Ryan on foreign policy: America ‘must lead’

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

While House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who was tapped Saturday by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to be his running mate, is most widely known for his stands on economic issues, he has also staked out a foreign policy vision during his congressional career, one centered around the importance of American engagement in the world.

“Ryan has gotten briefed on and thought about foreign policy for years,” Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush, told The Daily Caller.

“The briefings I have done, about the Middle East, found him knowledgeable and of course very smart — and a Republican. His criticisms of Obama foreign policy are very much in the Republican mainstream, as are his foreign policy instincts. He believes in America and America’s role in the world. His specialty may be the economy but I think voters will quickly find out that he brings the same attention and thoughtfulness to foreign affairs.”

Ryan most prominently laid out his foreign policy vision in a June 2011 speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington. In the speech, Ryan tied the need to fix America’s long-term budgetary woes to its ability to lead the world internationally.

“If there’s one thing I could say with complete confidence about American foreign policy, it is this: Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course,” he said. “And if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.”

While some deficit hawks seek to take an ax to the defense budget, Ryan suggested in the speech that defense cuts were far from the primary cause of America’s budgetary problems.

“Defense spending has shrunk as a share of the federal budget from about 39 percent to just under 16 percent — even as we conduct an ambitious global war on terrorism,” he said. “The fact is, defense consumes a smaller share of the national economy today than it did throughout the Cold War.” (RELATED: Media Matters super PAC releases opposition research report on Paul Ryan)

The speech’s fundamental theme was that American decline — domestic and international — is not preordained.

“Look — our fiscal problems are real, and the need to address them is urgent,” he declared. “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.'”

In the speech, Ryan recognized that American engagement in the world as crucial because a “world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place, a place where we have less influence, and a place where our citizens face more dangers and fewer opportunities.”

America, he said, “must lead.”

“And a central element of maintaining American leadership,” he added, “is the promotion of our moral principles — consistently and energetically — without being unrealistic about what is possible for us to achieve.”

Ryan was comfortable suggesting that American conceptions of human rights and freedom were “universal.” Such a worldview, he said, “leads you to reject moral relativism” and “causes you to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests.”

But, according to Ryan, circumstances should help shape American action and help American leaders resolve problems “when our principles are in conflict with our interests.”

“We have to be consistent and clear in the promotion of our principles, while recognizing that different situations will require different tools for achieving that end,” he said.

He added: “[I]n promoting our principles, American policy should be tempered by a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions.”

Ryan said this should lead American leaders to, for instance, treat an ally like Saudi Arabia differently than adversaries like Iran and Syria in terms of pushing a liberalizing agenda.

Invoking former Soviet dissident Natan Sharanksy — whose book “The Case for Democracy” significantly influenced former President George W. Bush’s foreign policy — Ryan said America had “a responsibility to speak boldly for those whose voices are denied by the jackbooted thugs of the tired tyrants of Syria and Iran.”

Ryan gave the speech just months after the Arab Spring began. While he expressed hope that the revolutions sweeping the region would “result in governments that respect the rights of their citizens,” he cautioned that the outcome could be worse, a situation where “one form of autocracy will be supplanted by another.”

No matter what happened, he said, it was important that America stand by its allies in the region, particularly Israel.

In the speech, which was given before America withdrew from Iraq, Ryan said it was important that the U.S. “remain committed to the promotion of stable governments that respect the rights of their citizens and deny terrorists access to their territory” in those countries. Failure to do so, he said, “would be a blow to American prestige and would reinvigorate al-Qaida.”

Turning to China, Ryan said America “must demonstrate that planning for the post-American era is a squandered effort on their part — and that America’s greatest days lie ahead.”

Ryan also spoke of the importance of free trade and working with allies around the world to achieve American objectives, which he said Obama had failed to do.

While saying that Ryan doesn’t have much experience on foreign policy matters, American Enterprise Institute resident foreign policy scholar Michael Rubin told TheDC that instinct “matters just as much” as experience.

“Joe Biden, for example, could brag about foreign policy experience, but he was still the laughing stock of Baghdad and Kabul, and Tehran’s favorite senator,” Rubin said.

But, Rubin added, a “Ryan VP pick would confirm that Romney seeks to be the president who repairs the economy, not a foreign policy president.”

Danielle Pletka, the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI who has known Ryan since he worked for Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback in the 1990s, said that the House budget chairman is a good choice.

“Awesome guy and one of the brightest and most principled people in Congress,” Pletka, whose husband Stephen Rademaker advises Romney on foreign policy, told TheDC.

“What makes a foreign policy leader is judgment and an understanding of America’s role in the world, not frequent flyer status. He knows the issues, and brings the same thoughtfulness to national security that he does to all the other issues that he covers on the Hill.”

Among the foreign policy stances Ryan has taken in Congress over his 14-year tenure are voting to authorize the Iraq war, co-sponsoring legislation to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, voting yes to support U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation and supporting American aid to alleviate poverty and disease in Africa.

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