Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) gave a speech Thursday to the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington. If one is looking for clues as to Ryan’s interests beyond chairing the House Budget Committee, a speech, as he put it, to “a room full of national security experts about American foreign policy” would merit attention.
A fair amount of commentary on presidential prospects has been dopey or exaggerated, as was the Democratic National Committee chairwoman’s indictment of the entire GOP field. By contrast, Ryan delivered an above-the-fray talk on the subject of American uniqueness (a less loaded term) and the myth that American decline in inevitable. He posited, “Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course; and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.”
Ryan contends that the debt crisis is not a bookkeeping problem or even simply a domestic problem; it is about maintaining our status as a superpower and about American values. He explained:
Our fiscal crisis is above all a spending crisis that is being driven by the growth of our major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In 1970, these programs consumed about 20 percent of the budget. Today that number has grown to over 40 percent.
Over the same period, 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.
If we continue on our current path, the rapid rise of health care costs will crowd out all areas of the budget, including defense.
He rejects the notion that “exceptionalism” is provincialism or braggadocio:
There are very good people who are uncomfortable with the idea that America is an “exceptional” nation. But it happens that America was the first in the world to make the universal principle of human freedom into a “credo,” a commitment to all mankind, and it has been our honor to be freedom’s beacon for millions around the world.
America’s “exceptionalism” is just this – while most nations at most times have claimed their own history or culture to be exclusive, America’s foundations are not our own — they belong equally to every person everywhere. 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”! You can’t get more “inclusive” than that!
He is not Pollyannish and readily conceded that principles and immediate strategic interests don’t go hand in hand in all instances; he pointed specifically to Saudi Arabia. “There is a sharp divide between the principles around which they have organized their state and the principles that guide the United States. . . . We should help our allies effect a transition that fulfills the aspirations of their people. About the Arab Spring he said:
In the Arab Spring we are seeing long-repressed populations give voice to the fundamental desire for liberty. But we are also seeing the risks that emerge when the advancement of freedom is stunted for want of the right institutions. In such societies, the most organized factions often lack tolerance and reject pluralism. Decades without a free press have led many to treat conspiracy theories as fact.
It is too soon to tell whether these revolutions will result in governments that respect the rights of their citizens, or if one form of autocracy will be supplanted by another. While we work to assure the former, American policy should be realistic about our ability to avert the latter.
He plainly is not with the cut-and-run set on Afghanistan. “Although the war has been long and the human costs high, failure would be a blow to American prestige and would reinvigorate al-Qaeda, which is reeling from the death of its leader. Now is the time to lock in the success that is within reach.” Nor can he be accused of wanting to “go it alone.” “The Obama administration has taken our allies for granted and accepted too willingly the decline of their capacity for international action. Our alliances were vital to our victory in the Cold War, and they need to be revitalized to see us through the 21st century.”
As for China, he bats down the idea that we should go along to get along. “We should welcome the contributions and strengths that over one billion people can offer and push for the government of China to give those people space to express their personal, religious, economic and civil ambitions. A liberalizing China is not only in the interests of the world, but also in China’s own best interest as it copes with the tremendous challenges it faces over the next couple of decades.” He’s clear that China has “very different values and interests from our own.”
And finally on defense spending, he rejects the sort of penny-pinching isolationism of Jon Huntsman or Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.):
A more prosperous economy enables us to afford a modernized military that is properly sized for the breadth of the challenges we face. Such a military must also be an efficient and responsible steward of taxpayer dollars in order to maintain the confidence of the American people. The House-passed budget recognizes this, which is why it includes the $78 billion in defense efficiency savings identified by Secretary Gates.
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. Secretary Gates put it well: “That’s math, not strategy.”
This should dispel any doubts as to whether Ryan is simply a “budget guy.” He is, rather, one of the few politicians on the national stage who can weave specific policy themes with particulars and can demonstrate the connection (misunderstood or entirely missed by some of the GOP contenders or former contenders) between conservative economic principles and American foreign policy and values. And who else could get the support of the Hamilton Society and Tea Partyers?