At 12:01 a.m., August 11, 2012, most of the world knew that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's choice for vice-presidential running mate was Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan -- even though the official announcement would not come for several more hours. Anyone paying attention also had confirmed what they had known for months -- that the 2012 presidential election was all about domestic economics and not about U.S. foreign policy.
Ryan is best known for his proposals to fix the federal budget deficit.
I'm certainly not the first to say this. Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy was on it by 2 a.m., and Philip Ewing at Politico was explaining it quite well a few hours later. Nevertheless, it's important and unusual.
The issue is important because American presidential elections revolve around two poles -- one domestic policy (heavy on the economy), the other foreign policy. Romney's pick of Ryan is unusual because, since Romney has no real international experience or foreign policy of his own, and certainly no substantive alternatives to President Barack Obama's, you would expect him to pick a running mate who could augment his foreign policy shortfalls. He didn't; Ryan has concentrated on economics and the federal budget while in Congress.
Republicans usually have foreign policy experience in spades. Richard Nixon (regardless of what else you say) was the premier foreign policy man; Ronald Reagan wasn't necessarily experienced in foreign policy, but foreign policy (ie. the downfall of the Soviet Union) was one of the tentpoles of his administration) and he made George H.W. Bush -- former ambassador to China and head of the CIA -- his running mate; Bush, of course, succeeded Reagan into the office. George W. Bush had no foreign policy experience, but he paired himself with Dick Cheney, who had been the first Bush's secretary of defense during the Gulf War.
And notice that those couple of Republicans who didn't have the foreign policy experience teamed up with men who did. Democrats have done the same thing. Bill Clinton, former governor of Arkansas, had no foreign policy experience (though he understood it quite well), but his running mate Al Gore had plenty from his days in the Senate. Barack Obama had a smidgen from his Senate tenure, but he chose to run with Joe Biden, who had considerably more.
That, of course, is all because presidential elections revolve around those two poles -- domestic and foreign policy.
With Ryan, Romney is betting that most Americans in 2012 don't care much about foreign policy, and that he can cast the election as "unipolar," -- only about the economy.
Like Romney, Ryan has made few foreign policy speeches. Actually the count is Romney, two, Ryan, one.
The best way to judge Ryan's foreign policy is to examine that one speech, which he gave to the Alexander Hamilton Society on June 2, 2011. Here are some of its major points.
- Ryan sees America's federal budget crisis as a coming foreign policy crisis. He said, "If we continue on our current path, the rapid rise of health care costs will crowd out all areas of the budget, including defense. This course is simply unsustainable. If we continue down our current path, then a debt-fueled economic crisis is not a probability. It is a mathematical certainty."
- Ryan agrees that American defense spending can be reduced some for "efficiency" to reflect the economics of modern, expedient warfare, but he opposes the $400 billion in defense cuts set to begin in January 2013. He said, "Indiscriminate cuts that are budget-driven and not strategy-driven are dangerous to America and America's interests in the world."
- Ryan believes in American "exceptionalism." That goes right along with Romney, who maintains that Obama denies American exceptionalism by practicing bilateral and multilateral foreign policy.
- Ryan believes the U.S. must consciously lead the world. "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. Take a moment and imagine a world led by China or by Russia," he said. Ryan connects that to the natural rights (the God-given right to life, liberty, and property) that enlightened thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and others based the American Revolution on, and he insists that the U.S. must insure those principles around the world.
- Of places under autocratic regimes, Ryan says, "We have a responsibility to speak boldly for those whose voices are denied by the jackbooted thugs of the tired tyrants of Syria and Iran."
- Ryan encourages a liberalized China, and says, "We must demonstrate that planning for the post-American era is a squandered effort on [China's] part - and that America's greatest days lie ahead.
Ryan naturally bends his foreign policy statements back to area of expertise -- economics and the federal budget. He and Romney agree on American exceptionalism and American world leadership. Neither men offer concrete alternatives, other than avoiding deep defense cuts, to Obama's current foreign policy path. And all that simply restates what I said a thousand words ago -- Republicans want to make the election of 2012 all about domestic economics, not foreign policy.