Two True Statesmen on Foreign Policy

Luke Phillips

Two pieces in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal today highlighted the foreign policy views of two of my favorite politicians alive today- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. I consider Ryan and Gates to be true statesmen in an age of political halfwits, for the dignity and poise they’ve brought to their respective offices, the gravitas with which they’ve conducted themselves in public life, and the relatively bipartisan, benevolently nationalist temperaments they’ve displayed in their policy preferences. I have disagreements with both, Speaker Ryan in particular, but in my opinion both would make fine Presidents of the United States.

To the best of my understanding, it seems that both Speaker Ryan and Secretary Gates exhibit the principled but bounded internationalism of, say, George H.W. Bush or Dwight Eisenhower. “I’m not a neocon,” Ryan explicitly said. The WSJ continues,

Paul Ryan
FILE – In this March 23, 2016 file photo, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Wisconsin’s “Cheesehead Revolution” was ushered in by a trio of Republicans, Walker, Reince Priebus and Scott Walker, looking to inject the party with their own youthful, aggressive brand of conservatism while positioning the party for success in the 2016 presidential election. Then came Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

“He advocated a strong military as a deterrent to the need to become embroiled abroad, in contrast both to Republican calls for more aggressive military action and to Democrats willing to pare back the U.S. military presence abroad.

“I believe we need to be consistent in pressing our values,” he said. “At the same time we have to be realistic about how far those values can be pushed and asserted on a case-by-case basis, and we have to be realistic in our expectations of the promotion of values.” 

Mr. Ryan stressed pragmatism in foreign policy, citing his work in Congress on free trade agreements.”

Gates, meanwhile, said something most arch-realists tend to say these days: that President Obama’s policies have been mostly well-informed and well-designed, but poorly executed and sold. The Washington Post:

robertgates

“Gates characteristically finds a middle ground in the argument that has been swirling since Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic magazine article examining Obama’s reluctance to use military force in Syria and the broader Middle East. Borrowing the famous quip about Richard Wagner’s music, Gates said Obama’s foreign policy “is not as bad as it sounds. It’s the way it comes out that diminishes its effectiveness.” 

“The way things get done communicates reluctance to assert American power,” Gates explained in an interview Wednesday. “They often end up in the right place, but a day late and a dollar short. The decisions are made seriatim. It presents an image that he’s being dragged kicking and screaming to each new stage, and it dilutes the implementation of what he’s done.”…

Gates credited Obama for moving toward better-calibrated policies that would send a stronger message, such as greater use of Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and more aggressive moves to assert freedom of navigation in the Pacific. “You don’t need major threats or force projection but a clearer desire to show we can act with force” when necessary, he said.” 

If the GOP wins the White House under Trump or Cruz, it’s unlikely that this firm, prudent internationalism will inform the Oval Office- various people have noted that both Trump and Cruz seem to what I would call “isolationist hawks,” or “pure Jacksonians-“ averse to international involvement, but flubberingly nationalist in the worst sense and intensely hawkish when the time to deal with the rest of the world comes. Perhaps we’d get a necessary recalibration of our overseas commitments, but with the world as interconnected as it is these days, it’s hard to view Trumpian/Cruzista isolationist hawkishness as anything more than an irresponsible abdication of America’s international responsibilities. Even Hillary Clinton’s resurgent liberal internationalist neoconservatism would do less damage.

Anyway, it’s good to know that the foreign policy tradition of Eisenhower and Bush Sr. is still alive and well in Secretary Gates and Speaker Ryan. Perhaps it will continue to live on in the GOP through either a Trump, Cruz, or Clinton Presidency, and re-emerge on the other end, ready to prudently steer America through a decaying world order needing rebuilding.

There’s a domestic aspect to this, too. Historically, those who’ve supported prudent internationalism and firm realism have also supported a relatively moderate social policy, nationalist economic policy, and reformist government policy- think of any number of great 20th Century presidents, from Bush Sr. to Nixon and Eisenhower to Truman and both Roosevelts.

If the foreign policy aspect of the tradition is alive and well, perhaps reformist Progressive Republicans can reconstruct the domestic policy tradition of Nixon and Eisenhower from the outside inward- the demands of national strategy require a productive economy, efficient government, inclusive polity, etc. And just as the early, non-democracy-promoting neoconservatives supported the Civil Rights Act and New Deal extensions even as fusionist conservatives opposed both, perhaps statesmen like Gates and Ryan- Ryan in particular- will begin to advocate domestic policies far removed from the neoliberalism of the last few decades, and back in line with a modernized version of America’s historically normal mixed economy. One can hope.

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