Ron Paul: how he can help and hurt the case for restraint abroad

In 2008, President Barack Obama’s watchword and promise was ‘change.’  But in 2012, if there is one significant change visionary offering a real departure from the status quo, it is Ron Paul.

In the realm of strategy, Obama has introduced some change. He is reshaping the US military away from major expeditionary land wars and towards standoff capabilities, such as drones, naval/air strikes, different forms of war such as cyber, and a renewed emphasis on burden shifting through training up allies and proxies.

But as Stephen Walt points out, while he is (sensibly, I think, given the austerity of the times) altering the ‘means’, his aim is fixed and indistinguishable from his predecessor and from US grand strategy in the past few decades – unchallengeable primacy:

 …the “leaner” military budget revealed yesterday does not herald a fundamental change in our overall approach to the rest of the world. The United States will still be spending several times more on national security than any other single country, and more than the top ten or so nations combined.

Our strategic attention will shift toward Asia and away from protracted counter-insurgency efforts (decisions that I applaud), but the United States will still be a preponderant power, will still maintain an extensive array of military bases around the world, and will still be strongly disposed to interfere in other nation’s affairs.

We may be using somewhat different tools (i.e., drones and special forces rather than large occupying armies), but these are tactical rather than strategic adjustments.

By contrast, Ron Paul advocates withdrawal, retrenchment, demilitarisation of foreign policy, non-interference and even the end of foreign aid.

Ron Paul’s candidacy is both good and bad for the debate. Good, because at least a non-trivial candidate is arguing the case for greater restraint:

 Unlike most foreign policy “experts” in both parties, Paul believes the United States is an extraordinarily secure country, with a robust nuclear deterrent, no powerful enemies nearby, and at present no major power rivals of much significance. He instinctively rejects the paranoia and worst-casing that has convinced Americans that we need to roam around the world trying to remake it in our image (a task, by the way, that we’re not very good at). He believes that excessive interventionism and other failed policies are a primary cause of anti-Americanism around the world, and that the United States would be more popular and safer if we focused more attention on trade and diplomacy and domestic issues instead of emphasizing military dominance and overseas meddling. He believes that a bloated national security state and a quasi-imperial foreign policy inevitably fosters greater government secrecy and erodes traditional restraints on executive power. And like former president (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thinks the current military-industrial complex wields excessive influence on our politics and has become a self-perpetuating engine for counter-productive meddling abroad.

But it is also bad, not only because his inflammatory record on other issue (apparently including race) could taint the case for restraint with the accusation of provincial isolationism, but because Paul is essentially an isolationist. This is bad news, because it makes it harder than ever to distinguish other more restrained strategies (such as Concert/Balance ones, which look for a middle ground between dominance and isolation) from the kind of insularity that Paul is accused of.


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