Daniel W. Drezner

How many Trumpie nominations does Paul Ryan deserve?

Ever since I announced the Trumpies, I’ve been deluged with tweets and e-mails asking if  this flub or that blunder or the other mistake in New York culinary etiquette  merits a Trumpie nomination.  In keeping with the high quality of the Trumpie brand, however, a nomination cannot be earned for simple malapropisms, pizza-eating faux pas, or ...

Ever since I announced the Trumpies, I’ve been deluged with tweets and e-mails asking if  this flub or that blunder or the other mistake in New York culinary etiquette  merits a Trumpie nomination.  In keeping with the high quality of the Trumpie brand, however, a nomination cannot be earned for simple malapropisms, pizza-eating faux pas, or errors on non-foreign policy topics ("A Trumpie — the foreign policy mistakes of royalty"). 

To repeat — a Trumpie is only earned when the candidate or a kep foreign policy supporter demonstrates willful, assertive ignorance on U.S. foreign policy or world politics.  Which brings me to U.S. House Representative Paul Ryan.

Ryan is starting to act like a presidential candidate.  The chairman of the House Budget Committee delivered a foreign policy speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society last week, leaking the text to The Weekly Standard no less.  After that speech, other commentators have made numerous claims that Ryan deserves multiple Trumpie nominations.  Let’s review the charges. 

Jonathan Chait argues that Ryan deserves a nom for making the sly charge that Barack Obama rejected American exceptionalism.  Here’s the passage Chait quotes on this point:

There are very good people who are uncomfortable with the idea that America is an “exceptional” nation….

Today, some in this country relish the idea of America’s retreat from our role in the world. They say that it’s about time for other nations to take over; that we should turn inward; that we should reduce ourselves to membership on a long list of mediocre has-beens.

This view applies moral relativism on a global scale. Western civilization and its founding moral principles might be good for the West, but who are we to suggest that other systems are any worse? – or so the thinking goes.

Instead of heeding these calls to surrender, we must renew our commitment to the idea that America is the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen; a country whose devotion to free enterprise has lifted more people out of poverty than any economic system ever designed; and a nation whose best days still lie ahead of us, if we make the necessary choices today.

Chait argues: 

Ryan is referring to, without explicitly saying so, a widespread conservative claim. In April 2009, a reporter asked Obama if he believed in American exceptionalism. Obama began by citing objections to the concept before endorsing it. 

Chait is correct that the 2009 Obama speech demonstrates quite clearly that the president believes in American exceptionalism, and that numerous conservatives have taken delight in willfully misreading it.  The thing is, the text of Ryan’s speech far from clear in asserting this claim.  The insinuation is there, but Ryan just refers to "very good people."  He could be talking about Obama — but he could very well be talking about my FP colleague Steve Walt for all its specificity.  This is politically savvy, but not a display of assertive ignorance.  So, no, no Trumpie nomination for that. 

But wait — there’s more accusations!!  Eunomia’s Daniel Larison thinks Ryan deserves a Trumpie for this section: 

 [O]ur fiscal problems are real, and the need to address them is urgent. But I’m here to tell you that decline is not a certainty for America. Rather, as Charles Krauthammer put it, “decline is a choice.”

It is hard to overstate the importance of this choice. In The Weary Titan, Aaron Friedberg–one of the founders of the Hamilton Society–has shown us what happened when Britain made the wrong choice at the turn of the 20th century.

At that time, Britain’s governing class took the view that it would be better to cede leadership of the Western world to the United States. Unfortunately, the United States was not yet ready to assume the burden of leadership. The result was 40 years of Great Power rivalry and two World Wars.

This recounting of history prompts Larison to write: 

I have not read this book. Despite that, I am fairly confident that Ryan is describing its argument incorrectly. For one thing, the British governing class between 1895 and 1905 did not “take the view” that “it would be better to cede leadership of the Western world” to the United States. This was the time of Salisbury’s government when the British were as overconfident and aggressive in their empire-building as ever.

Well…. I have read parts of The Weary Titan, and both Ryan and Larison make valid points here.  Friedberg does advance the argument in his book that British foreign policy elites voluntaily ceded aspects of their hegemony to other actors during the 1895-1905 decade — and that’s the point Ryan stresses.  That said, Larison is correct to say that Ryan exaggerates Friedberg’s thesis.  If Ryan had said "Western  hemisphere" instead of "Western world," however, he’d be spot-on accurate. 

So, closer, but no cigar. 

Others have also lobbed their criticisms of Ryan’s speech, but I don’t think these rise to the level of assertive ignorance. 

These paragraphs of Ryan’s speech, however, are another story: 

We cannot face these challenges alone. To the contrary, we need our allies and friends to increase their capacity and willingness to act in defense of our common interests.

The first step in that process is robust and frank engagement with our closest allies. We all share an interest in the maintenance of the international order with its liberal trading system, general tranquility, and abundant opportunity – and we should all share the burden of maintaining it.

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.

Ryan commits an empirical and a logical error here that meets the bar for a Trumpie nomination.  The empirical error is that the notion that the Obama administration has "accepted too willingly" the military decline of key allies.  Indeed, even a cursory glance at the Libya operation suggests the exact opposite of that approach.  A look at the distribution of effort on Libya suggests that while the United States is still exercising leaedership, they’ve actually managed to get allies to fly a majority of the air sorties.  The attack helicopter gambit is also being led by France and the U.K.  As John Burns reports in today’s New York Times:

With the costs of the air campaign mounting, and the stresses growing on air crews, finding a way of breaking the stalemate has become a priority for NATO, and particularly for Britain and France, which are carrying the brunt of the campaign.

Mr. Obama has let NATO allies take the lead in the Libyan operations, an unusual role for them in the history of such operations. The United States’ role has been confined primarily to air refueling, airborne command and control, surveillance and the deployment of missile-carrying drones.

The bigger, logical error, however, is exactly what the "robust and frank engagement with our closest allies" would look like.  Basically, Ryan’s definition of U.S. leadership amounts to "exerting pressure on our allies to take on greater defense expenditures."  OK, but how will this conversation take place?  Let’s imagine this: 

PRESIDENT RYAN:  Hey, NATO allies — to be robust and frank about it, you need to goose up your defense expenditures and assist us more vigorously.  

NATO ALLIES:  What’s that?  I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the protestors in the streets furious about the latest round of bailouts to Greece and Ireland, combined with the cuts in social services we need to make in a nod towards austerity.  Hey, you’re a big fan of that policy, right?  What’s that you want us to do again with our increasingly scarce capital in a politically hostile environment? 

PRESIDENT RYAN:  Uh, never mind, let me try our Japanese allies.  Hey, Japan, we’ve been protecting you for decades, it’s time to pony up and contribute your fair share.

JAPAN:  I’m sorry, what was that?  I couldn’t hear you because we’re selecting which old people will volunteer to help clean up the Fukushima reactor mess.  Gee, this is not going to be cheap, and our debt-to-GDP ratio is already at 200%.  You really harped on the debt problem during your campaign, so you know what we’re talking about here.  Now, what did you want us to do with our dwindling and rapidly agining population again? 

PRESIDENT RYAN:  Er… (to foreign policy advisors) are there any rich allies left? 

Ryan’s "robust and frank engagement" is really just one step removed from Donald Trump’s claims that the right negotiator could get Saudia Arabia to lower oil prices or China to revalue the yuan.  It’s the foreign policy of Campaign Fantasyland. 

And for that, I congratulate Representative Ryan for his hard-earned Trumpie nomination. 

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