- By Peter Feaver
The dominant story line of the Ryan pick is probably the correct one: This focuses the national election on the Big Issue of the parties’ differing philosophies on how to fix America’s troubled economy. I have been struck by the zeal with which both sides have embraced the Ryan pick, each believing that it presents a golden opportunity to present the contrast between the two parties. Each team fervently believes the contrast favors their side, since each team fervently believes the American public will embrace their view, if only the view is presented clearly enough.
But does the Ryan pick have any implications for foreign policy, the bailiwick of Shadow Government? To answer that, I reviewed the most consequential Ryan speech on foreign policy, an address to the Hamilton Society (full disclosure: I am the faculty advisor to Duke’s chapter of the Hamilton Society and enthusiastically support its mission to provide informed debate on foreign-policy issues to college campuses).
The speech is well-worth listening to. Early on, Ryan offers a pithy summation that "our fiscal policy is on a collision course with our foreign policy." He fully embraces the Republican critique that the crash is avoidable — that, because our political leaders keep kicking the fiscal can down the road, "we are choosing decline." Such decline is not inevitable, nor is it desirable.
The Obama campaign is going to great lengths to paint Ryan’s political views as extreme. When it comes to foreign policy, I don’t think they will be able to do that. The worldview Ryan presents in the speech may bother some FP colleagues, but it is not an extreme or radical worldview. Or, to put the matter more sharply: It is definitely not an un-American view. Indeed, it is squarely within the bipartisan mainstream of American foreign-policy practitioners.
It is a worldview that recognizes the benefits — to the United States and to the world — that has come from American global leadership.
It is a worldview that tempers American exceptionalism with a recognition of the universalism of American ideals — that is, Ryan recognizes that America is expected to bear burdens that other states do not, and also recognizes that the American idea has an appeal that other national founding ideas do not.
With a little digging, one could find echoing quotes from almost every president since Lincoln.
It is not triumphalistic; Ryan acknowledges limits to American power (as every president has done). It recognizes the need for prudence: In a brief section on Saudi Arabia, Ryan carefully navigates the tricky shoals of how to work with a longtime partner that does not share our values.
Perhaps its greatest appeal is the way he twins pessimism and optimism. Ryan paints a very pessimistic (albeit realistic) picture of the trajectory the country is on. And Ryan paints a very optimistic (and hopefully realistic) picture of the trajectory the country could be on, if we got our fiscal house in order.
It is this optimism that may provide the greatest appeal, and the most important philosophical contribution. My friend and former colleague Ryan Streeter is one of the most articulate thinkers on the ingredients of upward mobility and improving opportunity for lower- and working-class Americans, and he has long identified Paul Ryan as the political leader who most embodies the aspirational nature of American society. Streeter quotes Paul Ryan in a recent interview laying out this vision — including a robust social safety net that serves more as a spring upward rather than a dependency trap:
We want an upward mobility society. We don’t want a safety net that turns into a hammock that lulls people into dependency in this country. We want people to get up on their feet and grab that higher rung of the economic ladder. We believe in upward mobility. We don’t believe in class division. We believe in growth and prosperity, helping people when they are down on their luck get back on their feet, and pro-growth economic policies that put America in the lead, that make us competitive, that stop tearing people down in this zero-sum thinking.
That last sentence contains the most consequential implication of Romney’s selection of Ryan for American foreign policy. The possibilities of upward mobility, innovation, and entrepreneurship are also the attributes that have long distinguished America’s global competitiveness and leadership. Romney and Ryan both realize that the single most important quotient of American power is the prosperity and moral purpose of the American economy, to generate prosperity and to inspire those across the globe who aspire to better lives for themselves.
Of course, in a short (20 minute) speech, Ryan cannot and does not answer all questions. He will get those questions in the coming weeks. If his Hamilton speech is any guide, his answers will likely resonate well with American voters.