Defining Real Freedom and Prosperity

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Defining Real Freedom and Prosperity

May 24, 2023 About an hour read
Kevin D. Roberts, PhD


Heritage Trustee since 2023
Carolyn Ann Ryan/Getty Images

At the core of America lies a set of guiding principles of free enterprise and a strong national defense.

Will Ruger, President of the American Institute for Economic Research, joins the show to cast his vision for effectively protecting American interests, its citizens and institutions without needless bloodletting, while securing a future of economic stability.

Will Ruger: They wanted to rebuild the Balkans and do Somalia ultimately remake the Middle East as a whole. And this argument that Iraq was just about WMDs is post-hoc. The people in the room knew the right decisions to ask about that intelligence. And the people outside of that used it as a crutch. This was about a bigger thing and that project is fundamentally anti-conservative.

Kevin Roberts: Welcome back to the Kevin Roberts Show. Thanks so much for joining us this week and every week. You’re in for a real treat. Given our guest this week, my friend of many years now, Dr. Will Ruger is currently the president of the American Institute for Economic Research. Today, we’re going to cover economics, foreign policy, this little conflict in Ukraine, where the conservative movement is going.

We’ll probably even talk about school choice in our favorite state, Texas. But all that to say, Will, thanks for making the effort to be here and for joining me.

Ruger: Thanks for having me.

Roberts: So, how did you get into doing what you’re doing? I told you off camera that we’re going to get into some heady stuff, foreign policy, economics as I just mentioned. I definitely want our audience to know about the work that you’re doing at the institute. But I’ve always been intrigued about and genuinely just as a friend, your personal story, your commitment to this country. But what is it that has in your lifetime that’s caused you to be so motivated to do what you do?

Ruger: Well, I started out my career as a scholar. I was a political-

Roberts: And in spite of that, you’re a good guy.

Ruger: Yeah. I was tenured radical, even, right, down at Texas State University. But I was a scholar at the beginning of my career, for most of my career. But I always had an interest in not just the study of political science, of international relations, of political theory, but actually how that gets translated into the real world. I’ve always thought that it’s important to connect up and to be... and I’ve been always interested in social and political change. And so, even when I was a professor, I wrote a book with a colleague of mine called Freedom in the 50 States that looks at the various states and ranks them on different types of variables.

So, even though it was a scholarly approach to the subject, it was very much connected to that policy world. The other thing is that I’ve also been interested on the practitioner side. And I’m patriotic. I’m old-fashioned that way. My grandfather was in the Battle of the Bulge and I have a family history of military service.

So, when I already had my PhD family, white picket fence, all that stuff, I joined the Navy Reserve. And part of that was my goal was to go to Afghanistan and contribute to our effort there. And so, I’ve had this career as an academic, as a navy, as a sailor and then I had an opportunity to come to Washington about a decade ago, which I did and got more involved in what’s happening here. And now I’m at the American Institute for Economic Research heading up what I think is going to be a great contributor, already is a great contributor to the world of ideas and to the practical realities of our country’s future.

Roberts: Well, I’ll underscore that it is and I will talk about that here momentarily. I just want to be really clear for our audience. You did go to Afghanistan, you achieved your goal?

Ruger: Yeah. Look for people who know some of my history like you do, you know that I believed in the original mission. I thought it was important for the United States after 911 to do three things. We needed to punish the Taliban for their state support of Al-Qaeda. We needed to attrit, decimate Al-Qaeda as an effective terrorist organization with the intent and capability to harm us. And we needed to kill Osama bin Laden or capture him.

And I think it worked out well. Those were the three goals we needed to. But I got involved in the movement to get us out of this forever war because I thought that our war aims had crept beyond what was necessary to meet our national interests. And we’ll get more into this. But our foreign policy should be fundamentally rooted in what is good for the United States, what helps us stay safe, protect the conditions of our prosperity and protect our liberal democratic system here at home, our Republican form of constitutional government.

That’s what we need to do. Not do social work, not do democracy promotion in places that are sketchy in terms of their commitment to the values we have and not sacrifice American blood and treasure for things that aren’t connected to those vital national interests. So, I believed our mission was necessary in Afghanistan to achieve those goals, but then it crept. It went well beyond that. And so, I thought that it was important to fight back against that.

Fortunately, under President Trump, we had the Doha agreement and then President Biden dithered but eventually I think did the right thing. Now, again, they implemented it terribly.

Roberts: The withdrawal.

Ruger: Right. The withdrawal. But the decision itself was supportive of the national interest and that’s why President Trump supported it and so many other people in this city did as well.

Roberts: Well, we’re going to talk a lot about foreign policy. So, I guess I’ll caution in the audience. You and I, because of our familiarity, are going to hopscotch through some topics, which is usually how our email threads, phone calls, in-person conversations go. So, for the audience, you’ve been warned. We’re going to come back to foreign policy.

Ruger: Yeah. Absolutely.

Roberts: Which was the real reason to have you on. But the reason that I want to just press pause on that is because I don’t want to give short shrift to the American Institute for Economic Research.

Ruger: Sure.

Roberts: It’s really important for people to know, as you mentioned, an overview of the work that you do, but also because the institution is already a very important one on the center-right in American politics under your leadership not being patronizing. It’s not something that I do. It’s already expanding. So, tell us about that work before we get back to form.

Ruger: Sure. And I’m very proud of what we do at our institution. We educate people about the values of economic freedom, of individual liberty, of sound money, of limited government, of property rights, these principles that I think go to the core of what America has been all about. And that’s why we focus on those things. We were founded in 1933. So, we’re one of the oldest research institutions, independent research institutions in the country.

