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Bad History That Keeps Getting Worse

Michael Barone compounds Paul Ryan’s sloppy historical interpretation with more of his own:

Ryan referenced Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg’s book “The Weary Titan,” on how Britain ceded world leadership a century ago in the face of economic pressures. He pointed out that while Britain could assume that the United States, with similar values and goals, might take up the burden, we have no similar fallback today.

No, Ryan referred to Friedberg’s book by completely butcheringits thesis. As a result of his misinterpretation, he ended up blaming the outbreak of both world wars on America’s supposed inability to take up the “leadership of the Western world” from Britain, which was supposedly conceding said leadership at the start of the 20th century.

Britain may have been the preeminent power of its day, but it did not really exercise “world leadership” in the sense that Ryan and Barone mean it (i.e., as “leadership of the Western world”). Among other things, Friedberg’s book studied how Britain allowed rising powers to assume greater responsibility in their respective parts of the world in order to free up British resources for its other extensive interests elsewhere around the globe. British policy at the beginning of the 20th century was an attempt to let other rising powers shoulder burdens that Britain could not afford, which is the sort of policy that Ryan explicitly rejects. Of course, these British moves to yield to U.S. ascendancy in the western Atlantic and Western Hemisphere had nothing at all to do with the outbreak of WWI or WWII.

As I put it last year:

If Ryan had said Western Hemisphere instead of “Western world,” he would have been representing Friedberg’s argument more or less correctly, but it would have ruined his cautionary tale that the preeminent great power ushers in global chaos by “choosing” decline. Ceding dominance of the Western Hemisphere to the U.S. didn’t usher in an era of Great Power rivalry, and it had nothing to do with the causes of the world wars. In fact, after the brief flare-up of tensions over Venezuela, this period marked the beginning of improved relations between Britain and the U.S. U.S.-British reconciliation in this period was not what led to the nightmares of the 20th century.

Ryan’s understanding of Friedberg’s book was quite wrong, and it should make us wonder if he read it or if someone just inaccurately described it to him because it had the word decline in its subtitle. As I’ve mentioned before, the entire Hamilton Society speech revolved around Krauthammer’s argument that “decline is a choice,” and Ryan built on this flawed argument by claiming that U.S. hegemony could (and probably would) be replaced by Chinese or Russian domination of the globe*. This was one of the worst parts of Ryan’s speech, and it is the part that his admirers ought to be doing their best to avoid mentioning. For some reason, they can’t seem to stop talking about it.

P.S. I suppose it goes without saying, but it is instructive that some movement conservatives believe that Ryan has “foreign policy chops” on the basis of a speech and nothing more. On top of that, this is a speech in which Ryan bases the core of his argument on several significant errors of historical interpretation. Republicans have been defining foreign policy experience down for their preferred candidates for a while now, but this is getting out of control.

* If the U.S. “chose decline,” that is.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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