Galt Goes Global

Did Paul Ryan take his foreign policy from Ayn Rand?

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has credited philosopher Ayn Rand with inspiring him to enter politics -- and made her 1,000-plus-page opus, Atlas Shrugged, required reading for his staff. "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," he said in 2005 at a gathering of Rand fans. "The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism." It is a theme that pervades Rand's corpus.

Given the Wisconsin congressman's interest in Rand's writings, Ryan's addition to the GOP ticket has naturally unleashed a flash-mob of analysts parsing his speeches, articles, and signature proposals for evidence of her influence. On domestic policy, the impact of Rand's ideas on Ryan's outlook is marked, though uneven and sometimes overstated. Religion, in particular, has driven a wedge between Ryan, who would enact Catholic dogma into law, and Rand, an atheist, who championed the separation of church and state. But what has received far less attention is Ryan's outlook on foreign policy -- and whether it bears the mark of Rand's thought.

Ayn Rand's foreign policy, if we can construct one from her writings, would be grounded in her view of man's rights and the nature of government. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand argues that the ideal government is the servant, not the master, of the individual. In her view, it is a vital institution strictly limited to one function: to safeguard individual rights. By "rights," Rand means freedom to take "all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life." Critically, the protection of an individual's rights "does not mean that others must provide him with the necessities of life."

Domestically, this outlook entails a truly free market with absolute legal protection of private property, and without regulations, bailouts, corporate handouts, or entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. (Ryan breaks with Rand by attempting to save, rather than end these programs.) In Rand's political philosophy, however, there is no gulf between economic rights and personal and intellectual ones: for instance, she wrote passionately of the crucial importance (contra Ryan) of the right to abortion, and regarded freedom of speech as sacrosanct.

Like her views on domestic policy, a Randian foreign policy would be guided exclusively by the goal of protecting the individual rights of Americans, and only Americans. Accordingly, the U.S. government shouldn't issue handouts to other countries (through foreign aid or international welfare schemes), nor treat its citizens as cannon fodder (through a military draft). Indeed, Rand was scathing in her analyses of the Vietnam War, arguing that it did not serve America's national interest. "[I]t is a pure instance of blind, senseless altruistic self-sacrificial slaughter," she wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Of course, there are times when government is obligated to go to war, according to Rand. The crucial standard here is whether the lives and property of Americans are imperiled. The only morally justifiable purpose for war, she wrote, is self-defense. This rules out so-called humanitarian missions, like the tragic Clinton-era mission in Somalia, and the notion that the United States is somehow obliged to serve as the world's policeman. The primary function of the military, in Rand's eyes, should be to deter, and when necessary, defeat foreign aggressors.

Although some of Rand's political ideas have informed the libertarian movement, she regarded any form of pacifism (including Ron Paul-esque passivity) as destructive to national defense. And undoubtedly she would have supported a strong military response to the 9/11 attacks (though, as I have argued in my book, she would have rejected George W. Bush's conception of the enemy and his entire prosecution of the war).

Rand viewed deterrence as an especially important -- and effective -- method of defending American freedom. In her view, the power of a morally confident, assertive United States was considerable, though largely unappreciated. For instance, she believed that if the West had truly stood up to the Soviet bloc by withdrawing its moral sanction, ending the flow of aid, and imposing an airtight boycott, the Soviet threat would have imploded many years before it actually did, without the need for war.

Perhaps most importantly, Rand argued in favor of genuine free trade -- without trade barriers, protective tariffs, or special privileges. In her words: "the opening of the world's trade routes to free international trade and competition among the private citizens of all countries dealing directly with one another." In the 19th century, she argued, free trade liberated the world by "undercutting and wrecking the remnants of feudalism and the statist tyranny of absolute monarchies." Not coincidentally, she observed, this era enjoyed the longest period of general peace in human history (roughly from 1815 to 1914).

Taken together, Rand's approach implies a re-thinking of the moral values that should inform foreign policy. The result is a foreign policy based on pure, "rational self-interest" -- defined as the aggregated ability of individual Americans to enjoy life, liberty, and property unmolested by foreign aggressors. Crucially, it rejects the duty selflessly to serve others, whether they are next door or overseas. So how, then, does Paul Ryan's foreign policy measure up?

