INTERVIEW / Prepare to meet thy future: Big books about the 21st century are supposed to make your flesh creep. But Paul Kennedy argues that the end of the world is not, quite, nigh

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'FRACTURED' is a word which Professor Paul Kennedy savours. It recurs a lot in his new book Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, and it recurs when he talks.

He talked to me about the United States after the Cold War as a power which 'doesn't yet know what to do with a fractured world'. Later, speaking about his off-duty occupation at Yale, training boys to play soccer, he used them as an image for his anxiety about the future. 'In 2010, these boys will be young men of 30, and I am concerned that they should not grow up in a fractured world with masses of illegal immigrants pouring out of Asia and Latin America.'

By 'fractured', Kennedy means what other people mean by 'the new world disorder': a breaking-up of blocs and states and assumptions which all once seemed immutable. There is already a value judgement lurking here. A fracture implies bad news: a breakage that calls for splints, glue, eventually for buying a new whatever-it-was if the old one cannot be mended. But biological reproduction is also a fracture, from the separation of an amoeba to human birth, and nobody suggests repairing the mother-baby unit by returning infant to womb.

What is happening in the world is not just that it is being smashed to pieces. The world is also breeding. Human society has gone through a gestation and come to term, like a colony of seals or a herd of ewes, and the landscape is suddenly filling up with tiny, noisy, often ugly new arrivals. Both images for the world in the 1990s - fracture and birth - are legitimate.

KENNEDY, in London to publicise his book, is a tall, thin, 47-year-old Geordie who has acquired a modest American accent in the 10 years or so that he has been a history professor at Yale. Before then, he spent 13 years at the University of East Anglia, writing such books as The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976).

The fame, wealth and controversy that the United States suddenly bestowed on him for The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988) has not turned his head, although I detected the germ of a tendency to talk about himself in the third person ('. . . they argue that Malthus, the Club of Rome and Kennedy must all be wrong,' he can say). This second blockbuster, however, provoked some surly responses.

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was a study of 'imperial over-stretch', which used historical precedents to suggest that the United States was entering a decline because of the scale of its global military commitments. It came out in the middle of a Presidential election campaign, and was seized upon by intelligent Americans who needed precisely that sort of intellectual ammunition to bombard the Reagan-Bush legacy. The basis of its success was that it seemed to crystallise Americans' doubts about their leadership into some kind of historical Law of Decline - dubbed 'Declinism'.

But the next year was 1989. Communism in Eastern Europe and then Soviet Communism collapsed, taking with them the military challenge that had kept America's defence effort so high and so wide. Where does that leave 'over-stretch', or indeed Declinism?

Kennedy keeps calm. He merely remarks that 'the collapse of the Soviet Union gives the United States a wonderful opportunity to rethink the priorities and principles of domestic renewal'. In other words, if the causes of over-stretch are removed, then American decline is obviously no longer inevitable. Fair enough. On the other hand - and here we come to his new book - the world is full of dangerous developments which are happening more rapidly in the landscape left by the Cold War. Preparing for the Twenty-First Century is far more predictive than Rise and Fall. Instead of trying to find patterns in history and project them into the present, it tries to find dynamic processes in the present and project them into the future. Kennedy asks whether the world - its nation-states, its transnational institutions and its economy - is organised to withstand the impact of these processes, and concludes that it is not.

Ruthlessly summarised, Kennedy argues - first - that the long-postponed Malthusian catastrophe of population outrunning resources is taking place in the developing world now. The innovations that saved Europe from the Malthus trap - agricultural improvement and industrialisation - have mostly run their course and can no longer transform production to keep up with the increase in population. The new global market economy increases the distance between its minority of 'winners' and its huge majority of 'losers', while the migration of the poor millions towards the enclaves of wealth grows easier. The nation- state, meanwhile, is turning out to be the wrong instrument for coping with these changes, a 'mercantilist' institution dedicated to protecting its citizens' living-standards which is too weak to act effectively against the general threat to the world environment.

The ideological right in the United States were furious that Kennedy, as he puts it, 'questioned whether laissez- faire political methods could handle our global demographic and economic disorder'. Liberals, on the other hand, felt crushed by the weight of interconnecting problems described by Kennedy and detected an admission that nothing could be done to resist them. But Kennedy insists that he is not a pessimist. He resisted when his publishers pushed hard for a jeremiad, for a book which would end with a prophecy of universal, inescapable doom for the human race. Kennedy was determined not to wind up either with a despairing Green call to abandon all advanced technology or with some appeal for spiritual rebirth such as Arnold Toynbee's. So he finished this book with a series of cautious, ultimately very English hedgings about the situation not being hopeless. The main thing is to prepare ourselves so that we are at least not taken by surprise, and three key elements in that preparation are 'education, the place of women and the need for political leadership'.

SOME of the mud thrown at Paul Kennedy is made of pure envy. But some of it is clay dug from the foundations of Anglo-American academic tradition. Historians, in this view, should stick to writing about the past. They should resist the temptation to discern laws of history or pretty patterns leading into the future. Above all, they should not play up to a political audience greedy for sexy maxims to justify what politicians mean to do anyway. Kennedy is quite nasty about this line of criticism, which he traces to 'the rise of a professional clerisy of historians from the late 19th century onwards . . . you have to have a PhD and a special period'. Before that, when there was no 'clerisy' (another favourite Kennedy word) salaried by universities and research institutes, it was accepted that a historian also had a duty to write argumentative, synthetic works for a wider public.

