But few outside Ryan’s inner circle even know where the Wisconsin Republican stands on most foreign policy matters, or how he’ll choose when to counter or collaborate with the Obama administration.
There is little time for a learning curve. Ryan’s first two-and-half weeks on the job were marked by deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and the passage of a defense authorization bill in Congress. He has been asked to address matters from the closure of Guantanamo Bay to a proposed new congressional mandate to battle ISIS. He didn’t always give direct answers, and occasionally deferred to committee chiefs to flesh out his responses.
Ryan has just tapped as his chief foreign policy adviser a veteran Hill staffer with a resume similar to the speaker’s: Jonathan Burks worked as policy director on the House Budget Committee for four years, and as chief of staff to the Treasury Department’s under secretary of international affairs before that. Most recently, he advised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on budget and appropriations.
But Ryan will also be keeping the counsel of some of the Republican Party’s most recognized foreign policy experts, many of them veterans of the 2012 campaign in which he was Mitt Romney’s running mate.
That roster, according to Ryan aides, includes: Dan Senor, a prominent foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign who previously worked as spokesman for the Coalition Provision Authority in Iraq; Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations, who worked as a national security adviser to former President George W. Bush; and Eric Edelman, a former ambassador who served in Bush’s Defense Department. Ryan also plans to consult the heads of relevant committees — such as House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who chairs the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Advisers say Ryan knows and understands more about international affairs than he has yet had the opportunity to show.
“Relative to just about any speaker in modern times, I would say that Paul has as much national security and foreign policy experience as any of them, if not more,” said Senor. “Now he’s going to have to develop a leadership platform on those issues rather than being an expert in the specific jurisdictions that he had in defense budgeting and trade.”
Ryan’s limited foreign policy record comes chiefly from his experience negotiating budgets, and from the months he spent as Romney’s number-two.
“When you are the vice presidential nominee, you are briefed by the intelligence community on a very regular basis. I don’t know of anyone who’s been Speaker that was briefed at that level prior to becoming Speaker,” Senor said.
On the diplomatic front, Ryan is not known for racking up frequent flyer miles to hobnob with heads of state. He isn’t always big on optics: Last week, for example, he opted to stay in Wisconsin to watch the Republican debate there, rather than double back to Washington, D.C., to join meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But aides and advisers say he is close to many foreign and financial leaders in the Persian Gulf, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Israel — and has taken trips to hot-spots like Iraq, Afghanistan, and east and southeast Asia. Ryan’s most notable travel is related to international trade discussions, such as a recent delegation he led to Asia focused on trade.
Trade may be the area in which Ryan establishes his foreign policy voice. As a free trade supporter, Ryan early in his career backed lifting the Cuba trade embargo though he has since abandoned that posture. More recently, Ryan was a leader in pushing fast-track trade promotion authority through a resistant Congress, and is expected to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership — he has boosted the deal in concept, though withheld judgment since the pact’s details were released.
“The big remaining signature foreign policy achievement the president needs to get through is the TPP,” said Richard Fontaine, president of Center for New American Security. “He can’t get that done without Paul Ryan. And that’s an issue that Ryan is pretty well versed in.”
With critics in both parties, the TPP will by no means be an easy lift. But if Ryan is able to carry it over the finish line next year, it will be a major feather in his cap.
“My personal opinion is that a speaker should not weigh in on every issue that comes across, domestic or foreign,” said Thornberry. “He needs to concentrate his time and effort and communication skills on the big driving issues, and a lot of the details can be left to the rest of us.”
Despite his decidedly limited foreign policy resume, there are hints of how Ryan thinks and might legislate that can be drawn from a handful of public appearances: A recent radio interview with conservative host Hugh Hewitt in which Ryan called himself “a defense hawk;” a 2014 speech at the Center for a New American Security where he said he was “a heavily-armored dove;” and the 2012 vice presidential debate against Joe Biden, the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
Some leading lawmakers place their confidence in Ryan more on a generally positive impression of his intelligence and competence, rather than specific familiarity with his foreign policy stance.
“Our interaction has been primarily on fiscal issues, but my sense is that we would work well together on foreign policy issues,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who currently chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
Ryan’s stint as potential veep was brief compared with the time he logged as chief House architect of the federal budget. And though in that role Ryan’s name became synonymous with austerity in domestic spending to Democratic critics, defense hawks cheered him for prioritizing defense dollars.
“That’s why I negotiated last year’s budget deal with Patty Murray,” Ryan explained in his 2014 CNAS speech, in which he praised the merits of a pumped-up Navy and developing advanced missile defense. “So we could stop the arbitrary cuts to our defense because the fact is, we need an upgrade.”
Heavy emphasis on fiscal matters helped Ryan forge his belief in a robust U.S. leadership around the world, close colleagues say.
He thinks “that strong U.S. leadership is really important in the world, and it’s important for security but it’s also important for the economy and prosperity,” said Thornberry. “He can really help make that connection between a strong military and a prosperous economy.”
Some say Ryan’s fiscal approach is useful, considering the limitations of Congress’ power to affect foreign policy.
“When it comes down to an awful lot of foreign policy decisions, the question is, what are the resources involved?” said Anthony Cordesman, a foreign policy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And it is a matter of tying resources to effectiveness in policy.”
When it comes to tackling the ISIS, violence in Afghanistan, and increased aggression from Russia and China, Ryan’s positions have been unremarkable for a Republican.
He supported the 2001 resolution authorizing the use of force against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and favored the 2002 measure authorizing the invasion of Iraq. And just this year, Ryan opposed the nuclear pact with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration.
The speaker plays an important role in establishing his party’s position on foreign matters vis-à-vis the White House. Former Speaker John Boehner, for instance, often used his pulpit to poke at Democrats on Benghazi, and sent an invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress over Obama’s objections.
Experts predict Ryan will have a different style.
“In almost any issue that comes up, and almost certainly in a crisis, the president is going to summon the leaders, and the role of the speaker becomes important,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “Ryan’s an extraordinarily smart guy and it wouldn’t take a lot to bring him up to snuff on some of these things. But he’s going to have to expand his level far beyond what he’s used to.”