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Retrenchment, leadership, and the pursuit of greatness

June 6, 2011

Dan Drezner has jumped into the argument about Ryan’s foreign policy speech, which Daniel Larison (kindly linking to this previous post), continues to tackle. One particularly dangerous error about Ryan’s misrepresentation of great power politics in his speech is his conflation with Britain’s “choice” to withdraw from two sectors of the globe largely with the choices it made that arguably hastened the beginning of World War One and the cataclysm it unleashed.

As Larison noted, Britain’s rapprochement with the United States and its security arrangements with Japan were actually beneficial to maintaining Britain’s power against its more immediate threats in Europe. Britain was not expecting the United States to take the lead in securing Europe, let alone the “West” (which at this point controlled essentially all of Eurasia), as Ryan argues. Indeed, Britain’s formal military ties were far stronger with Japan – which does not exactly sound like an abdication of leadership to the unready Americans.

The poor choices Britain made are better characterized as its inability to translate the opportunity for retrenchment it created by settling disputes with its rivals. The formation of its major military ties in Europe was made possible by mending unstable relationships. France and Russia were both frequent British foes, and Britain had nearly come to blows with France in 1898 at Fashoda, and had just stabilized relations with Russia through the 1907 entente.

However, Britain never adequately prepared for a full-out European land war. Many conservatives did not want to raise taxes, and establishment officials did not want to deviate from the traditional naval emphasis. As Ryan might sympathize with, there was also a neglect to cut social services. But the ardent advocates of national reform and the strengthening of the empire were not exactly Ryan’s type. Take  the Coefficients Club as an example – it included notable conservative figures, such as Leo Amery, Leopold Maxse, and Alfred Milner. It also included liberal advocates for empire and socialist reformers. This latter category included H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell. Also present was Halford Mackinder, who would run as a Unionist MP in Scotland and argued for the need to mobilize British national power and a strong army. The group recognized that to maintain British leadership would require immense internal reform (many were advocates of Imperial Federation), and with it, the social systems and government intervention to make the country more efficient and provide the social cohesion and mass mobilization potential for Britain to compete with rising powers.

The issues over which the group split emphasize the actual mistaken choices characterizing British decline. Russell rejected the entente cordiale. Arguably, Britain’s choice to join an alliance without investing in the actual land power capability for it to effectively deter Germany only increased the risk of war and heightened the misery Britain could receive from it. There were other squabbles over issues such as Tariff reform, which demonstrates the obvious tension between the free trading liberal ideals Britain stood for and the dangers that this trade system was opening up through its empowerment of a British rival, Germany. In any case, the policy prescriptions Ryan offers – standing up for ideals, keeping the national defense strong, and, as Drezner notes, making allies increase their military readiness – hardly follow from the British case. America, like Britain, has limited short-term scope to increase the military readiness of its allies. Despite Britain’s massive investment in its fleet, its allies France and Russia had already invested large portions of their national resources into ready land armies. Building Britain’s land army to proportions that could actually deter Germany was off the table without increases in taxes and a long-term national reform project to muster more manpower. Refusing to join the entente cordiale to reduce German fears of encirclement, or at least not following it through to insulate Britain from the cost of the war, do not exactly smack of world leadership.

Essentially, Britain’s choice to limit its military liabilities in America and Asia were good choices, but not sufficient ones. The other steps Britain could have taken do not at all sound like the prescription Ryan argues for – that Britain could have “chosen” not to decline, and continued its reign as the undisputed prime power in the global state system. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Britain calibrating an effective balancing strategy and building a credible land force and alliance system without liquidating some of its commitments outside Europe. Ryan sees Britain’s choices not as the half-hearted, insufficient steps towards a British balancing steps towards acceptance of relative decline, but as evidence that choosing decline fails. Using an example that students of international politics use to argue about how retrenchment and acceptance of decline could have been done better is not a good example of why it never works, unless the failure of retrenchment policies was the norm. However, it rarely is, unless our ambitions, whether founded in lofty principles or concrete interests, outstrip our means.

Ryan’s foreign policy uses a device dear to liberals who believe in international goodness as well as conservatives espousing national greatness – the symbiosis of interests and values. It is obvious that interests and values are not wholly separate, but that does not mean they are mutually reinforcing, as Ryan implies:

This raises an important question: What do we do when our principles are in conflict with our interests? How do we resolve the tension between morality and reality?

According to some, we will never be able to resolve this tension, and we must occasionally suspend our principles in pursuit of our interests. I don’t see it that way. We have to be consistent and clear in the promotion of our principles, while recognizing that different situations will require different tools for achieving that end.

An expanding community of nations that shares our economic values as well as our political values would ensure a more prosperous world … a world with more opportunity for mutually beneficial trade … and a world with fewer economic disruptions caused by violent conflict.

Unfortunately, Ryan refuses to recognize that this denial of relative decline actually ensures its hasty and catastrophic arrival.  If interests and principles are so necessarily mutually reinforcing, they are also mutually vulnerable. There are no borders or limits to values in Ryan’s formulation of American principles, so if they are vulnerable anywhere, then our interests might be threatened everywhere. Every bit of retrenchment threatens to sacrifice the leadership of the world and American values (which have, at this point in Ryan’s speech, succeeded the Western values which Britain failed to uphold), and so a moral compromise anywhere suddenly threatens our values anywhere. The liquidation of commitments and the redirection of resources towards critical areas becomes not a necessary measure but a dangerous abdication of “leadership.”

