Victor Davis Hanson: Back to the Pre-American World?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

Is America’s preeminent world role over?

That’s what a recent New Yorker essay, based on interviews with presidential advisers, claimed. It characterized the new Obama foreign-relations style as “leading from behind” — given America’s supposedly inevitable decline and growing unpopularity. The president is said to agree with pundits such as Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman, who have often outlined the parameters of what the post-American world would look like.

But if America abrogates the preeminent leadership position it has held for the last 65 years, wouldn’t the world look a lot like it did in the pre-American days of the 1930s? Then, a Depression-era United States was just one of many powers, and was reluctant to assert leadership abroad.

Eighty years ago, a newly Westernized and anti-democratic Japanese powerhouse, in the fashion of today’s rising China, was carving out uncontested Asian spheres of influence. An oil-, rubber-, and iron-hungry imperial Japan claimed it needed more natural resources to fuel its industrial revolution, and so spread an authoritarian Asian co-prosperity sphere of influence as an alternative to alliance with an economically depressed and psychologically withdrawn America.

Most Americans then were tired anyway of overseas commitments. Our ancestors felt that their considerable sacrifices in World War I either had gone unappreciated or had solved little — not unlike the way we are becoming exhausted by Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya.

A newly confident, united, and ascendant Germany was growing angry at other European countries. It nursed a long list of financial grievances over feeling used and abused. Sound familiar?..

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