Reading Ryan's most substantive speech on foreign policy, delivered at the Hamilton Society in 2011, you can certainly hear the reverberation of Rand's ideas. "[I]f you believe these rights are universal human rights, then that clearly forms the basis of your views on foreign policy," he said, partially echoing the Randian conviction that regimes are moral to the degree that they respect individual rights. For Ryan, as for Rand, championing rights 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." Moreover, Ryan falls in line with Rand in his thoughtful promotion of free trade. In his Hamilton Society speech, for instance, he argued in favor of an "expanding community of nations that shares our economic values as well as our political values" in order to "ensure a more prosperous world."

But if these similarities are meaningful, Ryan nevertheless seems to fundamentally part ways with Rand. In particular, he speaks of the need to "renew our commitment to the idea that America is the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen," and sees in the Arab Spring the "long-repressed populations give voice to the fundamental desire for liberty." Further, Ryan claims that it is "always in the interest of the United States to promote these principles in other nations." Like President George W. Bush, whose wars he supported, Ryan appears to subscribe to the quasi-religious view that freedom is written into the soul of mankind, and that it is somehow the moral duty of America, the freest and wealthiest of nations, to go forth and wage wars to unchain the world's oppressed. In all this, he could not be less Randian.

Rand certainly believed that the United States benefits from a freer world. Thus, she held, America should speak up for dissidents everywhere who seek greater freedom. But Rand would only ever consider deploying the military where the rights of Americans hang in the balance -- when, in other words, it becomes an issue of self-defense. This critical distinction may well be lost on Ryan, if the media's parsing of his neoconservative leanings has been fair.

Perhaps as he gears up for the October vice-presidential debate, Ryan will consider re-reading Rand's work. Anyone seeking to inject more rational and more distinctively American ideas into our nation's chaotic foreign policy ought to seriously consider Ayn Rand's refreshingly clear-eyed perspective.

Bill Pugliano / Getty Images


Will Romney Discover His Inner Nixon?

The coming GOP fight between realists and neocons.

This past May, Colin Powell appeared on the Morning Joe show to plug his latest book, It Worked for Me. One thing that did not appear to be working for Powell that day, however, was Mitt Romney's candidacy for the U.S. presidency. Losing his customary cool, Powell, one of the last realist grandees in the Republican Party (along with Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger), expressed his vexation with Romney's proclivity for encircling himself with neocon advisors, not to mention declaring Russia America's No. 1 geopolitical enemy. "C'mon, Mitt, think!" Powell said.

Since then, however, Romney has expressed few thoughts that would suggest he is cogitating along Powell's lines. Rather, as he prepares to accept the Republican nomination in Tampa, Florida, Romney will likely denounce President Barack Obama in his acceptance speech as a supine and feckless leader abroad as well as at home, further bolstering the belief that he has been captured by the neocons. Bereft of any real ideas about foreign policy, Romney, like George W. Bush, has become a vessel for some of the most retrograde ideas about foreign affairs that a Republican candidate has ever advanced. Whether the issue is Israel or China, Romney, who has cloaked himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, repeatedly espouses truculent stances that would likely mire America in new conflicts. He has declared that he would brand China a currency manipulator, stated in June on Fox News Radio that Russia remains a "geopolitical foe," and pandered to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And though Romney advisor and prominent neocon Elliott Abrams is arguing that a congressional resolution authorizing force against Iran would be a neat idea, Romney himself says that the president doesn't need any such authorization, but can just go for it. As the Nation warned in May, "a comprehensive review of his statements during the primary and his choice of advisers suggests a return to the hawkish, unilateral interventionism of the George W. Bush administration should he win the White House in November."

Or does it? Is what has rapidly become the conventional wisdom correct? Is Romney a plaything of the neocons? Or might he actually revert to a more moderate and pragmatic tradition of Republicans that began with Dwight Eisenhower (something that I myself was skeptical about in 2010 in Foreign Policy)? Might Romney, to put it bluntly, discover his inner Nixon?

Given the somersaults that previous presidents have performed in moving from the campaign trail to the Oval Office, it's at least worth pondering whether Romney -- the preeminent flip-flopper of our time, after all -- might not perform yet another one. A potentially auspicious sign is that Romney has been longer on sweeping criticisms of Obama than on spelling out just where he would differ from the president. He has brayed about American exceptionalism, while hardly promising anything very exceptional. At most, he has backed a massive and antediluvian shipbuilding plan. While his campaign boasts a number of neocon stars, ranging from the intellectually deft Robert Kagan to the cantankerous John Bolton, he has also appointed Robert Zoellick, a bête noire of the neocons, to head his foreign-policy transition team. He has also successfully sought to water down some of the more reactionary planks that Tea Party types wanted to promulgate in the GOP's official platform, as FP has reported, such as officially jettisoning the two-state solution. In short, the right's fears about Romney -- that he is something of a squish -- may be justified not only on domestic policy, but also on foreign policy, the area where a president has the most unilateral authority as commander in chief.

