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Paul Ryan and the Leaderless Future?

June 4, 2011

Daniel Larison has been given rising GOP congressman Paul Ryan a thorough and necessary dose of criticism for the ignorant foreign policy component of his recent speech to the Hamilton Society. He points out this passage as a total misinterpretation of history:

Look – our fiscal problems are real, and the need to address them is urgent. But I’m here to tell you that decline is not a certainty for America. Rather, as Charles Krauthammer put it, “decline is a choice.”

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.

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, and relied on poor national measures for calculating national military and economic power.

Decline is often not a choice. However, there is a ridiculous formulation here that compares relative decline to a loss of leadership, and the possibility of a loss of leadership translating to its potential  another state:

The stakes are even higher today. Unlike Britain, which handed leadership to a power that shared its fundamental values, today’s most dynamic and growing powers do not embrace the basic principles that should be at the core of the international system.

A world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place, a place where we have less influence, and a place where our citizens face more dangers and fewer opportunities. Take a moment and imagine a world led by China or by Russia.

The geopolitical reality is that neither Russia nor China could “lead” the modern world. There is no law of political metaphysics which states that some state or another will inevitably provide the world system with leadership. Now, in certain types of geopolitical systems, hierarchy is more likely to prevail. In a global political system it is extremely difficult to attain global mastery.

Consider that Britain did not have world “leadership.” It was merely the strongest imperial power among others, and one profoundly limited compared to its near-peers when brute military force was assessed, particularly in comparison with current American leadership. Germany and France all came much closer to matching British naval power – the key to truly global supremacy – than Russia and China do today. By measures of land power, Britain was profoundly weak in comparison to its continental counterparts. By economic potential, Britain was more severely challenged by the American economy than America is by China or Russia now.

Paul Ryan is correct that Russia and China do not share many of the fundamental values of many American policymakers. However, there is essentially no possibility of them taking world leadership, the way the United States has, without a profound change in the geopolitical scene.

The difficulties a Eurasian land power has in achieving global supremacy in material military find apt summation in the line of geopolitical thought that has passed from Mackinder, to Spykman, and more recently to Colin Gray. Russia and China are continental state with significant enemies in their own neighborhood to which they must devote traditional land armies and other forces unsuitable for power projection to protect against. This triggers a more acute security dilemma than do the arms build ups of over-the-horizon powers such as the United States, whose presence is fundamentally maritime. What Russia or China may consider a defensive buildup will look threatening to the other major state, and even more so to some lesser states, which will generally side with the over-the-horizon offshore balancer if they have the option. So, for a Eurasian continental state to achieve global supremacy, it would need to simultaneously control a large portion of the Eurasian maritime rimland, while stabilizing the heartland to reduce its landward threats. This is extremely difficult, and has never quite been achieved. Not by Nazi Germany. Not by the Soviet Union. Certainly not by either the weakened Russian Federation nor the People’s Republic of China. It would be a long, long, time before the Chinese, who, unlike the Russians, are at least on the rise, could ever achieve such an ambitious goal, particularly when its neighbors are rich, maritime states inclined to side with the United States.

Ryan then goes on to argue that American values are a fundamental part of American leadership. He mistakes their genealogy, understanding them as the origins of American power rather than a set of moral principles power enabled America to spread:

The stakes are even higher today. Unlike Britain, which handed leadership to a power that shared its fundamental values, today’s most dynamic and growing powers do not embrace the basic principles that should be at the core of the international system.

So we must lead. And a central element of maintaining American leadership is the promotion of our moral principles – consistently and energetically – without being unrealistic about what is possible for us to achieve.

America is an idea. And it was the first nation founded as such. The idea is rather simple. Our rights come to us from God and nature. They occur naturally, before government. The Declaration of Independence says it best: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Never mind that it took a long time before that idea was the one distilled from the multiplicity of founding American ideas as the one to define the United States. The inability to recognize the contradictory impulses within the American moral tradition is almost a necessity to adopt a posture of American moral missionary zeal as a core element of foreign policy. American moral political traditions do have a large amount of tension within them. Some of them, such as the argument over the role of free and slave labor in the American political system, were settled by the American Civil War. However, a great many endured. One facet of the American moral political tradition was that many Americans saw the European world as fundamentally politically separate, and had no desire to intervene except as necessary to preserve American interests and sovereignty.