Founded by a military man. So, it’s interesting that I’m there now. He worked for MacArthur in the Philippines in World War II. He was a veteran... sorry, he was an army officer who was fed up by what was going on in the country in terms of our economic policies, particularly when it came to monetary policy. And so, we founded the institute in Cambridge, Mass.

We eventually moved out to Great Barrington, Massachusetts. But we do three basic things within that broader mission, which you might call a right-of-center, classical liberal, very traditionally American conservative argument I think or approach. We do three things. We look at monetary economics. Unfortunately, it’s bad for our country, but it’s been good for AIER to be able to weigh in on this.
But we talk about the causes and consequences of inflation. We look at what are the ideal types of monetary policy and how can we get towards those. We look at certain financial indicators there. So, that’s one of our three pillars. Our second is economics and economic freedom.

So, we use price theory, Austrian economics, public choice theory. We use economics to look at public policy issues that relate to economic freedom and that could be across the board. But a lot of emphasis on regulation and some of the problems you see from Baptist and bootlegger coalitions that form and some of the problems of regulation and stymieing the American economy, which we see all too much. So, that’s our third pillar. And our third is our newest, which we call defending freedom and combating collectivism.
And what we do in this pillar and this is headed up by a mutual friend of ours, Sam Gregg, is we’re really looking at some of the biggest threats to freedom today. And unfortunately, there are so many and we try to make sure we have a focus. But one of the big ones is ESG, right? This is highly destructive of the proper role of business in society. And so, we’re trying to combat this and really emphasize the notion that business has a purpose.

It’s to provide customers with value. It’s to provide shareholder value when it comes to publicly traded companies. It’s that old-fashioned Milton Friedman approach. And it’s not that your business needs to be involved in woke politics. It doesn’t need to be involved in trying to save the world oftentimes because not to dork out a little bit, but it doesn’t have the kind of, we might say, epistemological basis to do so. In other words, it doesn’t have the knowledge to know how to best do that. It knows-

Roberts: You can dork out, by the way.

Ruger: Sure.

Roberts: It’s one of the reasons we’re the long-term podcast.

Ruger: But Levi’s or Disney, they should focus on what they know best, make jeans, provide great entertainment for kids that’s wholesome.

Roberts: Imagine that.

Ruger: Yeah. Exactly. Walt Disney did that. We all love those old shows, right? Don’t focus on those things that are really outside of your purview, especially when you’re doing it in a way to virtue signal or because you’ve been captured by your HR department or left-wing ideology. And again, I’m a free market guy. I think businesses should be able to choose what they want to do.

But as a shareholder, I think you’d want to insist that you focus on the reason why you probably bought that stock in the first place. So, we do ESG. We also, we’ve had a great scholar, Phil Magnus, who works on the 1619 project. He and that project have been at odds for a little while and it’s fun to see the back and forth. But Phil’s right about this, the 1619 project is a travesty.

And it’s part of an overarching, I think that is destructive of the individualism of the proper individualism of the American experience. The one that de Tocqueville talked about. Not a kind of individualism that’s anti-community or that is a stereotype, but an embedded liberal individualism of families and civil society. But ultimately that it’s individualist in the sense that we think all individuals have moral dignity. We want to protect their rights and they’re embedded in these communities.

And we’re going to be best if we trust the individual within the confines of the law and that we make sure that individuals are protected to live their lives as they see fit without Washington telling them to.

Roberts: Thank you for that explanation. I want to key in on the first couple of parts of... or your first couple of pillars of monetary policy and economics. Although you know me well enough to know I really want to go down the Tocqueville path. Maybe we’ll hopscotch to that before the end of the episode. After we talk about foreign policy.

Because I know a lot of the audience want to hear your thoughts on that. But on monetary policy, are you at all even slightly optimistic that we’re going to get the political left, the center and the political right to understand that what we’re living through right now in 2023 is the direct results of really bad monetary policy, really bad actions by the government. Or like me and I’m an optimist, I’m fairly pessimistic that they’ve learned their lessons.

Ruger: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a lot of decay in American society that makes me worried. I’m just old enough to have memories of the ‘70s and how that seemed similar to some of the things we’re seeing today. And one of the things about the ‘70s was stagflation. It was gas lines, stagflation, garbage all over the road until people said, don’t mess with Texas. And you felt there was a feeling of decay coming out of the late 1960s, early ‘70s.

But I hope that we can have a revival in our country. And I’m a short-term pessimist, long-term optimist, maybe.

Roberts: That’s a good way to put in.

Ruger: We had the Reagan Revolution. You had Morning in America by 1984. We win the Cold War at the end of the ‘80s. So, hopefully, we can turn it around. But I am worried about the fact that we don’t seem to learn a lot of these lessons.

And this time I’m worried because I’m not sure that our culture that undergirds our society is as strong and resilient as it was. And so, again, that’s why I think we need to... people talk about these culture wars and then sometimes people make fun of it as if this is a distraction. No, I think a lot of the cultural issues are actually the ones that are going to be necessary to reground our country so that we can take off and get back on the path that we were. On the particular issue of this, the reason I bring this story up about the ‘70s is that we did wake up. Part of that was because we had Paul Volcker and he understood what needed to happen.

And I think that was... he played an important individual role. And then, you had a President, President Reagan, who obviously suffered because the economy was hurt by this in the short run. But we did get our act together. And I’d like to think that we can do that again. However, the political incentives are such that there’s a lot of folks that don’t want to maybe do what is necessary because they worry about the short-term economic and political cost of maybe doing that.

