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Ryan’s Missionary Foreign Policy

Greg Scoblete comments on Paul Ryan’s foreign policy:

However, given that Ryan is now posing as a paragon of fiscal restraint it is a bit odd that this sensibility is apparently stopping at the water’s edge.

The operative word here is posing. Ryan hasn’t been a paragon of fiscal restraint for most of his career in the House (and especially when it comes to the military budget, he still isn’t), so there’s no real contradiction here. His foreign policy views are thin enough and politically unimportant enough at the moment that the apparent contradiction isn’t likely to bother very many people. For that matter, many of the people responsible for promoting Ryan as a presidential and vice-presidential candidate are advocates for aggressive and hegemonist foreign policy, so it makes sense that Ryan would be on board with the views of many of his most vocal enthusiasts.

It’s important to understand that Ryan thinks about the U.S. role in the world in highly idealized and ideological terms. Even if Ryan had a record as a fiscal conservative at home, his vision for America’s role in the world is so expansive that it simply overrides any concerns about what the U.S. can afford. Ryan assumes that U.S. hegemony is essential, and any diminution of it would simply lead to “chaos.” As far as Ryan is concerned, subsidizing the defense of other wealthy countries in perpetuity is something the U.S. just has to keep doing.

Ryan’s emphasis on the (false) claim that “America is an idea” is the key to understanding his foreign policy. He understands American exceptionalism in hegemonist terms, and he believes that America has a mission and a responsibility to promote our political principles everywhere:

The US was history’s first government to found itself expressly on the principles of God-given natural rights, equality, liberty, opportunity, and popular consent. It is always in the interest of the United States to promote these principles in other nations.

Ryan’s universalism leads him to endorse what is effectively a missionary foreign policy:

Now, if you believe these rights are universal human rights, then that clearly forms the basis of your views on foreign policy. It leads you to reject moral relativism. It 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 [bold mine-DL].

Ryan believes that promoting these principles abroad is “always” in the interest of the United States, so much so that he privileges their promotion over the maintenance of good relations with illiberal and authoritarian states. Ryan’s foreign policy suffers from the same incoherence that afflicts all hegemonists that try to be democratists at the same time.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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