Ryan’s tradition falls in line with the radical Jeffersonians who saw the French-adopted “credo” and exultation of human rights, along with a vigorous effort to expand them to other European states, as fundamentally part of the American moral vision. Many others recoiled in horror at that notion, believing that while America could expand, conquer, and spread its government within its own political hemisphere, it was against America’s moral traditions to risk its own liberty by seeking the strength or the government power to export those ideas by arms from afar. Similar arguments occurred between the imperialists and anti-imperialists when America finally acquired the power to attempt such civilizing missions in the new colonial space of Asia, which America sought to depict as separate from European colonial domains as an “open” area.

There are very good people who are uncomfortable with the idea that America is an “exceptional” nation. But it happens that America was the first in the world to make the universal principle of human freedom into a “credo,” a commitment to all mankind, and it has been our honor to be freedom’s beacon for millions around the world.

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. The truth that all human beings are created equal in their natural rights is the most “inclusive” social truth ever discovered as a foundation for a free society. “All” means “all”! You can’t get more “inclusive” than that!

Yet we know this has only recently become the accepted interpretation of America’s exceptional moral stature. American isolationism also embraces American exceptionalism, often by arguing that America must excuse itself from the messy business of war and European power politics. To them, it was sometimes more important to put the principles of maintaining the American republic than to muddy them with the interests necessary of practicing international politics.

What is undoubtedly exceptional about America is its power. Not necessarily the power of its ideas, for many societies have had inclusive, missionary zeal about promoting them. However, America is a continentally-sized state with two oceans to protect it. It overpowers its immediate neighborhood almost completely in terms of military strength and economic power, and need not worry about being conquered nor losing its sovereignty in any real sense. Compared to Britain, are values and interests are immensely more secure – unless we expand them to include the entire world. That is a choice, but the material facts of relative decline are not. Certainly, Russia, China, and rising powers such as Brazil and India, whose status as democracies does not create nearly as much overlap between their interests and principles than those of America’s as the speech later implies, will have more ability to pursue their own interests and promote their own values. That does not mean America’s interests and values are necessarily endangered. Only by choosing to apply them without boundaries, and by pretending that American political philosophy dictates there is no other acceptable moral system – and choosing, as Ryan does, a completely anti-tragic conception of history – does the lack of a global leader become truly disastrous.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2011 6:41 pm

    I haven’t read the text of Ryan’s speech (beyond the excerpts here) or the Larison critique, but it is clear from just the first quoted excerpt that Ryan is guilty of bad history. Ryan’s paragraph beginning “At that time, Britain’s governing class…” is, as you say, ignorant. Ryan’s implication that WWI would not have occurred if only the US had been more “ready” to assume the “burden of leadership” from Britain is, it seems to me, nuts — where did his speechwriter get this stuff? The multiple causes of WWI had very little to do with the US and its relations to Britain at all; the dynamics of European and extra-European great power rivalry would have played out more or less as they did pretty much irrespective of what the US did, I think.

    As for some of the more contemporary parts of Ryan’s speech as excerpted here, it seems to me at least two lines of criticism (not necessarily mutually exclusive) are possible. One is the realist/geopolitical line that you pursue at one point here, re the geopolitical obstacles in the way of Russia or China taking ‘leadership’. The other line would be to argue, a la Ikenberry, that China benefits from the ‘rules’ of the liberal international order (WTO, etc.) and thus has more incentive to integrate into that order than to challenge it.

    • June 4, 2011 7:13 pm

      There’s a lot more to the Ryan speech, including contemporary policy recommendations, and they’re about what you can expect if you derive a foreign policy from the historical and moral premises he states here.

      I agree that you’re dead on that the US “unreadiness” wasn’t really a cause of WWI. The US suffered an even more serious credibility problem than Britain in that nobody in Europe really believed the Americans were going to ship a bunch of soldiers over to win a continental land war (Reading a piece about British “invasion fiction,” the Japanese were cited as intervening in Europe, but not Americans!).

      That’s a good point about the liberal interpretation of the hegemonic theory, although I’d argue it’s a lot closer to Ryan’s view – with the exception that Ikenberry is much more optimistic about the ability of the order to sustain itself. That said, you’ve reminded me again that I really ought to get my hands on his new book and give it a read.

      • June 5, 2011 10:08 am

        Btw, Ikenberry has a short article, based on his book, in the current (May/June) issue of For.Affairs.

        Just to put a slight nuance/clarification on what I said about WW1 above: I’m inclined to think WW1 was not inevitable, that it’s conceivable it could have been avoided (even perhaps, as Lebow argues in his book on counterfactuals, ‘Forbidden Fruit’, by something as contingent as Franz Ferdinand not having been shot, though I’m not entirely convinced by Lebow). But be all that as it may, the avoidance scenarios don’t involve the US.


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