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Paul Ryan’s Bad History and Worse Foreign Policy (II)

Well…. I have read parts of The Weary Titan, and both Ryan and Larison make valid points here. Friedberg does advance the argument in his book that British foreign policy elites voluntaily ceded aspects of their hegemony to other actors during the 1895-1905 decade — and that’s the point Ryan stresses. That said, Larison is correct to say that Ryan exaggerates Friedberg’s thesis. If Ryan had said “Western hemisphere” instead of “Western world,” however, he’d be spot-on accurate. ~Dan Drezner

I appreciate Drezner’s comments, but I think this lets Ryan off the hook a little too easily. Ryan doesn’t stress that “British foreign policy elites voluntaily ceded aspects of their hegemony to other actors during the 1895-1905 decade.” He claims that Britain ceded “leadership of the Western world” to the U.S. One problem with this, as others have noted, is that there was no “leadership of the Western world” to cede to America or any other state. Trombly sums this up very well:

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.

According to Ryan, because the U.S. was not ready to assume this non-existent leadership of the Western world, “[t]he result was 40 years of Great Power rivalry and two World Wars.” 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 has misrepresented an example of a great power engaged in a sort of burden-sharing as a disastrous miscalculation that led to the great catastrophes of the 20th century. He has done this even though the reduction in commitments had no major effect on the great power’s global status, and it did not result in the disasters he claims it did. The reason he has done this is to instill fear. He wants us to believe that massive global instability will result if the U.S. reduces some of its outdated and unnecessary commitments around the globe, and he bases this on his misrepresentation of what happened in the early 20th century to make this alarmism seem plausible. I’ll leave it to Drezner to decide whether that merits a Trumpie or some other award, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.

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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