And so, you always have to worry where short-run political incentives overcome what’s good for our country in the long run. And that’s why it’s important that places like AIER and Heritage and others that we keep sounding the clarion, this is a mistake. This is bad. We need to stop. We need to be making sure that there’s a pressure put upon these actors.

We need to have the better ideas, which is what our institutions do, but we also need to make sure that people are engaged and that every man in America is armed and equipped to participate in our process, to put pressure on folks and hopefully we can signal. Again, the Federal Reserve is somewhat insulated from politics intentionally. And so, there may be some limits if the bad ideas continue. I know my team is pretty wise about what a better policy, a set of institutions would be to manage our money policy. And I fear that these people don’t believe in those, the folks that are engaged on this.

But I guess in one sense, we could say we could be fortunate because there is a feedback mechanism. Inflation goes up if they do the wrong thing. And what that means is the American public is going to start screaming. I mean they already are. The problem is they have some people like Senator Warren talking about how inflation is because of greedy companies.

Well, the common joke is, well, when they lower prices is that because they change, they’re less greedy. I mean, it’s silly, right?

Roberts: I don’t think we can expect that from Senator Warren.

Ruger: No. But again, if the American public starts to realize that the problem is in our monetary and political authorities as opposed to simply greedy companies or whatnot. I mean, again, I hope we can get back to it, but I agree with you. There are real structural reasons why you can see the incentives line up in a way that we won’t handle this the way we should, that we will continue to have maybe not 6.5%, 7% or 8.5% inflation, but we’ll still have inflation that’s too high. And that creates problems downstream in the economy. I do worry about that 1970s redux.

Roberts: That was at the similarities are already eerie and hopefully we don’t go down that path. I am just old enough too, to remember them. A lot of follow-up questions I might ask, but the one that occurs to me is because you’ve invoked this a couple of times in your response, Will. The wisdom of the American people, the feedback mechanism, the will of the people, the gravest pessimists on the political right, good people, but they’re just pessimistic, say, “Kevin, what AIER and Heritage and other right of center groups are doing is really good. We’re supportive.

But ultimately we think the American people may be too far gone because of a really poor education system and from being conditioned into accepting on a good day, mediocrity.” What’s your response to that? Because that’s a heartfelt pessimism.

Ruger: No. And I think some of that pessimism is grounded in some real realities about the problems of our country. I think there has been cultural decay and we see this. I think you can’t... and again, I mentioned a simple thing like garbage in the streets. And it’s not the end of the world, but it’s a sign of something else. I was in Pittsfield last year, which is a place that is in Western Mass that’s suffered from some of the structural changes in the world economy.

And someone walked out of a bank and just threw the slip on the ground. It’s that kind of thing where you’re not considerate of your community. You don’t care. You don’t have pride in your community. You don’t have respect.

Those are things that... again, this is a one-off thing, but I think we see it in a lot of places. I don’t think it’s the fault of a free society because a free society doesn’t have to be degenerative. If you have a strong foundation, strong values in our communities, in our families, strong civil society that helps educate the next generation on things like propriety to try to live a virtuous life and what that virtuous life means. And a confidence that there’s a big T truth that we could try to seek.

And that values are not just a free for all. I mean, again, it’s that soft relativism that I’ve worried about for a long time that I think is a corrosive of the foundations of a free society. I’m an old-fashioned fusionist in that sense and think that freedom is important. But so are a strong set of values that undergird freedom. And one of the reasons why I believe in freedom as well is it allows people to become virtuous.
You have to flex those muscles. And I think that one of the problems I have with some conservative solutions to our cultural problems is a desire for a short-term policy fix as opposed to that long run, educational, social, truly social change we need to have staying power that could allow for true virtue. Because if something isn’t freely chosen, it’s not virtuous. It might have good effects, but it’s not necessarily virtuous. So, I want to have those things be married, a strong sense of freedom, a strong sense of virtue.

Roberts: Is it your sense that the conservative movement as it were, is reckoning with that productively right now?

Ruger: I mean, there are tensions, right? I mean, I think all of the institutions on the right of center appreciate the collectivist dangers that are coming from the left. And we need to do more together to combat that I think.

Roberts: Yeah. A lot of opportunity there. A lot of need and opportunity.

Ruger: Right. But I also think that there’s some tensions that are probably healthy. Now, again, I would love if everybody in the conservative movement would adopt the AIER program. Maybe not because I have enough humility to know that we could be wrong.

Roberts: You’re also enough of a contrarian that I think you like the disagreement, right?

Ruger: Yeah. Well, I think there’s a healthy tension.

Roberts: Very friendly contrarian.

Ruger: Yeah. But I think there’s probably some healthy tension. We need to wrestle with things. I think for too long, for example, we didn’t think about public administration. There’s nothing that violates the libertarian canon even that says that when government does something like running public schools, that we should just hand it off to the experts and that it would be improper for government to manage government. So, the idea for example, that whether it’s at the local level, school board level, even in some cases where it might be appropriate at the state level, that there should be input from the public.

And how we go about providing public services should be a discussion of publics and governments. I think that we need to remember that and focus on it. And I think that we want to be careful, I think about constraining areas that are outside of the proper role of government. But I loved it when I saw what happened out in Loudoun last year when parents got involved and said, “Wait a second, if we’re going to have... we have these public schools. We ought to have some say in this.”

And how we deal with children isn’t a matter of the same type of philosophical discussion that you have among what adults should be able to do. I mean, what adults should be able to purchase at Barnes and Nobles or less reputable businesses is a different story than what the public libraries should have or what should be in the schools. And I think that those are where I think some of these struggles have been probably good on the right to remind us that we still have to pay attention to public administration.

