The Republican presidential primaries are well under way. The field has been whittled down to four candidates: Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney as the current front-runner.
Regarding foreign policy, most of the candidates share some basic principles: that the world is a better, safer place when America leads; that America can—and should—continue to have economic, diplomatic and moral leadership in the world; and, in the tradition of Barry Goldwater, “insisting on strength is not war-mongering—it’s peace-mongering.” But there is one outlier: Ron Paul.
The staunch libertarian, Air Force veteran, and soon to be ex-congressman from Texas has captivated a significant amount of Republican primary voters winning 21.4% of the vote in Iowa and 22.9% in New Hampshire. According to a recent Gallup poll, Paul does disproportionately well with 18-29 year olds. This may not help him get elected since the youth vote is historically unreliable. Yet, the most interesting demographic that supports Ron Paul, significantly more than any other GOP candidate and Barack Obama, are United States military servicemen.
This is the same Ron Paul who believes the United States brought the tragedies of 9/11 onto itself because of interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East. He often cites Osama bin Laden’s grievance of US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia as the primary reason the United States was attacked. Throughout the debates he has railed against the GOP candidates’ hawkishness towards Iran.
Rather, he blames US intervention in Iran, by supporting the undemocratically imposed Shah in 1953, as the primary reason for the troubled relationship and regards Iran’s behavior as a natural response to American meddling.
Under Paul’s presidency, all foreign aid—even Israel’s—would be eliminated. This goes farther than ex-candidate Rick Perry who said that the default foreign aid for all countries would be zero dollars, but then immediately pronounced Israel as a special exception. He has repeatedly said that as president he would shutdown all military bases located within foreign countries and place the personnel on America’s borders. In sum, he believes that America’s foreign policy has made the world more hostile and dangerous towards America.
At the same time, Ron Paul believes that the spread of American values such as liberty, representative government, and free markets are good for the world and America. However these values are best projected by example rather than by the barrel of a gun. He trumpets free trade with all nations, but has consistently rejected free trade agreements like NAFTA citing them as subsidized or managed trade rather than actual free trade.
Therefore, calling Ron Paul an isolationist, as many of his critics have, is wholly inaccurate. Rather, he is a non-interventionist in almost every sense of the word. Nothing should interfere in states’ affairs and nothing should interfere with free trade. Ron Paul’s America would take off the police badge and put up an “open for business” sign. Ron Paul is no dove either. He signed bills authorizing military action against al Qaeda. Under his presidency, the United States would use its geography and rely on its unrivaled military backed up by nuclear weapons to deter any sort of external aggression or attack and would readily respond to any such incident (but only after receiving permission from Congress, of course). This has attracted cautious praise and admiration from foreign policy realists like Harvard’s Stephen Walt.
So what’s wrong with Ron Paul’s foreign policy vision? First, there is a close relationship between free trade and the deployment of US forces abroad, particularly the Navy. According to the US Navy’s “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” the world’s waterways (oceans, rivers, seas, bays, etc) “support 90% of the world’s trade, it carries the lifeblood of a global system that links every country on earth.” Additionally, free trade does not imply safe or legal trade. Piracy is still an issue even with naval fleets deployed in the Gulf of Aden. Additionally, the illegal shipments of arms and WMD technology is a rising threat to international security requiring no less than a worldwide maritime security apparatus—a feat that cannot be accomplished without the participation of the US Navy. Simply put, global trade and open markets exist to the extent that they do because the United States of America allows it to.
Additionally, Ron Paul misinterprets the significance of the 9/11 attacks. Yes, the origins of 9/11 can be traced to the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s where the US contributed a significant amount of arms and money to the mujahedin that would become al Qaeda. And yes the 1991 Gulf crisis, where hundreds of thousands of US troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield (the precursor to Desert Storm), was a watershed moment that set Osama bin Laden on an irreconcilable course to waging jihad against the United States.
However, the most significant takeaway from 9/11 is not that it was partially due to our policies. Rather, 9/11 demonstrated that being surrounded by two oceans and having the best military arsenal cannot prevent or deter attacks by non-state actors. This is the new threat that will dominate the international system as a whole. Peace and continued prosperity cannot exist without cooperation between America and her allies. America’s armed forces will not be sufficient, but they will be a necessary part of the solution. Retracting into the homeland will not make the threat go away nor will it make the world any safer for commerce and trade.
Converting the American armed forces into a national defense force may do much to secure America’s borders. However, the global presence of the United States’ armed forces is what would enable Ron Paul’s vision for a more peaceful, more prosperous world to materialize.
Ron Paul is an idealist and it is safe to assume he will not end up in the White House. Think what you will of his economic and foreign policy philosophies, he has been an excellent addition to the national debate and has kept his GOP counterparts in check, particularly Newt Gingrich. Most of his supporters do not agree with every one of his stances. Libertarianism offers a fairly diverse spectrum of thought and Ron Paul is representative of just one type of brand. Nonetheless, his legacy will be the ideas he has introduced into the national dialogue, and our men and women in uniform believe it’s worth a listen.
Joshua Alvarez is a senior International Relations major and president of the Alexander Hamilton Society. He is currently working on a thesis “Turkey’s Grand Strategy” for the CISAC undergraduate honors program. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.