The issue of Paul Ryan's foreign-policy views is starting to attract some attention among the pundit class. Andrew Sullivan asked yesterday, "Is Paul Ryan A Neocon?" It's a fair question. Whether it is a difficult one to answer is another matter.
To be sure, Ryan does not have any real foreign-policy record. But reasonable inferences can be made from several of his statements. Brett Stephens, for example, devoted his Wall Street Journal column yesterday to suggesting that Ryan issued nothing less than a "neocon manifesto" in a speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society. He noted that Ryan declared that a belief in "universal rights" leads inevitably to the rejection of what he termed "moral relativism." Ryan added, "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." It would be interesting to know exactly which society Ryan is alluding to—what right-wing or left-wing authoritarian country is "accommodating" itself to American interests? Does Ryan mean Pakistan—a grudging ally at best? Egypt? Or Saudi Arabia?
Sullivan also reprinted a tweet from Stephen Hayes that suggests "over past few months, Ryan has quietly been receiving foreign policy/national sec briefings from Elliott Abrams, Kim & Fred Kagan & others." Who might those "others" be? Someone like Danielle Pletka, who, Sullivan further indicates, apparently told the Daily Beast's Eli Lake that Ryan "understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps"?
How much of this justifies deeming Ryan a "neocon" may be questioned. But there is another, more compelling reason—apart from these Kremlinological tidbits—to surmise that Ryan is sympathetic to neocon views. It is this: the surprising thing would be if Ryan rejected neocon theology. The doctrine is dominant in the GOP. It offers a useful cudgel with which to bash Democrats as pussyfooting when it comes to national security. There is no conceivable incentive, in other words, for Ryan to embrace realist views on foreign affairs. It would cause him no end of grief and make Ryan an object of suspicion on the Right, which currently reveres him. So it is almost axiomatic that Ryan, who likely has no more than a passing familiarity with foreign-affairs issues, is inclined towards neoconservatism.
This distinguishes him from another young Republican vice-presidential candidate who was a realist and believed in engagement abroad. As a blog post at the Richard M. Nixon Foundation observes, Richard Nixon was only thirty-nine years old when Dwight Eisenhower tapped him as his running mate in 1952, and on paper Ryan might appear to have some things in common with Nixon. Ryan, too, is youthful and a hero to the Right. But Nixon had served in World War II, supported the Marshall Plan for Europe and helped unmask Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. Ryan, by contrast, has denounced Nixon in the form of stating, as the American Conservative's Daniel Larison reports, that the Obama administration's foreign policy and failure to emphasize human rights is, in Ryan's words, "Nixonian." He has also, Larison notes, decried better relations with Russia as tantamount to "appeasement"—the very charge hurled at Nixon when he pursued detente and arms-control with the Kremlin.
No doubt he will issue the sorts of thundering pronouncements that Romney has been issuing when he debates Vice President Joe Biden on October 11. Russia, China and Iran will all be bashed by Ryan as he exhorts Americans to export freedom abroad and ramp up military spending even as the country crumbles from within. Anyone looking for fresh ideas or something unorthodox on foreign affairs from the Romney-Ryan ticket should think again.