Romney's evasiveness on foreign affairs has prompted a number of foreign-policy commentators to engage in the modern-day equivalent of the Roman practice of haruspicy. In the Washington Post, for example, David Ignatius discusses the Romney "enigma." In the National Interest, longtime defense reporter James Kitfield calls it "Romney's neocon puzzle." And on the right, Human Events frets, "When it comes to defense and foreign affairs, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has played strategy cards close to his chest for much of his campaign."

Indeed he has. One reason is that foreign affairs commands little interest in the 2012 election. For his part, Obama, as has been widely observed, stole the Republicans' neocon lunch money when he successfully killed Osama bin Laden. Romney may grouse that "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order" -- though during the 2008 campaign John McCain said unilateral action inside Pakistan was bonkers and that Obama's support for the idea showed his naiveté -- but Obama effectively stilled opposition on national security grounds by dispatching the al Qaeda chief. It's also the case that Obama, to the dismay of some of his supporters, has turned out to be much more of a -- dare one say it? -- neocon than they ever imagined. He retreated on closing the Guantánamo Bay prison. He upped the Predator drone program. And he backed the surge in Afghanistan.

The very fact that foreign affairs occupies so little prominence during the campaign suggests that Romney would, in common with most fledgling presidents, focus during his first year on domestic affairs -- tax cuts, the budget deficit, and unemployment. Foreign affairs would distinctly play second fiddle. Put otherwise, the notion that Romney would be thirsting for a new war -- a potential new Bay of Pigs, in other words -- at the outset of his presidency is questionable. As with so much concerning Romney, the more likely scenario is that his belligerent talk is simply cheap bluster that he has no intention of acting upon. Even Bush, for all his ranting about an "axis of evil," never had the cojones to take on either Iran or North Korea, settling instead for what he thought would be an easy, glittering victory in Iraq.

What's more, to assume that a Romney administration would be a simple rerun of the Bush years may be mistaken. For one thing, no one could play the role of Dick Cheney to Romney. Unlike Bush, Romney would hardly be inclined to place his presidency at the disposal of his running mate, Paul Ryan, who has no discernible foreign-policy experience, in stark contrast to previous Republican vice presidents such as Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Cheney. It's also the case that when it comes to cabinet-level positions, Romney would send a strong signal that he wasn't about to embark upon adventures abroad if Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass is appointed secretary of state. And it would be telling if the moderate Evan A. Feigenbaum, a co-chairman of Romney's Asia-Pacific working group, gets a plum post.

So the truth is that a replay of previous Republican administrations, with neocons duking it out against realists, may be the most likely outcome. Romney, like most of his Republican predecessors, would probably try to split the difference among the neocons, the realists, and the Tea Party types, all vying for the president's ear. Remember that Reagan, whom Romney constantly invokes, had a number of neocons inside his administration, including Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick, but when push came to shove, Reagan sided with realists such as Secretary of State Shultz, who emphasized diplomacy and alliances over bellicose unilateralism. George W. Bush himself reverted to this model in 2006, when he relied on Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice rather than the neocons. The open question, of course, is whether, after a decade of neocon suzerainty in the GOP, enough realists remaining standing to make a difference.

But perhaps the strongest argument for a moderate Romney is his own oleaginous character. In trying to stand for everything that Reagan stood for, Romney has ended up standing for nothing except his own personal advancement. The only thing that would be worse than Romney proclaiming things he doesn't believe is if he believed them. Yes, there's always the chance that Romney will feel forced to cater to the neocons and plunge America into a war with Iran -- which is why voters may end up deciding it's not worth taking the chance to find out whether he puts much credence in his own malarkey about creating a new American century.

Still, the odds are against it. Democrats who warn about Romney provoking China and Russia or bombing Iran may be engaging in their own form of threat inflation. All three are a sideshow next to the economy. Cautious and hard-nosed, shrewd and unprincipled, Romney is undoubtedly aware that the only way he can become a successful president is by fulfilling the right's worst fears about him. Romney, in other words, needs to pull an Obama. If he plays his cards right and jettisons his foreign-policy flapdoodle upon entering the Oval Office, Romney might even end up earning the grudging respect of moderates and liberals who will be as amazed at his transformation as they were aghast at Obama's morphing into a hawk. Perhaps even Colin Powell will be placated by his performance.

Eric Kayne/Getty Images