Paul Ryan’s most forceful statement of his views emphasizes the limits on our foreign policy that our national indebtedness will occasion. This is a principled position the Obama administration wholly lacks, running deficits of a trillion dollars a year. Paul Ryan’s budget reduces defense spending, but unlike President Obama, he does not reduce only defense spending. The Obama administration has cut defense in order to fund other spending priorities; Paul Ryan argues for cuts to defense as a contribution to putting our country back on sound financial footing. There is a difference, and it is a difference of principle.
Representative Ryan does seem to have a predilection for basing his policy choices on “foundational principles.” Just as his arguments for putting our entitlement programs on sound footing are tied to the bigger ideas of what kind of future we want our country to have, his arguments for our foreign policy are tied to what kind of world we want to live in — the bigger ideas of advancing freedom and helping build institutions that preserve it. Colleagues on the left find this dangerous because they believe those ideas got the country in trouble the last time a President cared about advancing freedom. But the idea of advancing freedom has long been fundamental to American foreign policy, building support domestically for engagement with the world and reducing resistance internationally to what the U.S. seeks to achieve.
Idealism matters to Americans because, in truth, nearly all our wars are voluntary and our citizens are difficult to motivate to war. We are much more comfortable making the world safe for democracy, ending fascism, and advancing our values than we are risking our sons and daughters for causes that are difficult to square with the kind of society we want to live in ourselves.