Foreign Affairs

Paul Ryan on restoring America as a world leader

Paul Ryan on restoring America as a world leader

Sometimes a speech can highlight important ideas without necessarily focusing on them.

For example, in an era of high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, foreign policy doesn’t seem relevant to most voters in 2012. But while highlighting his plans to revitalize the American economy, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan of Wisconsin also made some interesting points about foreign policy.

In Tampa, Ryan argued that America must be strong economically so that, among other priorities, the United States can provide international leadership in the cause of liberty. “Wherever men and women rise up for their own freedom, they will know that the American president is on their side,” Ryan declared. “Instead of managing American decline, leaving allies to doubt us and adversaries to test us, we will act in the conviction that the United States is still the greatest force for peace and liberty that this world has ever known.”

Ryan is simply exercising statesmanship. He recognizes that, in order to be strong abroad, the U.S. must also be fiscally sound at home. “If we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power,” Ryan said in a speech to the Hamilton Society last year. “Years of ignoring the real drivers of our debt have left us with a profound structural problem. In the coming years, our debt is projected to grow to more than three times the size of our entire economy. This trajectory is catastrophic.”

Unfortunately, many will attempt to peg Ryan’s views as a “realist,” “neo-conservative,” or “non-interventionist.” Ryan’s approach, however, doesn’t fit neatly into today’s foreign policy camps. Instead, it echoes the founding fathers’ understanding of America’s role in the world and builds upon the best of the GOP foreign policy tradition.

It is principled and prudent, rejecting both interventionism and non-interventionism as determinative doctrines. It is strategically focused, recognizing the long-term U.S. interest in seeing greater political, economic, and religious freedom around the world. And it is aspirational, desiring—as the Founding Fathers did—to see liberty embraced by peoples around the world. It is also fiscally grounded, realizing that all things are not possible and U.S. foreign policy must therefore be strategically prioritized.

Representative Ryan has no direct foreign policy experience. Neither did Ronald Reagan. Yet as he has weighed federal spending priorities and helped to lead Congress’ exercise of its constitutional purse power, Ryan also seems to have been considering U.S. national security. Indeed, his place on the House Ways and Means Committee has given him an appreciation for economic freedom as a tool of American diplomacy.

“I am suggesting free trade is pro-human rights,” Ryan told  the Council on Foreign Relations in 2009. “[E]conomic liberty is a component of human rights, and advancing economic liberty by opening trade does the same thing.”

Ryan also sees a connection between America’s proper role in the world and the character of American liberty at home. “We must lead,” Ryan has previously stated, “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.” At the GOP convention, Ryan informed us of the character of those moral precepts: “We will not replace our founding principles. We will reapply our founding principles.”

If one believes the text of the Declaration of Independence about the nature of human rights, Ryan argues, “it causes you to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests.” He also insists that America’s noble aspirations must be “tempered by a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions.”

Such language suggests a grasp of statecraft uncommon even in today’s foreign policy wonk circles. He is able to clarify the comprehensive choice facing Americans in the twenty-first century: National decline or leadership? And he understands what’s at stake since, “today’s most dynamic and growing powers do not embrace basic principles that should be at the core of the international system.” Ryan’s words reflect an honest confidence that the American people tend to believe that their country is great and should be great because the United States represents exceptional and true principles, whether we’re focused on them at present or not.

Marion Smith writes about U.S. diplomatic history as graduate fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.

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