On the other hand, there are some areas where I do worry. I do worry about the trade issue for example. Now, I think it’s perfectly reasonable given the rise in power of China and some of the issues there where you have a tech theft, IP protection issues, dual-use technology issues, those are real concerns. And even Adam Smith understood that. So, it’s not a violation of free market economics to be worried about those security concerns.

But we do have to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I do think that the United States, again, should be... to benefits from a robust trade system because we win a lot of those. I know mean economics isn’t a zero-sum game, but in the sense that these are mutually beneficial.

So, for example, I would love to see a free trade agreement between the United States and the UK because I think that would be mutually beneficial for both of us. It doesn’t touch on some of the tougher challenges of a trade agreement with Vietnam where there are different types of political economy challenges.

Roberts: It’s a wonderful idea, by the way, which everyone here at Heritage would support.

Ruger: Yeah. So, again, I mean, let’s try to find some of that low-hanging fruit where we can agree. But again, there are some people that maybe want to use government a little bit more than I would, but I think it’s good for us to have these arguments right now. Let’s do that, so that the next time there are people in office that would be more friendly to the types of ideas. I mean, we’re a C3 organization. We’re not doing advocacy, but we certainly want these ideas to be taken off the shelf the next time there’s a chance.

Roberts: So, one of the tensions in the conservative movement, one that you and I are part of and I think in a productive way, is foreign policy. I would say that you were among the first people on the political right whom I respected who in your very good way as a professor, teacher, suggested to me that there needed to be an updating of thinking as conservatives. Because of, as you mentioned earlier, experience in Afghanistan, supporting the original mission often refer to myself as a recovering neocon.

And I think some people take that to be pejoratively. I don’t mean it that way. I actually mean it to be descriptively, to be descriptive. But the point is, in addition to all of the work that you’ve done over many years on that point, in the last month or so, you wrote a wonderful piece in responsible statecraft, I believe, where you laid this out and you presented the landscape of foreign policy thinking on the political right. And in a way that I think is fair and thoughtful, constructively critical of the limitations of each of those positions. For the purposes of our audience, many of whom I’m sure are keying in on this conversation with you for this reason, give us a quick summary of that landscape.

Ruger: Sure. Twenty years ago in the ‘90s, even in the early aughts, right, until everybody started to see what was happening in Iraq, there was a foreign policy consensus that wasn’t just a foreign policy consensus on the right. It was actually a foreign policy consensus across the isle, which should give you some pause, I think.

Roberts: I just did.

Ruger: Right? Whether it was Bill Kristol or Samantha Power, right?

Roberts: We’ll pause.

Ruger: These are folks who are activists when it comes to foreign policy. They want the United States not just to be strong, but to be actively trying to be the world’s policeman, make the world a better place using the American soldiers. It was a primacist vision for the United States. And look, I want the United States to be number one.

I’m a patriot. I think also it’s valuable for us to be the most powerful nation on the planet. A lot of that is if we have a strong economy and a strong society and we need to have a strong society to ultimately have a strong economy. That’s where our power comes from. This is when Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staffs, said, “What’s our biggest national security threat?” And I thought he might say China, or Iran, or terrorism.

Those would be reasonable arguments. We could debate how strong a threat those are. And he said, “Our national debt and deficits.” And the reason he said that is because, look, it’s our economy that is the foundation of having a strong military. We could spend a small percentage of GDP to have a pretty damn good military because our economy is so strong.

So, we need to keep that and that technological edge. So, it’s not that these people, we disagree that we wanted to have strength. It’s that amount of activism the premises wanted. They wanted to rebuild the Balkans, do Somalia, ultimately remake the Middle East as a whole. And this argument that Iraq was just about WMDs is post hoc.

The people in the room knew the right decisions to ask about that intelligence. And the people outside of that used it as a crutch. This was about a bigger thing. And Bob Kagan recently admitted this saying that it was a much bigger project. And that project is fundamentally anti-conservative.

I saw this earlier. I mean, I’ve been someone who has believed in realism and restrained for a long time. I’m happy to have people come to it whenever they come to it.

Roberts: Thank you.

Ruger: You don’t have to be an OG like Ted Carpenter or Eugene Gholz at Notre Dame. I think it’s important to come to it. And one part of it is the lamp of experience. Patrick Henry talked about the lamp of experience. And the lamp of experience is that the last 20 to 30 years of our foreign policy has been an absolute mess, guided by people in Washington that we would not want them to run the American healthcare system but yet we want to turn over remaking the world.

And I think that’s fundamentally anti-conservative view. We don’t know all of the things we would need to do to turn Helmand province of Afghanistan into a thriving liberal democracy where women are empowered to live the way they do in our country and where they can thrive the same way people in Des Moines do. We just don’t know how to do that. I mean, I don’t want nation-building in Detroit when it comes to nation-building directed by Washington or hell, even the governor of Michigan, right?

Kevin Roberts:
Especially the governor of Michigan.

Ruger: Yeah. Exactly. So, why do we think we can do this? And again, part of it is that we’re patriotic, we have a can-do spirit. People talk about that, right? Part of the challenge for Americans is that we’re optimistic in many ways.

We have a can-do spirit. We are great in a lot of things, but not every problem in the world is something that we can actually handle. Because look, we are a small percentage of the world’s population. And even though we have a huge economy, it’s not as if we have infinite resources. And so, it’s looking at that last 30 years, whether it’s all the way back to the ‘90s or it’s Iraq, the Afghan nation-building project, Libya, which is an underrated disaster.

