Members of President Barack Obama's campaign team pressed the charge across the media this weekend that Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan , the new GOP vice presidential candidate, has no foreign policy experience. But conservatives, still smarting from last week's appointment of former World Bank President Bob Zoellick to lead Gov. Mitt Romney's transition on national security, say they are delighted — and reassured — by the choice.
In this most domestic-focused of elections, Ryan voices a trade-based American exceptionalism with human rights at its core — an outlook embraced by those on the hawkish end of GOP foreign policy. It also matches Romney's own muscle-flexing view of the exceptionalism-based linkage between economic and foreign policy.
"What Ryan does," said one conservative foreign policy thinker unhappy with the Zoellick choice and close to the Romney campaign, "is that he energizes the traditional Republicans because he is about big solutions. That encourages people to say that he is not a [retiring Sen.] Dick Lugar, he is not going to cut the baby in half to please [Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Chairman] John Kerry. … The Ryan pick is going to calm a lot of foreign policy conservatives down because he has demonstrated that he is willing to take on big problems and to take on transforming solutions."
While Ryan has not served on the traditional foreign policy assignments, like the Armed Services or Foreign Relations Committees, he has focused on trade as part of the Ways and Means Committee. He tried to shepherd a number of Middle East Free Trade Area deals through Congress during the Bush administration. And he has criticized the Obama White House on that front.
"We could do a great deal of good in the Middle East with respect to our foreign policy if we engage," Ryan said in a 2009 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations about economic engagement with the region. He discussed the leverage that free-trade agreements provide on issues like women's rights and worker's rights. "Unfortunately that is not the agenda that is being pursued by this White House. … This administration has really gone back to an old 'realpolitik' agenda and there seems to be a severing of human rights with the interests of our country."
In addition to the trade work, conservative foreign policy experts who have briefed Ryan say that his record in Congress makes his worldview clear.
"Ryan is chairman of the Budget Committee and knows more about the defense budget than Obama and [Joe] Biden put together," said Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign policy roles for both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. "He has voted on foreign policy issues hundreds of times, so his outlook is not hidden or surprising: He's a Republican who favors a strong defense and American leadership."
Romney foreign policy advisers say Ryan shares a distinct worldview with the GOP presidential candidate.
"Both are strong supporters of an active foreign policy," says Romney foreign policy adviser Kristen Silverberg, a former ambassador to the European Union in the Bush administration, "that supports pro-democratic movements overseas, that supports free markets, that articulates a vision of U.S. leadership. They have very similar views on the importance of U.S. leadership, on the importance of renewing U.S. relationships with allies."
Those favoring a more activist approach say they want and expect to hear more about the links between economic and foreign policy — which Ryan has already emphasized.
"Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course," Ryan said in a 2011 foreign policy speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society that was closely watched by conservatives and touted by The Weekly Standard, "and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power. Our fiscal problems are real, and the need to address them is urgent. But I'm here to tell you that decline is not a certainty for America. Rather, as Charles Krauthammer put it, 'decline is a choice.'"
Ryan continued, "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."
This echoes words that Romney shared with the Veterans of Foreign Wars last month. "In an American Century," Romney said, "we have the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, we secure peace through our strength. And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve. In an American Century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world. If we do not have the strength or vision to lead, then other powers will take our place, pulling history in a very different direction. A just and peaceful world depends on a strong and confident America."
Some leading Republican voices from the 'realist' wing, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have said that Romney may be listening too much to his more "far to the right" advisers in making pronouncements like calling Russia America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
But Ryan's past statements on foreign policy don't show much daylight between his views and those of the top of his ticket. Romney's foreign policy pronouncements thus far have been far closer to the neoconservative world view than to either Brent Scowcroft's or Powell's.
Along with the tough talk on Russia, Romney said, "a nuclear Iran represents the greatest threat" to the U.S. Ryan, for his part, has backed House bills that stressed "the importance of preventing the government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability."
Romney has also reportedly raised eyebrows among a number of GOP diplomatic eminences, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, by vowing to brand China a "currency manipulator."
But Romney told CBS News, "you can't sit there year after year and allow a country like China to violate the principles of free trade and free enterprise."
Though Ryan was one of only 79 representatives to vote against a 2010 currency bill cracking down on China's monetary policies, he has rapped China for an "export-led growth strategy" that has "produced rapid growth," but "required policies that are causing massive distortions in the underlying economy." He has alluded to the problems created by China being the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries.
"We have to show that we have this thing [our national debt] under control," Ryan said at the Council on Foreign Relations, "and it is heading in the right direction. And if we just do that I think we are going to be fine, and then our hands are freed on foreign policy to do what it is that we think is important and in our national strategic interest. We will not be able to conduct the kind of foreign policy that we believe is in our national interests because of this debt problem, because of the need to have foreign nations and central banks buy our paper. It is just that simple."
There is a slight difference between the two men, however, on one major issue: Afghanistan, the war no candidate has wanted to talk about this cycle. Ryan has sounded far less critical of the current White House strategy than his running mate, though the differences between Obama and Romney on the war seem about tone rather than tactics.
Romney has called the president's announced timeline "misguided" and "naive." Ryan came out largely in favor of Obama's policy, during a March radio interview. He even sounded a bit like Vice President Biden, arguing against a premature withdrawal of troops, but urging a quick transition to a "limited footprint where we have very few people, very few dollars, but we know we can still make sure that this place doesn't become the next Osama bin Laden breeding ground."
"There is a great consensus in Congress, Republicans and Democrats, that the president is on the right timetable," Ryan said in the interview with WRJN, "that he has given the right timeline to have what we would define as an ultimate victory."
Earlier this year Ryan told the Washington Examiner that, "what 9/11 did to me, like most other members of Congress, is it woke us up to appreciating foreign policy and studying it quite a bit."
Ryan's own words about the world beyond Washington and America's role in it are sure to be studied in the weeks and months to come.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is author of "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." She analyzed public policy for PIMCO, after working as a journalist for the ABC News Political Unit and "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." She is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylelemmon.
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