What Does Paul Ryan Know About Foreign Policy?

The same as Mitt Romney: nothing.
August 14, 2012 |
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By choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has sent out many messages, one of which is that foreign policy will not be a prominent (or, if he can help it, even a visible) element of his campaign. The few statements that Romney has made have been collages of sheer ignorance: His attacks on President Obama's New START treaty with Russia, for instance, amount to the most ill-informed articles on arms control that I've read in 40 years of following the nuclear debate. His recent European tour, usually a routine exercise for a presidential aspirant to establish global credentials, proved a disaster from start to finish. Had he wanted to challenge Barack Obama in this arena, he might have chosen a vice-presidential candidate with a strong foreign policy record, as Obama himself did when he picked Joe Biden. Instead, probably wisely (on political grounds anyway), he pretty much surrendered the realm, as Ryan also appears to know next to nothing about international affairs.

Or does he? Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee. National security spending accounts for roughly one-fifth of the federal budget; one might therefore assume that he has some grasp of its dimensions. It also turns out that Ryan delivered a lengthy speech on foreign and defense policy at the Alexander Hamilton Society last June, the opening line of which suggested that he’d mulled over the links between his alleged expertise and the subject at hand. “Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course,” the address began, “and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.”
 
An intriguing, if not very original opener—but he took it nowhere. In his speech, Ryan spelled out no path for avoiding this collision, never quite explained why the collision was inevitable, displayed no understanding of the size or contents of the defense budget, and, here and there, recited every vague cliché of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” while failing to recognize its contradictions.
 
Let’s go through the speech. Ryan’s first, and main, point:
 
[Since 1970], defense spending has shrunk as a share of the federal budget from about 39 percent to just under 16 percent—even as we conduct an ambitious global war on terrorism. The fact is, defense consumes a smaller share of the national economy today than it did throughout the Cold War.
 
It’s true, Paul Ryan was born in 1970. He thus has no personal memory of what was going on then. But he could learn from history books (and, let’s not get too snarky, he probably knows) that nearly 400,000 troops were at that point fighting a war in Vietnam, a U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race was spiraling upward, and a buildup of conventional arms was also getting underway along the East-West German border. Throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained a massive garrison of troops, tanks, artillery, fighter jets, helicopters, and much else all across Western Europe. Yes, there’s a war on terrorism now, but it’s being waged, for the most part, by small bands of troops and unmanned aerial vehicles. It would be shocking if defense spending did not consume a smaller share of the budget or GNP today than it did 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
 
Even so, look at the amount that we’re spending on defense (a figure that Ryan never cites in this speech), and the difference isn’t as large as you’d expect. At its Cold War peak, in 1985, the U.S. military budget (adjusted for inflation, to make it comparable to today’s dollars) totaled $575 billion. The military budget today: $525 billion—and that’s not including money for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters in the war on terror. In other words, Obama’s defense budget (again, not including the direct costs of the war on terror) is just 9 percent smaller than the budget at its Cold War peak.
 
Later in the Hamilton speech, Ryan endorses the “$78 billion in defense efficiency savings” that had been identified by Robert Gates, who had just departed as Obama’s secretary of defense. However, he then says:
 
By contrast, President Obama has announced $400 billion in new defense cuts, saying in effect he’ll figure out what those cuts mean for America’s security later. Indiscriminate cuts that are budget-driven and not strategy-driven are dangerous to America and America’s interests in the world.
 
There are several misleading things here. First, Ryan could have noted (but didn’t) that the $400 billion in defense cuts were to be spread out over a 10-year period. Second, while it’s true that the budget came first and the strategy came later, that’s what always happens. That’s the defining nature of strategy; it involves setting priorities and amassing tools of power given a certain set of resources. Without a limit on resources, there is no strategy, there’s only an indiscriminate spending spree (which is pretty much what the military had during most of George W. Bush’s presidency).
 
Third, neither in fact nor “in effect” did Obama say that he’d “figure out what those cuts mean for America’s security later.” Throughout 2011, into the start of 2012, Obama, his top White House aides, the secretary of defense (at first Robert Gates, then Leon Panetta), and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff conducted a joint “strategy review” to set U.S. defense priorities not only for the post-Cold War era (something that hadn’t been systematically done) but for the post-Iraq War era as well. During this review, the budget and the strategy were assessed in constant tandem.
 
As Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger officer, now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security (and no dove when it comes to defense spending), wrote at the time: “I think it is possible and even appropriate to question whether or not [the Obama] administration has gotten everything right in terms of the ends, ways, and means in our strategy. But I appreciate the way in which this administration is actually trying to link the three. … I have been impressed by the deliberate nature of the processes that preceded both the decision to surge in Afghanistan in 2009 and now, in 2012, the defense budgets for FY13-17.”
 
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.
 

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