On Thursday evening at the St. Regis Hotel three blocks from the White House. Paul Ryan was the featured speaker at a meeting of the Alexander Hamilton Society. I think it telling that his subject was not the fiscal crisis besetting our country. It was, as Michael Warren makes clear in a detailed report on the website of The Weekly Standard, the conduct of American foreign policy. If you have even a passing interest in the current Presidential race, you should read Warren’s report in its entirety. In it, he reprints Ryan’s every word. Here is how the Congressman began:
Some of you might be wondering why the House Budget Committee chairman is standing here addressing a room full of national security experts about American foreign policy. What can I tell you that you don’t already know?
The short answer is, not much. But 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; and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.
Ryan’s main point was that decline is not inevitable. It is a choice – a choice that we can make, a choice that we can resolutely refuse.
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.
Some hear these facts and conclude that the sun is setting on America… that our problems are bigger than we are… that our competitors will soon outrun us… and that the choice we face is over how, not whether, to manage our nation’s decline.
It’s inevitable, they seem to say, so let’s just get on with it. I’m reminded of that Woody Allen line: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
In his speech, Ryan considered the consequences of making the wrong choice in this regard. It is, he insisted, a matter of paramount importance.
In The Weary Titan, Aaron Friedberg − one of the founders of the Hamilton Society − has shown us what happened when Britain made the wrong choice at the turn of the 20th century.
At that time, Britain’s governing class took the view that it would be better to cede leadership of the Western world to the United States. Unfortunately, the United States was not yet ready to assume the burden of leadership. The result was 40 years of Great Power rivalry and two World Wars.
The stakes are even higher today. Unlike Britain, which handed leadership to a power that shared its fundamental values, today’s most dynamic and growing powers do not embrace the basic principles that should be at the core of the international system.
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.
Choosing decline would have consequences that I doubt many Americans would be comfortable with.
Ryan is persuaded that “we must lead,” and he is also convinced that “a central element of maintaining American leadership is the promotion of our moral principles – consistently and energetically.” We must, however, he continues, not be “unrealistic about what is possible for us to achieve.”
America is an idea. And it was the first nation founded as such. The idea is rather simple. Our rights come to us from God and nature. They occur naturally, before government. The Declaration of Independence says it best: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
There are very good people who are uncomfortable with the idea that America is an “exceptional” nation. But it happens that America was the first in the world to make the universal principle of human freedom into a “credo,” a commitment to all mankind, and it has been our honor to be freedom’s beacon for millions around the world.
America’s “exceptionalism” is just this – while most nations at most times have claimed their own history or culture to be exclusive, America’s foundations are not our own – they belong equally to every person everywhere. The truth that all human beings are created equal in their natural rights is the most “inclusive” social truth ever discovered as a foundation for a free society. “All” means “all”! You can’t get more “inclusive” than that!
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.
The real question, of course, is the practical one: “What do we do when our principles are in conflict with our interests? How do we resolve the tension between morality and reality?” And here is Ryan’s answer:
According to some, we will never be able to resolve this tension, and we must occasionally suspend our principles in pursuit of our interests. I don’t see it that way. 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.
An expanding community of nations that shares our economic values as well as our political values would ensure a more prosperous world … a world with more opportunity for mutually beneficial trade … and a world with fewer economic disruptions caused by violent conflict.
Here, too, Ryan urges prudence and caution. “In promoting our principles,” he argues, “American policy should be tempered by a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions.” Then, he turns to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, Afghanistan, and China – where you can see a bit more clearly what he has in mind when he speaks of limits and where you can also see just how much care he has given to considering our strategic situation.
Read Warren’s report. Run it off, and read it again. I think that, if you do, you will see why I think it right that this country do something almost unthinkable that it has not done in more than a century: elevate a mere Congressman to the Presidency.
There are many reasons why we need to get our fiscal house in order. Perhaps in the long run the most important is that, if we do not, we as a people will lose the hard-won capacity to shape the strategic environment within which we, as individuals, live our daily lives. The political liberty we treasure depends upon our independence -- and ultimately that cannot be sustained if ours is an entitlements state.