7, 2006 at 9:18 pm

@Robert Jubb

At at least one point in the century, almost all of these countries would have been pretty bad places to live.

For the whole period, there are a lot of less powerful countries where it would have been nicer to live.

Robert Jubb April 8, 2006 at 11:07 am


seriously, where? I’m assuming all of Sub-Saharan Africa is out, as it’s twentieth century history has been significantly more heavily marked with both poverty and violence. Latin America, although in less of a state than Sub-Saharan Africa for most of the century, has hardly consistently been a bed of roses either. Likewise, the Middle East and the Maghreb, even after the advent of Oil and the fall of colonial regimes, has hardly been unmitigatedly wonderful. South and South-East Asia is generally dirt poor now, and certainly was where it isn’t now for much of the twentieth century, not to mention World War Two and various anti- and post-colonial struggles. Other parts of Europe have been at least fought over as Britain or Germany, and also often rather poorer. So far as I can see, that leaves the White Commonwealth minus South Africa and the four Great Powers.

Anonymous April 8, 2006 at 3:04 pm


I was thinking about places like Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, etc.

David April 8, 2006 at 5:20 pm

No profound comment here. I just think that is pretty funny and true. Why is it that germany has started the past couple world wars and they still exist? A world war is a big deal, killing hundreds of thousands (if not more). After the 2nd time I would say it is time to go bye bye and it doesn’t have to be through violence… maybe disolve the country to other ones or own it ourselves. Ok I lied, that was a speck profound

Robert Jubb April 9, 2006 at 10:18 am


Denmark, occupied by Germany during WWII and largely agricultural and poor before it, I think. Swizterland, where women still do not have the vote in some cantons. You’re going to have to do better than that.

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