What Does Paul Ryan Know About Foreign Policy?
The same as Mitt Romney: nothing.
Ryan and Romney should be a fraction so impressive. Romney has talked of boosting the defense budget so it consumes 4 percent of GNP instead of the current 3 percent—in other words, he wants to increase it by about $170 billion a year—without specifying how he’d spend the extra money. (Talk about “budget-driven” strategy.)
Finally, on broader issues of foreign policy, Ryan waxed on about George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” and the theme of “American exceptionalism,” stating that 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.”
Some commentators have taken this passage as a sign of Ryan’s wisdom: the embrace of an idealist agenda, tempered by the realism of our limits. It is no such thing. As the rest of the speech reveals, it is more a sign of his failure to think through the implications of the ideas he’s reciting or to grapple with the tensions—between the nation’s ideals and its interests—that have racked American presidents, diplomats, and political philosophers since the dawn of the Republic.
At one point, it seems Ryan is about to deal with these dilemmas. “What do we do when our principles are in conflict with our interests?” he asks. “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.” But then he declares, “I don’t see it that way. We have to be consistent and clear in the promotion of our principles.”
America is an “exceptional nation,” he states, because it “was the first in the world to make the universal principle of human freedom into a ‘credo,’ a commitment to all mankind … to be freedom’s beacon for millions around the world. … 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.’ ” And if you believe this, he adds, “that clearly forms the basis of your views on foreign policy; it leads you to reject moral relativism.”
Yet when it comes to specific targets, he balks, apparently without realizing it. “For example,” he says, “we share many interests with our Saudi allies, but there is a sharp divide” between the two societies’ principles. Therefore, he concludes, we should “help” the Saudi leaders “effect a transition that fulfills the aspirations of their people.” But what if (as is indeed the case) the Saudi leaders don’t want this sort of “help”? What if they don’t want to “effect a transition”?
On the Arab Spring, he’s simply baffling. After hemming and hawing about the uncertain future of these rebellions and their governments, and acknowledging the need for democratic institutions to pave the way to a pluralistic society (and the limits of our ability to shape such things), he concludes, “What we can do is affirm our commitment to democracy in the region by standing in solidarity with our longstanding allies in Israel and our new partners in Iraq.” OK, but it’s not at all clear how doing so will bolster our support for, or otherwise appeal to, the fledgling democrats in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and elsewhere.
When discussing China, Ryan displays, full and frontal, the vacuity of his thinking. We “should seek to increase China’s investment in the international system … and push for the government of China to give [its] people space to express their personal, religious, economic and civil ambitions.” How are we supposed to do that? Ryan doesn’t say. “Ultimately,” he goes on, “we stand to benefit from a world in which China and other rising powers are integrated into the global order with increased incentives to further liberalize their political and economic institutions. Managing the strengths of these new powers—as well as their weaknesses—is necessary to creating vibrant markets.” Whoa, wait a minute. How are we supposed to be “managing” China’s strengths and weaknesses?
So much for both tenets of Ryan’s alleged wisdom—his moral call for the “consistent” promotion of our principles and his tempered realism “about what is possible for us to achieve.”
For some time now, Paul Krugman has been blasting away at the widespread notion that Ryan is a “brave” and “serious” thinker on the budget and economics. In fact, Krugman recently wrote (in response to my colleague Will Saletan’s recent defense of the congressman), “Ryan hasn’t ‘crunched the numbers’; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense.” His plan, Krugman writes, “is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal.”
The same is true of his “ideas” about foreign and defense policy.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.