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Paul Ryan's foreign policy speeches: What they say about Mitt Romney's running mate
Foreign policy likely won't decide the election in November — unless perhaps voters learn just how aligned Ryan's world views are with those of George W. Bush
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison
M

itt Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to be the Republican vice presidential candidate has delivered a burst of life to an otherwise dull election campaign. Unfortunately, Ryan's views on foreign policy are drearily familiar. Though the seven-term congressman is known mainly for his attention to fiscal issues, and his foreign policy experience is minimal, he has, in recent years, spent time outlining his hawkish views on foreign policy. Considering that Romney's "one guiding principle" for his vetting team was that his VP candidate be qualified to take office on Day 1, now's a good time to look closely at Ryan's understanding of how the U.S. fits into the rest of the world.

To be sure, foreign policy issues will not determine the outcome of the election, and even if they do, it would be Romney's views rather than Ryan's that would matter most. It's also true that Ryan will naturally follow Romney's lead during the campaign and afterwards, but the congressman's foreign policy views and record still require attention because of what they tell us about his judgment and experience, and in assessing whether Romney's decision to name Ryan to the ticket was a prudent one.

Ryan's addition to Romney's ticket provides neither significant foreign policy experience nor any ideological balance.

When Ryan was the focus of media speculation about a possible presidential bid of his own last summer, he delivered a foreign policy address to the Alexander Hamilton Society in which he stressed the indispensable need for American leadership on the global stage, and echoed neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer's warning that "decline is a choice." Predictably, Ryan followed Krauthammer in concluding that the current administration had chosen to preside over and hasten American decline, and offered an alarmist, fantastical warning against a world "led by China or by Russia" in the absence of U.S. hegemony. In this respect, Ryan's addition to Romney's ticket provides neither significant foreign policy experience nor any ideological balance, since Romney himself has touted the importance of bringing back to the U.S., "that special nature of being American."

Ryan's views are conventional ones that one might expect from almost any Republican member of Congress who served during George W. Bush's two terms. Like most of his fellow congressional Republicans, he voted to authorize the Iraq war, endorsed the 2007 "surge" early on, and continued to support the war until its end. He has shown no inclination to dissent from his party on foreign policy issues at any time. He seems to have no misgivings about Bush's mistakes and failures in Iraq or elsewhere. Despite his newfound reputation for fiscal conservatism, he favors continued increases in military spending above their current extraordinarily high levels.

While he envisions continued increases in Pentagon spending, his budget proposals have included significant cuts to the much smaller appropriations for the State Department and foreign aid. According to Ryan's 2012 plan, diplomacy and development spending would be reduced sharply: From $47.8 billion in fiscal 2012 to $43.1 billion in fiscal 2013, $40.1 billion in fiscal 2014, $38.3 billion in fiscal 2015, and $38.1 billion in fiscal 2016. This lines up with his apparent distaste for diplomacy and his tendency to view diplomatic engagement with authoritarian states as inherently undesirable.

And let's not forget about Ryan's criticisms of the current administration. Three years ago, Ryan derided Obama's foreign policy as "Nixonian" for its perceived indifference to human rights abroad, as if it were an insult to be compared to one of the more successful Republican foreign policy records of the postwar period. Ryan is most exercised by what he perceives to be the "moral relativism" of skeptics and realists counseling a less ideological and intrusive foreign policy for the U.S., and he normally criticizes diplomatic engagement as useless. In late 2009, he jumped on the opportunity to attack the burgeoning — and modestly successful — improvement in relations with Russia as "appeasement," which suggests that Ryan sees no benefit in more constructive relations with other major powers, a belief he shares with his running mate.

During a 2009 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the principles of "God-given natural rights, equality, liberty, opportunity, and popular consent," Ryan noted that, "it is always in the interest of the United States to promote these principles in other nations." While this might be an admirable sentiment, there are trade-offs between U.S. interests and the promotion of our political principles in other countries. Pretending that this isn't so simply ignores the tensions between the two ideas rather than trying to find the appropriate balance between them.

Ryan gives every indication that he favors exporting our political principles abroad and using strongly moralizing rhetoric to berate other governments that reject them. Yet Ryan seems remarkably uninterested in funding diplomacy and development aid, and seems to conceive of U.S. power abroad mostly in terms of military strength. On foreign policy, Paul Ryan truly is a product of the era of George W. Bush.

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