Friedman: Deciphering Paul Ryan's worldview

President Barack Obama may run as much against Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan -- architect of the House Republican budget plan -- as against Mitt Romney. Last week, Obama declared that the budget proposal, which would slash $5.3 trillion in federal spending over the next decade, would pit rich against poor in what amounted to "social Darwinism."

As the campaign spotlight lingers on Ryan, it's worth pointing out that the House Budget Committee chairman isn't a one-trick pony. Sure, he's styled himself as an intellectual leader on fiscal policy. But he has a distinct worldview as well.

Here are some of the components of the other Ryan plan.


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-- AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM: In a June 2011 foreign policy speech at the Alexander Hamilton Society, Ryan rejected isolationism and argued that "America is the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen," warning that "a world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place."

A firm believer in American exceptionalism, he agrees with columnist Charles Krauthammer that American decline "is a choice." The country's fiscal policy and foreign policy "are on a collision course," he explains, "and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power."

-- CHINA: Ryan appears to be less hardline and hawkish about China than Romney, who has pledged to designate Beijing as a currency manipulator on his first day in office. True, Ryan has shuddered at the idea of a world led by China and Russia and criticized China's restrictions on freedom of expression, "coercive population controls," and "unsound economic policies." But he's also argued that "we stand to benefit from a world in which China and other rising powers are integrated into the global order with increased incentives to further liberalize their political and economic institutions."

-- EMERGING ECONOMIES: Ryan wants to forge better relations with the world's emerging economies -- particularly "the rising democratic powers of India and Brazil, which share many of our core principles and interests." America, he says, "must be willing to listen and accommodate their legitimate concerns as we preserve the framework of the international system and solidify our leadership within it." More generally, he charges the Obama administration with taking America's "allies for granted" and wants to revitalize those relationships.

-- ARAB SPRING: Ryan has greeted the uprisings in the Middle East with the same mixture of praise and trepidation that several Republican presidential candidates have displayed this year. "We are seeing long-repressed populations give voice to the fundamental desire for liberty," he's observed, while adding ominously that in these societies "the most organized factions often lack tolerance and reject pluralism."

It's too soon, he says, "to tell whether these revolutions will result in governments that respect the rights of their citizens, or if one form of autocracy will be supplanted by another." Saudi Arabia: Ryan cites America's alliance with the Saudis as an example of when its interests run up against its ideals, and when "American policy should be tempered by a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions." There are "voices in the Kingdom calling for reform," he notes. "We should help our allies effect a transition that fulfills the aspirations of their people."

-- IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN: Ryan believes that America's "ability to affect events is strongest in Iraq and Afghanistan," and that the United States can't cut and run from the battle against "global terrorism" in these countries. Ryan was an early supporter of the surge in Iraq. "This whole thing is a big gamble," he said in 2007. "But it's probably the best gamble to take before throwing in the towel and allowing sectarian genocide to take over." His estimate that America could save roughly $1 trillion over the next decade by winding down the wars was later adopted by congressional Democrats and the White House.

-- DEFENSE SPENDING: Ryan's 99-page "Path to Prosperity" plan, released last month, provoked an outcry in calling for boosting military spending while slashing the international affairs budget -- funding for entities such as the State Department and USAID -- by nearly $5 billion. When Ryan said "we don't think the generals are giving us their true advice" in reference to the military budget, he was quick to walk back his comments. "I really misspoke," he explained.

In the wake of Ryan's foreign policy address last year, Matthew Yglesias argued in the American Prospect that Ryan seemed to subscribe to "more or less the liberal internationalist vision that's already at the core" of the Obama administration's approach. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait mocked Ryan's "Norquistian-Churchillian foreign policy." The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin wrote that Ryan was one of the few politicians who could draw a connection between "conservative economic principles and American foreign policy and values." Ryan's worldview, in other words, appears to be a bit of a Rorschach test. And in a general election where appealing solely to the Republican base just won't cut it, that might be exactly what Romney needs.

Writer Uri Friedman is an associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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