And the Syria, which we tried to stay out of or tried to stay out of, but got back into. And we’re seeing there some of the results this week of that, unfortunately. Part of it is it’s built on so many flawed ideas that are fundamentally anti-conservative. Restraint is a conservative position. It’s based on realism.

So, Mike Desch and I wrote a piece for the national interest called the Realism and Conservatism, Kissing Cousins. Because I think the fundamental premises of realism and of conservatism go hand in hand, a kind of humility about your ability to make the world as you see fit, an understanding of the knowledge problem that you have, the understanding of trade-offs, of opportunity costs, an understanding of the fact that military power is well suited for some things and not for other things. And understanding of realities.

One of the great things about I think conservative economic thinking for the last 70 years, 80 years is a kind of realism about it. We looked at the great society and said, “You can’t remake our country this way.” We looked at bad economic policies of even the New Deal, the NRA for example, that the Supreme Court ultimately struck down or the AAA or these things and said, “This is not based on good economics because it doesn’t appreciate human nature. It doesn’t appreciate constraints. It doesn’t appreciate unintended consequences.”

All those things came into even the neo-conservative critique of great society. And yet you have these neo-conservatives and other conservatives promoting this. And it culminates really with Iraq and with George W. Bush’s inaugural address. You read George W. Bush’s inaugural address today. You’re like, “Wow, this is nuts.”

Roberts: It is. I just did that over the weekend. And at the time I was applauding it. But just some people know I’m not throwing stones. If someone’s listening saying, man, “I’m not really with Will and Kevin on this.” There’s time. Just go back and read that in particular.

Ruger: I just got back from Athens and I was at a conference and we were talking about this famous thing called the Sicilian expedition that the Athenians did. It was like their Iraq or their Vietnam, their Waterloo in many ways. And we read, at the end of that conference, we read JFK’s in pay any price speech and you read the pay any price speech and you read George W. Bush’s, second inaugural and you’re like, “Whoa, this is crazy.” And you could see how it got us into Vietnam and it got us into Iraq.

And these were mistakes. Again, we need to have a strong national offense. Realism understands that the world could be a dangerous place. It’s an anarchic universe, right? Meaning that there’s no higher power that can secure you in that world.
So, it’s a self-help system. You have to protect yourself in it. And that means you have to pay attention to the balance of power. You have to pay attention to changes in the balance of power about threats, what’s the threat environment. And so, restraint isn’t always the right foreign policy for your country.

I mean, prudence is. But the notion of the more formal understanding of restraint as being very hostile to foreign interventionism, right? The notion of not going abroad in search of monsters destroy is one key pillar of restraint. And then, also is being careful about making commitments to other countries when it doesn’t tear up to your national interests. Those are the Washingtonian pillars.

And I think that restraint counsels that because it’s realistic about looking at the world as it is. I mean, that’s why I always talk about realism and restraint. Realism is the foundation of how we should think about international politics. And restraint is the grand strategy we should pursue because of the reality of the world today. So, I would’ve had a very different foreign policy view if it was 1948 than I would today.
We needed to build data. We needed to confront the threat of Soviet communism. The balance of power was very different than it is now. And what we needed in the 1790s was different than what we needed in 1948. And so, I think we have to be careful about being ideological about foreign policy thinking.

I mean, again, we have our national interests, our North Star and part of that is protecting our democratic way of life here at home. But I do believe you have to tune to the times. And again, I’m going on, but what are those things about the world today that should help us think about how a realist, how a conservative should think about what we should do in the world? And some of those key things are constraints. So, just like supply and demand curves or constraints in domestic politics, in the domestic economy, the balance of power is a constraint in the international system.

So, what does the balance of power look like? Well, the United States is the most powerful country in the world, but there are other states that are powerful too. But geography is part of those set of constraints. So, one thing about the world is that we live far away from the rest of the world. There are no other great powers near us.

And people say, “Well, but the world is so much smaller today. You can travel.” I mean, look, get on a ship, let alone a plane and go to Hong Kong. I mean, it takes forever to get to China or Europe on a plane. Imagine on ships.

It’s hard to project power across large bodies of water. And so, while the world is smaller in some ways, it still means that how is another country like Russia, even assuming that they could get through Ukraine and then assuming they could get through Poland and Germany and assuming that the French don’t nuke them because the French have a nuclear capability, how are they going to impinge on the United States and the way that we worried about in 1812 or that we worried about even in 1941? So, those constraints matter, especially because we have the world’s strongest military, world’s strongest Navy, world’s strongest air force. So, we can keep a lot of those threats far away from us.

And then, when it comes to things like the balance of power, we have to think about the nature of technology that matters. Anti-access, area denial capabilities are really important now. We can use sensors, torpedoes missiles to keep people away from things. And that’s an important part of them now. Defense is easier.

We’re seeing that, right? When defense is easier like it was in 1914, it makes it hard to conquer. When offense is easier like it was in 1939, it makes it easier. And we should understand what that offense-defense balance is because it affects how we ought to look at the world. And then, the big game changer again is nuclear weapons.

And people seem to forget this. We have this discussion about Ukraine as if like, “Oh, why worry about the risk of nuclear escalation? That’ll never happen.” I do not want to take that risk. And unfortunately, I think a lot of the people who I think rightfully look at the bravery of Ukrainians and say like, “Hey, we need to support them.”

They’re not looking at the escalatory risk to our fundamental national interest, which is our safety here at home. So, again, you have to look at all those constraints. And in terms of that balance of power, it’s hard to imagine Russia or China overcoming the international system in the way that we worried about with Nazi Germany and even the Germany in 1914 wasn’t the systemic threat that people thought. But again, if Eurasia could be dominated by one single country from the UK all the way to Japan, that would be a worry for the United States. But the balance of power is pretty robust. I mean, it’s hard to imagine Russia dominating the Eurasian balance of power.

