It is hard to overstate the importance of this choice. In The Weary Titan, Aaron Friedberg–one of the founders of the Hamilton Society–has shown us what happened when Britain made the wrong choice at the turn of the 20th century.

At that time, Britain’s governing class took the view that it would be better to cede leadership of the Western world to the United States. Unfortunately, the United States was not yet ready to assume the burden of leadership. The result was 40 years of Great Power rivalry and two World Wars. ~Paul Ryan

Via John Tabin

I have not read this book. Despite that, I am fairly confident that Ryan is describing its argument incorrectly. For one thing, the British governing class between 1895 and 1905 did not “take the view” that “it would be better to cede leadership of the Western world” to the United States. This was the time of Salisbury’s government when the British were as overconfident and aggressive in their empire-building as ever. Britain wasn’t inclined to give way to U.S. “leadership” in the years leading up to WWI.

As a matter of economic power and cultural influence, one could argue that the U.S. surpassed Britain in some respects after the war, but this was hardly something that the British wanted. Rather, at that point they did not have much of a choice, and had to put up with the severely reduced resources that they had after the war. The Great Power rivalry in Europe had been going on for more than half a century by 1914, and it had nothing to do with the U.S. failing to “assume the burden of leadership.” Had the U.S. become more directly involved in this rivalry earlier on, it would have complicated the alliance structure, but it would not have eliminated the causes of the rivalry. The notion that the U.S. would or could exercise “leadership” outside the Western Hemisphere was still a very new and controversial one before entry into WWI, and as a result of the Spanish War the U.S. was being pulled more into the Pacific.

One of the critical failures of British foreign policy in 1914 was that it delayed taking sides during the July crisis and then threw its weight behind France and Russia, which helped halt the German advance in 1914 and ensured that the war would be very long and destructive. It is possible that British neutrality would have avoided the prolonged catastrophe that WWI became, and it would certainly have saved Britain millions of lives and avoided massive debt. Niall Ferguson has also made this argument in The Pity of War. If WWI wrecked Britain and sent it into decline, we may say that British decline was a choice of sorts, but it was partly the result of incompetent diplomacy during a crisis that led to recklessly committing Britain to a foreign war. What Ryan and those like him see as the “exercise of leadership” is often enough the cause of a state’s decline.

If the title is any indication, Friedberg’s book refers to relative decline. Relative decline does not have to be a choice. It is something that can happen to the preeminent world power despite its best efforts. America today is experiencing relative decline mainly because of the successes and growth of other states. We couldn’t prevent this even if we wanted to, and there is no good reason that we should want to do that. This is what Zakaria was attempting to explain in his frequently misunderstood Post-American World.

So Paul Ryan sets up his entire speech around what appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of early 20th century history. He then continues it with a bit of fear-mongering:

Take a moment and imagine a world led by China or by Russia.

All right, but what would be the point? The world isn’t going to be led by China or Russia. Russia doesn’t have the economic base or the inclination to “lead” the world, and China is surrounded by major and rising powers that have no interest in following China’s “lead.” Yes, Russia can use its energy resources to wield influence in Europe, and its influence will likely increase thanks to Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear energy, and China will become the main regional power in East Asia, but there are significant political and economic limits to what these governments can and will do abroad.

Later in the speech, Ryan goes on to declare that “America is an idea.” Many people treat it as though it were, but it isn’t. America is our country. Americans share a certain set of political principles or assumptions, but these are not what make us Americans, or to be more precise we would continue to be Americans and this would continue to be America without them. Ryan goes on to make an even more absurd claim:

America’s “exceptionalism” is just this – while most nations at most times have claimed their own history or culture to be exclusive, America’s foundations are not our own – they belong equally to every person everywhere.

This just isn’t true. If other nations choose to follow the example that Americans have set, they may do so, and if they come to accept the same principles that Americans have we can take some satisfaction in this, but America’s foundations are quite obviously our own. To say otherwise is to indulge in a lot of ideological fantasizing. If this is what American exceptionalism is, I rather doubt that there are quite as many Americans who believe in it as Ryan imagines.

Update: Checking Friedberg’s book on Amazon, I found an important passage from his preface in which he makes the comparison between late 19th/early 20th century Britain and late 20th century America:

There is no simple prediction or lesson to be derived from these facts. To take the most obvious possibility, just because the erosion of Britain’s position (albeit by fits and starts) from the end of the nineteenth century down through the twentieth does not mean that the United States will necessarily suffer a similar fate. Not all relative declines are irreversible, nor does a loss of relative advantage inevitably lead to a change in absolute status [bold mine-DL].

Later in the book, Friedberg does discuss how Britain ceded supremacy in the Western Hemisphere to the United States (p. 174), and British leaders had accepted it as a foregone conclusion that America would achieve naval supremacy in the western Atlantic (p. 197). That’s clearly not what Ryan means when he’s talking about “leadership of the Western world.” Friedberg describes the policy of Britain towards the United States between 1895-1905 in terms of accommodation. This is true. This accommodating posture was the result of U.S.-British detente following the Venezuelan boundary dispute of 1895-96. Salisbury agreed to settle that dispute by arbitration–oh, what appeasement!

I have only just quickly searched Friedberg’s book, so perhaps Ryan’s reading of it is not as wrong as it seems to be, but it appears that Ryan has not really understood the book’s argument or the historical period he is using for his cautionary tale.

Second Update: Greg Scoblete lets Ryan have it on his warnings of Russian/Chinese hegemony:

While we’re at it, we can imagine a world led by elves and wizards because that’s just about as likely to happen as a world “led” by China or Russia.

Third Update: Daniel Trombly has read The Weary Titan, and has this to say of Ryan’s speech:

Larison noted he hadn’t read Friedberg’s book. I have, and it is even more apparent to me Ryan missed the point. Firstly, as Larison pointed out, Britain did not choose to turn over “leadership” to the United States, or even “leadership of the Western world.” The Western world did not have a leader in the late 19th and early 20th century, it just had a foremost power, the British Empire. Britain’s main competitors over the 19th century – France, Russia, and Germany – were within the Western family of nations. In fact, Britain looked outside the center of Western civilization, Europe, to the United States and Japan not to turn over leadership of a Western community within which significant enmity existed, but to reduce the burdens of Britain’s commitments in the Western Hemisphere and Asia so Britain could focus more efforts not on leading but deterring its fellow members of Western civilization.

Friedberg’s argument was not that Britain made the wrong choice by choosing to decline, it was that it made the wrong choices to cope with the political reality of relative decline. Friedberg was writing in the context of the debate which Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers revived: how to cope with imperial overstretch? The Weary Titan was not challenging the conventional thesis that Britain had to decline, because historical analysis demonstrated it was in decline, but the thesis that Britain had responded to this decline with elegance and made the best of it. Indeed, a significant part of Friedberg’s argument is that Britain did not properly assess the reality of its decline, relied on poor national measures for calculating national military and economic power.