A year before Mitt Romney picked him as a running mate, Paul Ryan gave a speech in which he discussed the promise and peril of the Arab Spring. "It's too soon to tell whether these revolutions will result in governments that respect the rights of their citizens or in one form of autocracy ... supplanting another," he said. "While we work to assure the former, American policy should be realistic about our ability to avert the latter."
More generally, Ryan said, "American policy should be tempered by a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions." It was hard to discern any such reticence in this week's presidential debate, during which Romney agreed with President Obama that the U.S. government has a duty to liberate and pacify the world, by force of arms if necessary.
I say "debate" because that is what they called it, but there was almost no disagreement about the ends or means of U.S. foreign policy. "I absolutely believe," Romney said, "that America has a responsibility and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that make the world more peaceful." Obama agreed that "America remains the one indispensable nation, and the world needs a strong America."
That may sound flattering to American ears, but to many people around the world it has the ring of arrogance. "If we're an arrogant nation," George W. Bush warned during the 2000 presidential campaign, "they'll resent us."
Back then, Bush presented Republicans as less meddlesome than Democrats. He recommended a more "humble" foreign policy and expressed disdain for nation building, saying, "I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is the way it's got to be.'"
Obama and Romney are. "We have to help these nations create civil societies," Romney said. Obama concurred, even while incongruously declaring that "we can't continue to do nation building in these regions."
As Bush did after 9/11, when he launched two enormously expensive nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, Romney and Obama rationalize American intervention as necessary to prevent terrorism. To discourage violent extremism, they say, we must encourage democracy, the rule of law, equal rights for women and religious minorities, free markets, economic development and strong educational systems.
These are all good things. But that does not mean it is the U.S. government's proper function to accomplish them in other countries, and the attempt to do so can backfire, feeding the resentment that fosters terrorism and empowering its perpetrators.