Roberts: Yeah. It’s impossible for me too. I would probably... well, I wouldn’t probably. Definitely, I would say China is in a much better position to do that. But I want to ask you is a-

Ruger: And China’s the most important strategic threat we face, which is why we have to get our European strategy right.

Roberts: Exactly. And that’s where I wanted to go is if you found yourself tomorrow in charge of American policy toward Ukraine, what would you do?

Ruger: One of the most important things we can do right now is to make sure that we’re keeping an eye on the danger of an escalatory spiral with Russia. Because like I said, if our three national interests are our territorial integrity, our safety here at home, the conditions of our economic prosperity and our democratic system here at home, not abroad. Then, the biggest worry is that we would get into a nuclear exchange. And again, I feel bad for the people of Ukraine, they’re in a bad neighborhood. But whether Ukraine is fully independent and owns Crimea, or whether Ukraine essentially disappeared into the near abroad of Russia, that’s not going to affect any of those three things I just talked about. Now, does that mean that I want Russia to roll all the way to Lviv?

Roberts: Of course not.

Ruger: No. Right. But we have to be clear-eyed when we make foreign policy and we have to recognize that if we’re talking about how we have to let Ukraine do anything it takes is the word we hear and we’re going to provide that blank check what happens when, if and when or when and if Ukraine pressures fundamental Russian security interests and we get into an escalation, what does that mean for us? Does that mean that you could see a use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia? What response would that bring from the United States? If people talk about how regime change in Russia is what has to be the result of all this? Well, what does that mean for what the United States does?
And what does that mean for how the other side reacts? Because part of being a realist is to understand that international politics isn’t a one-sided game.

Roberts: Yeah. The uncertainties of a regime change in Russia are pretty scary.

Ruger: I mean, maybe you get something even further to the nutty side. And the other thing about back to the balance of power, unintended consequences is that our activities trying to counter a relatively weak Russia has actually brought China and Russia together again. That’s not good. I mean, we should be doing something more like a reverse Kissinger. Now, I’m not saying we do that right now with Putin, but if we had been much more thoughtful about this in years past, rather than poking Russia in the eye, we had figured out a better modus vivendi that kept Russia and China apart.

That would be much better for American interests. I mean, I still believe and I’m more than willing to take the heat on this. The United States policy towards NATO has been a major screw-up. Okay.

Roberts: Explain that.

Ruger: United States security doesn’t require Ukraine or Georgia to be inside NATO. They don’t add to our security. They actually undermine our security.

Roberts: That’s correct.

Ruger: Okay. So, why keep the open door principle if it’s not necessary for us? And it actually can have some unintended effects of stimulating the security dilemma. Now, again, this is not a justification for what Putin did. Okay? I don’t like to see what happened. But I think we have to understand causally that there is an action-reaction cycle that happens in foreign policy.

And when we, in 2008 talked about Ukraine and Georgia becoming part of NATO... now people who are part of the Ukraine lobby would say, “Well, that’s not happening anytime soon. Or this was a hope as opposed to a promise and things like that.” Look, if you’re in Russia, you’re worried about this. If Tucker Carlson said it, but others have said it before that, if the Chinese wanted to have a military alliance with Mexico and Mexico was foolish enough to want it, damn sure that we would be rolling the troops south and rightfully so. Again, that would be a violation of Mexico’s sovereignty.

It wouldn’t stand up for the rules-based international order, but we would do it because it’s in our national interest. Now, again, I don’t like what Russia did. I think Russia exaggerates the threat that we have to Russia. But understanding how you could get unintended consequences from your behavior is something we need to appreciate. And so, I favored all the way back years ago to something like a non-NATO security architecture for Central Europe.

When I was at Koch, we supported a study by Mike O’Hanlon on an alternative security architecture for Eastern Europe that was not NATO. I don’t agree with everything Mike said, but I like the idea of thinking about what that might look like.

Roberts: And those are the conversations we need to be having.

Ruger: Absolutely. Absolutely. But this notion that we have an ideological fixation that NATO has to expand. Why? People talk about, “Well, people should be able to join. They should be able to decide their own security agreements.” And I’m like, “Yeah, we should too.”

Roberts: Yeah, exactly. Because people forget what it obligates the United States to do by virtue of the NATO Charter.

Ruger: Especially because let’s not fool ourselves. NATO is an American condominium. Without the United States, NATO is an entirely different creature. Look at the war in Libya where the United States had to pick up a lot of the baggage. The United States is the most important power in this.

I would like to see greater European autonomy. I don’t know if it’s a common security and foreign policy or if it’s that you simply have more burden sharing and burden shifting. But I do think that the Europeans... we have a lot of similarities with Europe. We have a lot of the same interests, but it’s not exact. And look, the Germans have been playing us like a fiddle.

On the one hand, there’s some of this post World War II pacifism is part of their culture, but it’s also that they are able to push and buck past the cost of their defense onto the United States while they are an economic competitor. And while they’ve built a big welfare state and they have wonderful infrastructure and meanwhile we have Flint, Michigan.

Roberts: Exactly. And while they cozy up to the CCP closer than almost any nation on earth.

Ruger: And you can understand because I mean, again, I think it’s a bad idea that they do this. But the geostrategic threat that China poses to them is different than to us. And so, naturally, they will have a different set of policies and they’re going to... again, as long as we’re providing the umbrella, they’re going to focus on economics. And then, don’t be surprised when some of their companies eat the lunch of our companies. It’s a terrible mistake.