This dispute, in itself minor, does raise the question of the spirit in which prophets prophesy these days. Here Paul Kennedy's publishers, whatever their motives were, displayed a correct sense of fashion. A big book about the future is supposed to make your flesh creep. Like a Puritan tract, a future- book is supposed to crumple the reader into despair about the future of the human race and then force him to repent. Some future-authors offer no escape whatever beyond prayer: the human race has sinned decisively against God and Nature and the end is nigh. Some - the eco-doom school - impose as penance a return to a horse-dung age of neolithic agriculture. Others again, inspired by pseudo-scientific matchings of human and animal behaviour, prescribe a release of the gorilla in us all.

The common element here is that pessimism has to be total to be OK. Green 'impossibilism' comes to the same thing: those who tell people that their only escape is to throw away their Access card, to get used to lice and to eat gritty bread made from Einkorn wheat also know that most people will not do these things. Hopelessness about the future is acceptable, because hopeless people will do nothing more disruptive than buy more doom books and sit at home sobbing over their children's cots. Anger about the future is acceptable, too, as long as it slathers blame over everyone. But when the future is discussed with an anger that discriminates - which declares that catastrophe is avoidable if an exploiting minority is struck down and disabled - then the publisher grows wary. It is that kind of anger which Kennedy's book could have used - but lacks.

All the evil trends that Paul Kennedy identifies are real: population growth, the backlash of technological progress against the planet's atmosphere and climate, the degeneration of politics, the widening of wealth gaps. Kennedy avoids blaming all this on 'world capitalism' or the manipulations of post-imperial powers. But Hans Magnus Enzensberger has also been writing about these matters (his essay 'The Great Migration' appears in the current number of Granta), and his anger is all the more impressive because it does discriminate. It discriminates not against the general wickedness of some class or category, but against the stupidity of those who will not understand what is happening.

Enzensberger writes that the world market 'declares ever larger sections of mankind to be superfluous, not through political persecution, by command of the Fuhrer or party resolution, but spontaneously, as it were, by its own logic. The result is no less murderous, but the guilty can never be brought to book. In the language of economics that means: an enormously increasing supply of human beings is faced by a clearly declining demand.'

World population is expected to grow by one billion this decade. Kennedy reminds his readers that the 'industrial democracies' accounted for more than a fifth of the human species in 1950, but will account for less than one-tenth in 2025. Given this towering imbalance, with nearly 90 per cent of the species camping outside the prosperity fence, the Great Migration seems scarcely to have begun.

Enzensberger reminds us, however, of the scale of some population movements in very recent history which did not bring the developed world to an end. In the five years between 1945 and 1950, no fewer than 12 million immigrants arrived in the Allied occupation zones of Germany, while 4.4 million Germans moved from the Soviet to the western zones. After about 1955, they were followed by the armies of contract labourers - Gastarbeiter - of whom about 5 million have settled in Germany. More than 20 million new immigrants now live in Western Europe, while Paul Kennedy speaks of 15 million illegal immigrants entering the United States every decade.

The point here is that these numbers were absorbed without breakdown. Indeed, the immigrants were the diet on which these advanced economies grew larger and richer, and without which they would have withered; they fed these societies and then became part of them. We are all in some historical sense immigrants, even if some populations - Basques, Georgians, Albanians - have been in place much longer than others. And like all settled immigrants we fancy that the lifeboat is now full and that the next inrush of people will swamp it. But that image has always proved false in the past, and it will probably go on being false in the future.

This imminent Great Migration, from poor world to rich world, has some frightening new features. Its sheer size is the obvious one. But another is the growing tendency of arriving communities to insist on preserving identity and to resist absorption. The old melting pot is being replaced by something like a salad bowl, in which different ingredients contrast - often richly - but do not blend.

Nothing, anyway, can stop this pilgrimage reaching its destination. Visas and quotas are useless in the medium and long term. So is the popular idea of 'prevention' - investing in poor countries in order to keep their peoples at home. As Enzensberger says, that would only work if the gap now widening between rich and poor nations is narrowed substantially, which 'is beyond the economic capacity of the industrial nations, leaving aside questions of political will and ecological limits to growth'. He adds: 'The more fiercely civilisation defends itself against an external threat and raises walls around itself, the less, in the end, it has left to defend.'

Paul Kennedy, in his final chapter, points out that even Malthus allowed for hope. His awful prophecy, Malthus admitted, might startle the species into changing its ways and avoiding its fate. Kennedy says firmly that muddling through is no longer an option. But vigorous leadership and international action could still reduce the birth rate, slow up damage to the environment, accelerate new 'biotechnology' for increasing food supply and replace the nation-state by some more responsive form of political commmunity.

'It may still be possible for intelligent men and women to lead their societies through the complex task of preparing for the century ahead.' It is not yet too late - not quite.

What Kennedy predicts

1. The demographic explosion foretold by Malthus 200 years ago is happening now, in the Third World. Global population is increasing by a billion every 10 years.

2. The agricultural and industrial revolutions, which saved Europe from the Malthus trap by feeding and paying the growing population, are over.

3. The transnational free market is increasing the gap between rich regions and poor regions. Already, 450 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) have a total Gross Domestic Product less than that of Belgium's 11 million people.

4. The market's 'losers' are going to migrate towards the lands of the 'winners': North America, western Europe, the Pacific Rim.

5. The nation-state is too narrow and selfish a unit to deal with global challenges to the environment.

6. Just when the poor world needs growth in the rich world, the industrialised economies are slowing up.

7. Catastrophe is not inevitable in the 21st century, but we must change our ways. Only a new quality of political leadership can save us.

'Preparing for the Twenty-First Century' by Paul Kennedy (HarperCollins, pounds 20).

(Photograph omitted)