The solutions, as both Larison and Drezner have pointed out, are tired and improbable. The expectation that American allies will take more of a share in providing for their own defense is understandable, but impossible with a strategy of refusing to decline. So long as America refuses to accept the idea that it is in relative decline, it continues to allow its partners to free ride on an insolvent American foreign policy. Why would Saudi Arabia accept American demands for internal reform if America remains committed to its present hegemonic role in the Middle East? Why would Europe and Japan re-arm when America is committed to securing the whole of Eurasia and cannot stomach liquidating its commitments? America cannot scold and moralize its way into more credible international partners. Ultimately it is easier to reject America’s proclaimed set of values rather than succumb to avoidable costs to avoid its censure. Relying on such tactics to ensure allied underwriting of an insolvent grand strategy will simply widen the perceptions of a moral gulf between American values and those of its allies.

Ryan ends his speech with a recapitulation of his historical analogy with Britain:

I’ll close on a final thought: Britain’s premature decline was triggered by a crisis of confidence among its political leadership. Once they concluded that they should manage Britain’s decline, it mattered little what Britain was objectively capable of achieving on the world stage. This crisis of self-perception was fatal to Britain’s global leadership.

Today, some in this country relish the idea of America’s retreat from our role in the world. They say that it’s about time for other nations to take over; that we should turn inward; that we should reduce ourselves to membership on a long list of mediocre has-beens.

This view applies moral relativism on a global scale. Western civilization and its founding moral principles might be good for the West, but who are we to suggest that other systems are any worse? – or so the thinking goes.

No, Britain’s crisis of self-perception was not fatal to its global leadership. Britain never lead the entire globe. It may have owned the plurality of the surface of the earth at some points, and the sun may never have set on its furthest-flung possessions, but in Europe, that heart of Western civilization – which rationalized its own essentially divided and violent character – Britain was just first among the great powers, and hardly that by measures of effective land power. In the sense that British values prevailed everywhere, and that British power cowed rivals the way America’s does today, there was never any British global leadership to abdicate. Britain’s inability to manage its decline, not its realization that it must, was fatal. For Britain to refuse to retrench its holdings anywhere on earth, as Ryan criticizes it for, would only have compounded the strategic disasters it suffered during the First World War and the era to follow.

Ryan ends with returning to the notion of Western civilization, and criticizing retrenchment as an acceptance of moral relativism – perhaps for some it is, but it is really a more accurate understanding of what Western civilization is and is not. Western civilization was never the kind of British enterprise Ryan believed it to be. Its follies during World War One came from within, and were acted out on a global scale. Western civilization birthed the British constitutional monarchy, the German Empire and its bureaucracy, and the communism and fascism which would emerge in the wake of World War One. It also produced American democracy, and within each of these ideas are plenty of contradictory strains, and composing all of them are these ideological attempts to reconcile the contradictory heritage of the West. War within Western civilization, or at least the ostensibly Western family of ideas, from Christendom to the Concert of Europe to the Cold War, was a fact. Ryan does not recognize American values and Western values as distinct.

He ends his speech with a paean to America, without understanding that America is not a civilization. If it is an idea, it is only one among many within Western civilization, which has since encompassed the globe and left new states to interpret its contradictory legacy. Some states have embraced revolutionary nationalism, others its economic systems, some have embraced its liberal internationalism, others its ideals of sovereignty. Ryan wants America to lead this global civilization as Britain never did – without any acceptance of another idea for life. But the British, even during the height of Pax Britannica, never sought that. Britain did not seek to expand its vision of Western leadership against its strongest rivals. Napoleonic France had tried that and failed. To the extent Britain lead, it helped maintain a system of European power politics that balanced acceptance of conservatism with a recognition of political plurality, great power with great power. It was through this recognition of difference and the restraint of the strongest powers that Western civilization staved off reliving the Napoleonic catastrophe of total war – even in 1848, when the prospects for revolutionary transformation appeared at hand.

To Ryan, and so many other policymakers, there could be little noble about America committing itself to such an effort to create order through balance and bounded ambitions. To do so would be to commit the sin of moral relativism and reject exceptionalism, and abandonment of such values would automatically trigger a threat to American interests. To the extent that Western civilization actually succeeded in creating a manageable moral and political order among powers without a preponderant leader, however, Western states had to renounce the goal of undisputed global leadership in either the material or moral realm, and consider their particularities as different strands of a common civilization – one in which friction, even conflict, was inevitable, and could be managed so long as the restraints of a degree of relativism and humility prevailed. If America refuses to accept some limits on the extent of its principles, it will invite, not dampen, potential for conflict. If it refuses to accept some limits on its interests, it will exhaust, not renew, its strength. Decline is increasingly a reality, but not one that spells the doom of Western civilization or American values, nor even the vital security interests of the United States. Refusing to accept it, however, simply compounds the potential for a more fatal crisis. If decline is a choice, then the alternative is less likely to be triumph than disaster.

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