Europe needs to be an adult and Washington needs to accept that adulthood. Because the Europeans will tell you rightfully so, that when people have wanted to move out of adolescence in Europe, that some people and the members of our elite have said, “Well, wait a second, we still want you to live in the basement. Don’t grow up too fast.” Why? Because they have this primacist notion. And I think that we need to think more like 19th-century power-political terms, be realistic.

We have lots of things in common. We should cooperate. Where we have differences, compete. Where we have differences, try to use diplomacy to resolve those. But sometimes you just have to say no.

And I think that when it comes to Ukraine right now, we need to start saying no. Partly to get back to your question more directly is one thing we could do is not only worry about the issue of escalation, but two is to think about the problem of moral hazard. If we’re saying that you get a blank check, don’t be surprised when they do things that might actually be dangerous for us.

I mean, I worry about a lot of American ideological people wanting to fight to the very last Ukrainian. And I think that one of the unintended consequences of what the Ukraine lobby has done is the burden has been faced by these brave Ukrainians. But I also worry that a lot of people are more than willing to say like, “But if we can get the United States more involved, then we can spread the costs.” So, if Ukraine wants Crimea, well, the best way to do that is to make sure that the United States is part of that effort one way or another.

Roberts: I mean, it’s-

Ruger: Do you want to send your kids to go die for Crimea?

Roberts: Of course not.

Ruger: A place that it’s not even clear they want to be part of Ukraine?

Roberts: I don’t want to send any American person there. And the interesting thing is it was really tragic as I’ve become enamored with saying DC is the city of false dichotomies. To say that means therefore that you want Putin to win. Well, of course not.

Ruger: No.

Roberts: I mean, you’ve made a real articulate case there, which you shouldn’t even have to make. But you and I both know why you do. And it’s because the same people, the group of same people who brought us Iraq in particular, are fanning the flames of what has been a tragic strategic error by the United States and being as involved as it already is in Ukraine. And so, we really have to peel back.

Ruger: Yeah. And on the Russia thing, I mean, when people talk about bleeding the Russians on the cheap, well, it’s not cheap. Right?

Roberts: It’s expensive. I mean, it’s to the tune of being larger than their entire military bank.

Ruger: I mean, the Russia before the war was spending I think about 65 billion a year on its military. That’s less than the 10% of what the United States spend. A lot less than 10% actually. And I think, was it 113 billion that the United States has at least authorized for this? And the Russian performance has been pitiful. I mean, they have gained territory. We shouldn’t ignore that.

Roberts: That’s right.

Ruger: But the idea, for example, that it’s cheap to bleed them A, it’s not cheap. Two, it’s very cynical. For people who talk a lot about the idealism and the brave Ukrainians, that notion that we should just bleed them, who’s going to be bled doing that? Again, if you want to be a completely cynical amoral and say, “Let’s bleed the Russians as dry as we can, even if it kills every Ukrainian.” But that’s not the message we’re hearing from those folks.

And then, two, the issue of sovereignty. I mean, come on, it’s a little bit rich when we tell the world about the importance of sovereignty. Again, I think sovereignty can be a useful thing to keep international politics from being as crazy as it could be in an anarchical world. That’s why the Treaty of Westphalia, that builds the nation-state system and promotes sovereignty as a part of that. But again, we should not be surprised when say the so-called global South says, “You want us to support this because of sovereignty. Have you looked at what’s been happening over the last 30 years?”

Roberts: And not surprisingly, the global South has said, “This is your deal, not ours.”

Ruger: Yeah. And then, when it comes to the issue of democracy promotion, look, you don’t risk nuclear war for promoting things that yes, I would love if everyone wanted to... again, not just in the United States, but abroad, wanted to have a system of government that resembles ours at least. Again, every country should probably have its differences there, because cultural differences. That upholds liberty, justice, the dignity of all individuals.

We want that. But is that the job of the American military? Is that the job... I mean, I look at this in a philosophical way, given my academic background is, what is the purpose of the American government? To me, the purpose of the American government is to protect the national interest, but also the things that we came together to do and sanctified in our constitution. I don’t know about you, but I can’t find the part of the constitution that says that we need to fight for Crimea or we need to fight for... so the girls can go to school in Helmand, even though I wish they could, or that frankly, we need to underwrite the security of Australia.

Again, if we get into bed, I mean, we already are, but when we get in bed with other countries, it should be because you could make a direct tie for why this supports and upholds our national interests at a reasonable cost. And you can make that case for Australia because of the threat of China.

Roberts: That’s right.

Ruger: But I’m baffled at the case for, say, Georgia. I got nothing against Georgians, but it’s a tiny country. Some people don’t even know it is a country. They think it’s a state. It is, right? But Georgia’s military is tiny.

The risk of a war with Russia is dangerous. Tell me how that helps us. But again, it’s part of this grand ideological project that these primacist have had, right primacist, the neoconservatives, left primacist, the liberal interventionists. This project is idealistic. If you’re a conservative, you should oppose it because it is not based in reality and it will get your kids fighting overseas.

And then, you add on top of that the culture war thing, where the culture war has been internationalized. And now it’s almost as if it’s like, “Hey, we’re going to send your boys and girls overseas to make sure that some of the things that we hear at home oppose are part of that system abroad.” I mean, it reminds me of Andy Bacevich which had this... I’ll paraphrase, but he had this line about Kristol and Kagan. Something like, these are people who don’t like American society and want to export it everywhere.

Roberts: It seems that way. Well, as I said, when we were getting started in this conversation, Will, we would hopscotch through some topics. And what I didn’t say to you or to the audience was, I knew that if I do my job right, I would get at the end of the episode several exclamation points. You succeeded.

Ruger: Thank you.

Roberts: I mean, very, very much. I’m going to give you an opportunity for a quick closing comment. But I’m really grateful for the depth, for the thoroughness of your analysis and has always been the case since I met you several years ago your intellectual honesty. You’ve given us a lot to talk about. I agree with almost everything that you said. You know, that I would never, being a little bit of a contrarian myself say I agree with everything.

Ruger: Absolutely.

Roberts: Probably some differences of opinion on China, slight difference on NATO, but 95% agreement. I’m really grateful for what you’re doing. The purpose of this show, the purpose of Heritage for that matter, is not to find unanimity of opinion, but to create, to facilitate the opportunity for thoughtful conversations. And you’ve been one of the leaders in that for a long time.

Ruger: Yeah. Thank you. And I guess in terms of my closing, what I would say is that regardless of where you stand in terms of having a conservative understanding of foreign policy, I think the key is that we need to be moving towards greater restraint, right?

Roberts: That’s right.

Ruger: More prudentialism in our foreign policy so that we don’t repeat the errors of the last 30 years and that we don’t create even more dangerous ones. And I think that what types of alliances we have, that’s something we can debate.

Roberts: And we need to debate. That’s the point.

Ruger: Yeah. And the big issue for me when it comes to alliances is actually just stopping, expanding our commitments. That’s the most important thing.

Roberts: We can’t afford them by any measure.

Ruger: Right. So, I’m not here to come and say like, “Yeah, let’s get rid of NATO tomorrow.” Right? I just think we need to push burden sharing and burden shifting. We need to promote Europe getting its act together. But I do think we need to be cautious about expanding our security commitments. We have to be cautious about us, essentially allowing others to buck past their cost to the American taxpayers.
But we especially need to stop fighting foolish wars and get out of the ones where there’s almost like on autopilot and there are entrenched interests that like them. There are ideological reasons why others like them. What are we doing in Syria? I mean, audience members look up some of the aspects of the Kurds. It’s not exactly a bunch of George Washington’s, right?

It’s very complicated. There are some groups that are better or worse. There are issues with Turkey. What does the nature of the Syrian presence mean for our safety? These are things we ought to be thinking a lot about. So, I think that when it comes to Europe, we talked about that at length, the Middle East, we need to go offshore, right?

Does it mean we shouldn’t pay attention to what happens in the Persian Gulf? No. Does it mean we should be really, really skeptical that we need to be boots on the ground and sorting out the very complicated politics of the Middle East, not just the Middle East, but the political-religious struggles between Sunnism and Shiism? No. Especially with the fracking revolution and other things, it’s just not as important as a part of the world as possible. Then, when it comes to Asia, I think this is where we need to have humility about what is the right direction.
And that’s where I think there’s a great conversation happening. You and Bridge Colby, for example, have been, I think, important voices in that conversation. I think that there are others, particularly those who think a lot about anti-access, area denial technologies may have different ways of thinking about how to wrestle with that.

I think there’s a really great empirical question, which I think we all want to know with some confidence is what is the trajectory of China? Because if China is, if we’re thinking about the old-fashioned Thucydides, the truest cause of the war was the rise of power of Athens and the fear that this provoked among the last of Damonians, the Spartans that’s essentially doing this. It’s a change in the balance of power over time.

If China’s on an upward trajectory like this, especially with 1.2 billion people and then we got a lot of things to worry about. Even with the nuclear revolution means that maybe it’s not as sharp as it was in 1941 or 1914, but it’s still a big challenge. It’s going to be a challenge in a lot of areas.

But if the trajectory is less steep or even negative because of their demographic problems, their corruption, the fact that we should have faith in our country, in our system like communism or whatever it is, crony capitalism slash planned economy is not going to work as well. Well, that’s going to make it different. And I’m not sure that that story is fully written.

Roberts: No, it isn’t. And I would say we’ll close with this because we’ll have you back many times over the years. Is that I understand the need for understanding where China’s trajectory is actually going. And often people who are constructive critics of the hawkishness, right, of me and of Heritage on China and I’m unabashed about that you would probably put us in the Prioritizers camp in your article.
But to be fair to their point, they would say, “Well, China’s just going to implode because of their demographic problem.” Well, the historian in me says, “I can point to many examples in history of those becoming very dangerous societies for order and I want America to be prepared.”

Ruger: Yeah. I think that that’s an important perspective. Again, I’m not sure where I stand fully on some of these issues because I think that China does represent the most important strategic challenge other than the one that Admiral Mullen talked about because I do think our domestic front is important.

Roberts: That’s right. We go hand in hand.

Ruger: But again, I think that there’s a constructive debate that needs to happen, but I think it should be a debate within realism.

Roberts: Yes.

Ruger: Not a debate with some of the, I think just incredible ideological thinking that’s driven this town and still does. Right? And that’s why this frame of autocracy versus democracy is just not a good frame. I mean, we should be thinking about hardcore national interest and strategy and be clear-eyed about power politics. Because that’s going to be the strongest basis I think going forward.

Roberts: An excellent statement to close the episode with. We’ll root you, my friend. Thanks for being here.

Ruger: Thank you.

Roberts: I hope you enjoy that conversation as much as I did. I promised you a riveting one and we did. Thank you for tuning in. And tune in next time for an equally good conversation. Take care.

The Kevin Roberts Show is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. The producer is Philip Reynolds. Sound design by Lauren EvansMark Guiney, and Tim Kennedy

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