Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

2012 theme: Is U.S. global leadership worth the price?

Last week, U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan gave a foreign-policy speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington, D.C. (full disclosure: I am the advisor to the Duke University chapter of the Hamilton Society). I think the speech foreshadows one of the main foreign-policy questions that will haunt the 2012 presidential campaign: Can the U.S. afford ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan gave a foreign-policy speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington, D.C. (full disclosure: I am the advisor to the Duke University chapter of the Hamilton Society). I think the speech foreshadows one of the main foreign-policy questions that will haunt the 2012 presidential campaign: Can the U.S. afford to be the global leader?

As I have already argued, the 2012 foreign-policy debate will not be the same as 2008. There are many reasons for this, but an important one is that Republicans are uncharacteristically divided on foreign policy. Ron Paul was something of a gadfly in 2008, and he still represents only a small fraction of the Republican Party, but his isolationist arguments resonate among fiscal hawks today in a way that they didn't only four years ago. War weariness and perhaps even a broader "global-leadership weariness" is no longer the exclusive province of Democrats. Candidates will be debating just how much the U.S. taxpayer should be willing to pay to secure success in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere -- but the debate may be as lively within the parties as between them.

Ryan's speech is an important marker in that debate. He has impeccable credentials as a deficit hawk, having offered the most serious and comprehensive fiscal plan of any political leader. It is a bold plan, so bold that it may ask for sacrifices that the voters are unwilling to make. No one can accuse Ryan of taking spending lightly.

Last week, U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan gave a foreign-policy speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington, D.C. (full disclosure: I am the advisor to the Duke University chapter of the Hamilton Society). I think the speech foreshadows one of the main foreign-policy questions that will haunt the 2012 presidential campaign: Can the U.S. afford to be the global leader?

As I have already argued, the 2012 foreign-policy debate will not be the same as 2008. There are many reasons for this, but an important one is that Republicans are uncharacteristically divided on foreign policy. Ron Paul was something of a gadfly in 2008, and he still represents only a small fraction of the Republican Party, but his isolationist arguments resonate among fiscal hawks today in a way that they didn’t only four years ago. War weariness and perhaps even a broader "global-leadership weariness" is no longer the exclusive province of Democrats. Candidates will be debating just how much the U.S. taxpayer should be willing to pay to secure success in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere — but the debate may be as lively within the parties as between them.

Ryan’s speech is an important marker in that debate. He has impeccable credentials as a deficit hawk, having offered the most serious and comprehensive fiscal plan of any political leader. It is a bold plan, so bold that it may ask for sacrifices that the voters are unwilling to make. No one can accuse Ryan of taking spending lightly.

Thus, one might predict that he would give a speech talking about how, in this time of fiscal austerity, every program, even worthy programs like defense, need to take "their share" of cuts in order to balance the budget. That was not the thrust of the Ryan speech. On the contrary, he talked about how the defense burden has already been declining as a share of the federal budget and the national economy. And he quite clearly singled out health-care expenditures as the principal driver of deficits, not national security. He went on to criticize the deep cuts in defense spending proposed by President Obama and made good use of Secretary Gates’s acidic critique of indiscriminate cuts — "that’s math, not strategy."

Ryan is not a declared presidential candidate, but he sure sounds like someone weighing a presidential (or vice-presidential) run. In policy terms, he is not staking out virgin territory: Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney are two prominent declared candidates who have already made similar arguments. But the polling suggests that Republican voters are still mostly undecided, and while domestic policy and other issues (such as electability) may be uppermost in the minds of primary voters, I suspect that the price of U.S. global leadership is also affecting their calculations.

It will be interesting to see whether one of the other main Republican candidates (besides Ron Paul) adopts more of a "cut defense" position in an attempt to capture the anti-war wing of the Republican Party. That wouldn’t distinguish the candidate from Obama, but it would separate the candidate from some of his or her most serious rivals for the Republican nomination. It rarely turns out well for U.S. foreign policy when candidates jockey for electoral advantage in this way, but it is hard for leaders to resist the electoral pressure to do so. I expect that before the Republican primaries are over, at least one major candidate will make a gesture in this direction.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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