Paul Ryan puts his stamp on GOP foreign policy

Paul Ryan puts his stamp on GOP foreign policy
© Cameron Lancaster

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone Overnight Regulation: FTC to probe Facebook over user data | FDA takes step to regulating flavors in tobacco products | Congress may include background check measure in funding bill Judge rules FEC wrongly dismissed complaint against conservative group MORE is putting his stamp on Republican foreign policy, a departure for a GOP leader who for much of his career has been focused on domestic policy.

Ryan just completed his first foreign trip as Speaker, visiting Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The trip amplified a foreign policy vision that will compete with the one coming from Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpKoch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp Anti-abortion Dem wins primary fight Lipinski holds slim lead in tough Illinois primary fight MORE, the frontrunner for the GOP’s presidential nomination.

Ryan didn’t run away from that comparison when he returned to the United States and spoke to reporters about his trip, saying global leaders specifically thanked him for pushing back against Trump's call for a temporary ban on all Muslims coming to the U.S. 

“It shouldn’t be my job...but when you see our beliefs, our values and conservatism’s principles being disfigured, you have to speak out for it if you’re a party leader,” Ryan said. 

The 46-year-old Speaker is much better known for his work on the budget, entitlements and taxes that foreign policy. As chairman of the House Budget Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan rarely entered the fray of foreign policy.

An exception, and one that draws another contrast with Trump, is his longtime support for free-trade policies, which Trump argues has led to the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

Trump has broken with Republican foreign policy orthodoxy in just about every area, calling for an end to oil shipments from Saudi Arabia, arguing the U.S. should consider leaving NATO and suggesting that Japan and South Korea go nuclear.

The suggestions have unnerved leaders around the globe, who have raised questions about Trump and his agenda to Ryan as well as President Obama.

Ryan, in contrast, is calling for more global engagement — and U.S. leadership — in the region. That’s an implicit criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, but also suggests a different path from Trump’s.

“At the end of the day, the common theme that is desperately needed is a strong America, that’s the way I see it,” Ryan said. “A strong America leading with our allies in a strategic way to deal with the threats and the challenges right in front of us.

“They want to know America is strong; that we’re going to lead, and if a vacuum occurs, it is not filled by good things,” he added. 

Foreign policy experts say it is clear that Ryan, the highest Republican office holder in the country, is trying to send the message that U.S. policy — and Republican policy — will not be determined by Trump alone even if he becomes the nominee.

“If there's a chance Trump will be the nominee — it is traditional that the presidential nominee of the party is also the leading spokesperson for foreign policy,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science and public policy professor.

“Paul Ryan is carving out territory. He's saying, ‘I don't know who's going to be the nominee, but I do know who is going to be the Speaker of the House,’” Feaver added.

Ryan is also signaling the GOP’s message on foreign policy going forward if it fails to win the White House, argues Daniel Drezner,  professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. 

“It’s almost a holding pattern for what the party would look like in 2017 if neither Cruz or Trump wins the election,” he said. “Much in the same way that after the 1992 election Bob Dole was the leader of the Republican Party, or after 2010 John BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner4 reasons Mike Pompeo will succeed at Foggy Bottom The misunderstood reason Congress can’t get its job done GOP sees McCarthy moving up — if GOP loses the House MORE was the leader of the Republican Party. 

“It’s clear that after 2016, assuming that it’s not a complete and total Democratic rout, Paul Ryan will end up being the titular leader of the Republican Party,” said Drezner.

“The only other elected official would be...Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senator blocking Trump's Intel nominee Spending bill delay raises risk of partial government shutdown support GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone MORE.” 

The conservative foreign policy establishment is worried about what Trump could mean for the party and the country.

“I am certainly very worried that a Trump presidency will be very bad news for the national security interests of the United States,” said Thomas Donnelly, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

“He's thrown a bunch of cow pies into every important state power relationship that we have,” said Donnelly, who was a signatory of a letter published last month by Republican foreign policy establishment figures opposing Trump. 

The foreign policy push is also good politics for Ryan, who has ruled out running for president in 2016 but could be a favorite in 2020.

Since returning from his trip, the Speaker has already sent a strong signal on one hot-button issue: legislation that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is lobbying hard against the bill and threatened to sell off U.S. assets if it is approved. Ryan, who met with King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and the king's son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during his trip, on Tuesday voiced skepticism over the bill.

Ryan has also sought to set limits on military engagement, setting him apart from the policies of the George W. Bush administration. 

“I’m not a neocon,” he told reporters after his trip. “I believe we need to be consistent in professing our values. Like talking human rights for instance…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 those values.”

Donnelly joked that as a "card-carrying neo-con, I'm deeply offended, but hardly for the first time." 

But, he added, “It's almost a political necessity to say that he's not a neo-con...I have a fair amount of faith the Speaker represents a traditional approach to the use of American power in the world.”