Stephen M. Walt

Why Ron Paul may actually have something right

I have a confession to make: I haven’t been paying all that much attention to the presidential primary season, mostly because most what’s happened so far strikes me as irrelevant to who the next president will be. I see it the same way I see the first few weeks of the baseball season: occasionally entertaining ...

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

I have a confession to make: I haven’t been paying all that much attention to the presidential primary season, mostly because most what’s happened so far strikes me as irrelevant to who the next president will be. I see it the same way I see the first few weeks of the baseball season: occasionally entertaining for die-hard fans but not very meaningful, because what really matters is who makes the playoffs and gets into the World Series (i.e, the "general election"). And because this year’s GOP field has been filled with a number of wingnuts with no chance whatsoever of winning the nomination, I’ve found it even easier to bide my time and wait for things to shake out.

The recent hoopla attached to the Iowa caucuses is a case in point: because the preferences of a tiny subset of self-selected voters from a distinctly unrepresentative state aren’t a bellweather of anything. Iowa got rapt attention because news organizations want to sell papers and attract listeners and because pundits can’t help bombarding us with breathless narrative about What It All Means.

For these reasons, I also haven’t said anything about Ron Paul’s candidacy, although Andrew Sullivan has recently highlighted a series of exchanges on whether Paul’s candidacy is actually harmful to broader argument for a more restrained, non-interventionist foreign policy (a topic I do think is quite important). I’ve never though Paul was a credible candidate, however, because his views on a host of other issues are frankly silly and because he has done a poor job responding to questions about the racist associations he’s had in the past. In other words, even if Paul has some sensible things to say about foreign policy, he carries way too much baggage to win the GOP nomination, let alone the general election. And to be completely clear: I wouldn’t vote for him, at least not based on what I know now.

That said, I’d make a couple of points about Paul’s candidacy, and especially his take on America’s addiction to global adventurism.

First, despite his bizarre views on the gold standard, climate change, social security, and the like, Paul has put his finger on a number of issues that could resonate broadly with the American people, especially if discussion were not monopolized by think tanks and insiders who are strongly committed to the status quo. Unlike most foreign policy "experts" in both parties, Paul believes the United States is an extraordinarily secure country, with a robust nuclear deterrent, no powerful enemies nearby, and at present no major power rivals of much significance. He instinctively rejects the paranoia and worst-casing that has convinced Americans that we need to roam around the world trying to remake it in our image (a task, by the way, that we’re not very good at). He believes that excessive interventionism and other failed policies are a primary cause of anti-Americanism around the world, and that the United States would be more popular and safer if we focused more attention on trade and diplomacy and domestic issues instead of emphasizing military dominance and overseas meddling. He believes that a bloated national security state and a quasi-imperial foreign policy inevitably fosters greater government secrecy and erodes traditional restraints on executive power. And like former president (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thinks the current military-industrial complex wields excessive influence on our politics and has become a self-perpetuating engine for counter-productive meddling abroad.

These points are all debatable, of course, but Paul is the only person in the race who even wants to discuss them. The rest of the GOP candidates are mostly competing to see who can sound the most eager for war (usually with Iran) or most willing to toss more money at the Pentagon. Barack Obama is a lot more sensible than they are, but as we’ve learned over the past three-plus years, neither he nor his national security team are interested in making dramatic changes in America’s overall grand strategy. Instead, Obama has emerged as a strong proponent of government secrecy, a staunch defender of maintaining U.S. primacy around the world, and as an enthusiastic user of drones, special forces, and other tools of U.S. power. He did eventually wind down the war in Iraq, of course, but it hardly took a strategic genius to figure out that this was the right course.

And make no mistake: the "leaner" military budget revealed yesterday does not herald a fundamental change in our overall approach to the rest of the world. The United States will still be spending several times more on national security than any other single country, and more than the top ten or so nations combined. Our strategic attention will shift toward Asia and away from protracted counter-insurgency efforts (decisions that I applaud), but the United States will still be a preponderant power, will still maintain an extensive array of military bases around the world, and will still be strongly disposed to interfere in other nation’s affairs. We may be using somewhat different tools (i.e., drones and special forces rather than large occupying armies), but these are tactical rather than strategic adjustments.

Ron Paul offers a much clearer alternative, and one that is not easy to dismiss with a sound-bite or two. Given the nuclear revolution, America’s favorable geographic location, and the nature of the modern global economy, in fact, there’s a pretty good case to be made for a much more limited global posture that shifts more of the burden for regional security onto others and focuses on fixing problems here at home. Neither pacifism nor "Fortress America," mind you, but far less global crusading than we’ve been doing since 1945.

But I think it’s clear that Paul comes with too much baggage to persuade many people to follow his banner, and his views on other issues provides the media and other mainstream groups with an excuse to ignore the more interesting parts of his message.  If by some miracle Paul managed to win the Republican nomination, the general election would probably look a lot like Johnson’s crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

But that historical analogy got me wondering. Contemporary political historians argue that Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement, which came to fruition with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Paul has done surprisingly well during this primary season, and his views clearly resonate with a sizeable core of young and fairly well-educated voters. Is it possible that Paul’s brand of foreign policy restraint just needs a better champion, one who is both more broadly appealing but also not saddled by so much poisonous baggage? In short, just as Ronald Reagan eventually built on the Goldwater movement and made its core principles appealing to many Americans, might Ron Paul’s views on foreign policy be awaiting the arrival of a candidate (in 2016, or maybe 2020) who can put them in a more attractive package? 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola