Governing Beyond His Means

When I saw that Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP budget guru who's led the charge for Medicare repeal, was planning a major address on foreign policy, my hopes were not high. Indeed, the speech he delivered last Thursday offered its fair share of nonsense, partisanship, and ideological ax-grinding. But in some respects, Ryan's core ideas about international relations were refreshingly sensible.

For all his repeated claims that American international decline "is a choice" that policy-makers must resist, however, his speech also doubled down on budget ideas that make decline inevitable. Under the guise of preserving America's military strength, Ryan would gut our economy over the long run by weakening our physical infrastructure and disinvesting in the human beings who are our greatest asset. Consequently, even as Ryan, who has emerged as the new intellectual leader of the Republican Party, is pushing the GOP in a sensible direction on international relations, he's seeking to force the country onto an economic path that would make effective American leadership in the world impossible.

On the core question of our relationship with China, for example, Ryan's views are not far from those of the president. Ryan observed that "we should seek to increase China's investment in the international system" rather than assuming a future of conflict. "Ultimately," he said, "we stand to benefit from a world in which China and other rising powers are integrated into the global order."

Ryan challenged the so-called realist assumption that the true choice is "how, not whether, to manage our nation's decline." But though he called for America to "speak boldly for those whose voices are denied by the jackbooted thugs of the tired tyrants of Syria and Iran," he did so without embracing neoconservative demands for military action. And rather than agreeing with the shared realist and neoconservative view that conflict with China is inevitable, he said, rightly, that "we should seek to increase China's investment in the international system" while also "revitalizing our network of friendships and alliances" by "expanding that network to include the rising democratic powers of India and Brazil."

Swipes at President Barack Obama aside, this is more or less the liberal internationalist vision that's already at the core of the current administration's approach. It's enshrined in the May 2010 National Security Strategy of the United States (PDF) and explicated brilliantly in Princeton professor John Ikenberry's Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order. This approach, seemingly shared by Ryan and Obama, offers a real alternative to realism and neoconservatism -- meaningful burden-sharing, institution-building, and positive interaction between people across national boundaries.

But to lead a coalition in this way, America needs to retain its sources of national strength. Ryan's budget would make that impossible. Less noted than his plan for Medicare privatization is the fact that his proposed tax cuts would require the federal government to completely eliminate its functions outside the realm of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the military. That's nothing for food-safety inspections, nothing for education, nothing for roads, nothing for scientific research, nothing for police, nothing for anything else at all.

In his address, Ryan recalled the odd historical claim that Britain declined as the world's leading power because a "crisis of self-perception" created a situation in which "it mattered little what Britain was objectively capable of achieving on the world stage." The reality is that objective capabilities matter a lot. Britain was not ultimately able to compete with much larger nations such as the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not ultimately able to compete with the more viable economic model of the United States. And a Ryan-style America that stops feeding poor children, stops financing higher education and scientific research, stops building and maintaining roads and railroads all in the name of low taxes and a strong military can't possibly exercise leadership on the world stage over the long run.

America's military strength has always been built on a solid technological and economic base. For most of our history, we've had the best-educated population on Earth. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were influential technologists of their time, and we led the world in building canals, then railroads, then highways. It's good that sensible views about policy toward East Asia seem fairly widespread in both parties, but the idea that we can lead the creation of a new global order while walking away from those commitments is absurd.

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