In the wake of Rep. Paul Ryan's
selection as the Republican vice presidential nominee, there has been intense
interest in his views and experience. Some of this has produced long profiles,
rich in detail, that mostly save their editorializing until the very end, as
with Ryan Lizza's well-timed piece
in the New Yorker. Lizza focused heavily on Rep. Ryan's free market philosophy
and his extensive work on fiscal reform.
Other pieces have gone after Rep.
Ryan's foreign policy credentials, sometimes neglecting the importance of his
grasp of economic matters. My view may be affected by my upbringing as an
economist, but this seems an odd critique at a time when economic concerns and
globalization are at the forefront of international discourse. From this
perspective, Rep. Ryan is well equipped to lead on these issues.
While I have advised both the
McCain and Romney campaigns, my only personal connection to Rep. Ryan (aside
from a common Southern Wisconsin origin) came when I had the privilege to
testify before the House Ways and Means Committee on U.S. economic policy
toward China. The questions and comments from Rep. Ryan at those hearings were
at least as astute as those from any other member of Ways and Means, or any that
I received at House Foreign Affairs hearings on the same topic. Rep. Ryan's intelligence,
studious approach, and grasp of economic principles serve him very well in this
Nor can one argue that international
economic issues constitute only a trivial part of our foreign policy. One
measure of the relative importance of these issues is the extent to which they
preoccupy our allies. Eurozone diplomats are obsessed right now with questions
of fiscal reform and growth. European Union ambassadors and visiting ministers
express great interest in tighter economic integration with the United States.
Japan's prime minister has risked fracturing his party to pursue membership in
the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP itself was a Bush-era initiative revived
by President Obama when he headed off to Asia in November 2009 and realized it
would be hard to have a fruitful discussion with Asian leaders if he had no
international commercial policy.
This all suggests that Rep. Ryan is
well-positioned to take on some of our most difficult and important security
issues. But what has he specifically done
in this area, besides asking good questions? He has prominently supported the
idea of a Middle East Free Trade Agreement, another Bush-era initiative, albeit
one that has yet to be revived by the current administration. This support of
MEFTA inspired a particularly strained
critique of Ryan's qualifications in these same (virtual) pages.
The critique argued MEFTA was based
on the flawed premise that free trade agreements promote democracy and the rule
of law. It claimed the persistence of autocratic regimes in the region is proof
that the approach was a failure. Even if evidence suggests free trade is
accompanied by democratization, the argument continued, we know that
correlation does not imply causality. The critique concluded that Rep. Ryan's
principled stance in favor of free trade should be interpreted as "a willful
aversion to nuance... that tells us a lot about Paul Ryan." The only evidence
offered of aversion to nuance is Ryan's positive take on the role of free trade
in Colombia and Peru.
The lack of nuanced understanding
here seems to be on the critic's part. The piece implies that only a blind
faith in the power of trade flows undergirds the claims of ‘rule of law' and
democratization benefits. In fact, high standards free trade agreements of the
sort used by the United States and the European Union include specific
provisions about legal process and transparency. They go well beyond mutual
agreement to eliminate tariffs.
The particular example of Peru actually
provides strong evidence in support of Rep. Ryan's claim. The argument that we
must look beyond simple correlations is well taken, of course, but it has been
done in the Peruvian case. Just after the trade agreement between Peru and the
United States came into force, I went to Lima to interview
a range of influential Peruvians, including former negotiators, academics, and
business leaders. They described the agreement's rule of law benefits as one of
the top reasons they sought the agreement and argued that its benefits extended
well beyond expanded trade flows (Peru already had largely duty-free access to
the U.S. market before the agreement ever came into force). The critique misses
the extent to which FTAs with developing countries are about policy credibility
and encouraging investment, rather than border barriers.
The argument that the persistence
of illiberal regimes in the Middle East discredits MEFTA is particularly weak.
First, Rep. Ryan and MEFTA proponents argued only that it was a "carrot" that would
encourage reform. That's not the same as claiming that it is a panacea that completely
transforms any country it touches. Imagine if domestic programs were considered
discredited any time they failed to cure social ills completely. Second, the
author counts repression of dissent in Saudi Arabia against MEFTA, though he
notes that the United States does not, in fact, have an FTA with Saudi Arabia.
This further demonstrates the critique's tenuous grasp of what FTAs actually do
(equating them solely with ample trade flows or lower trade barriers).
Finally, the critique falls into
the same trap that much of the trade and democracy literature does, treating
democracy as a discrete variable, rather than a more continuous measure. The
critique thus argues that Hong Kong, with abundant trade, is "far from
democratic." But how far? And does anyone think Hong Kong would be allowed more
democratic freedoms if it were not a major commercial hub?
Mainland China is not democratic by
any stretch of the imagination, but excessively crude measures of democratic
progress can indicate that no progress has been made since the Cultural
Revolution. In fact, China's integration into the world economy has been
accompanied by substantially greater freedoms, even if the country has a long
way to go. As I argued here,
there is good reason to think that the linkage is causal.
It is hardly a surprise that there should be
efforts to discredit a vice presidential candidate in a highly charged
political season, but on free trade and foreign policy, Paul Ryan has it right.
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