Few presidential candidates in recent American politics have articulated as few of words on foreign policy as the current Republican nominee-in-waiting, Mitt Romney. It’s largely reflective of the US 2012 presidential campaign’s focus on the economy, and Romney’s recognition that foreign policy, is not a particular strongpoint for the former Governor of Massachusetts.
This choice of emphasis is reflective as well in opinion polls, where Obama has consistently outscored his rival in terms of perception as a suitable “commander-in-chief”, while faring less favourably in terms of the economy. Romney’s current slight lead in the national polls overall can be explained more so by the jobs report than by his rather misplaced perception that Russia represents America’s “greatest geopolitical foe”.
Romney’s foreign policy seems to be stuck in the past as evidenced by his choice of foreign policy advisors and his vision triumphantly titled the “American century”. In terms of advisors, unlike McCain who reached a little bit further away from the Bush administration, Romney has largely recruited second-tier advisors to George W. Bush to advise and articulate his foreign policy without really engaging new thinking in American foreign policy since 2004. Notably, all of his Middle East advisors once held junior positions in the Bush administration.
Romney asserted in his citadel speech last autumn, “This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”
Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, global trends do not seem to favour Romney’s view of American power. Fareed Zakaria’s “Post-American world” and Ian Bremmer’s “G-0 world” point not to an American century, but one where the US is in relative decline while the rest rises up.
When asked how this foreign policy would succeed, Dan Senor, a senior Romney advisor, noted, “America will stand by its allies, it will help dissidents fighting for freedom around the world, it will maintain a large enough defense budget to help the U.S. defend its own national security interests, defend its homeland, and advance these principles shared by America and its allies around the world.”
Emphasizing strength over as the way forward, his campaign asserts, “Our country today faces a bewildering array of threats and opportunities. As president, Mitt Romney will safeguard America and secure our country’s interests and most cherished ideals. The unifying thread of his national security strategy is American strength. When America is strong, the world is safer. It is only American power—conceived in the broadest terms—that can provide the foundation for an international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies.”
Both these statements offer very little vision for how Romney will achieve this “American Century” and these statements share many common elements with traditional American national security policy and with Obama’s own National Security Strategy. Obama though is not as presumptive to believe that the future of world politics lies solely in the US and Romney appears to be stuck believing that economic and military power are the only measures of influence in the world. A brief read of Joseph Nye’s Future of Power would surprise him and his campaign.
Romney though appears to not take this vision to seriously either. Reading his campaign’s one white paper on foreign policy published in October 2011 and his campaign’s statements, he provides no comprehensive vision beyond touching on a few foreign policy areas where he perceives he could score a few political points, most notably Iran and Israel. His other foreign policy issues such as national defence tend to re-hash the standard Republican criticism of defence cuts or tend to be almost identical to Obama’s foreign policy.
Looking at these sparse documents and listening to Romney on his campaign tour, one is left waiting for the punch line and his reticence in commenting on foreign affairs leaves one questioning whether the candidate has ever thought about the world around him. Surely, supporting Israel alone will not make the world an American century. But, such critical thinking appears to not have a place in the Romney campaign.
Romney instead primarily tries to score political points with his foreign policy positions by implicitly criticizing the President’s style while avoiding substantive critiques. His campaign explains, “A Romney foreign policy will proceed with clarity and resolve. Our friends and allies will not have doubts about where we stand and what we will do to safeguard our interests and theirs. Neither will our rivals, competitors, and adversaries. The best ally world peace has ever known is a strong America.”
At AIPAC in March 2011, Romney mocking Obama’s approach to Iran, emphasized “The current administration has promoted a policy of engagement with Iran. The president even offered to sit down with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad during his first year in office without preconditions.” Romney has tried to give the impression he will be tougher on Iran than the President, but he has not advocated any real change of policy when looking at his actual policy on power.
The Republican candidate’s larger Middle East policy in general largely mirrors the President’s except with a little bit more flare and assertiveness but lacks any real exploration of how the US will remain relevant in the region after the Arab Spring. Unlike some issues where he unveils a Romney plan to fix X issue, Romney appears to leave the Middle East for another pass after being elected or to just follow Obama’s leadership.
Beyond his steadfast belief in the “American century”, the only deep foreign policy conviction he has is that Israel and America’s security are inseparable and identical. Netanyahu, a friend of his since their time at Bain in Massachusetts, and Romney view the Middle East in similar lens when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
His campaign asserts, “President Obama and his administration have badly misunderstood the dynamics of the region. Instead of fostering stability and security, they have diminished U.S. authority and painted both Israel and ourselves into a corner. President Obama for too long has been in the grip of several illusions. One is that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the central problem in the region. This has been disproved repeatedly by events, most recently and most dramatically by the eruption of the Arab Spring…The key to negotiating a lasting peace is an Israel that knows it will be secure.”
But, even in this conviction, the two paragraph “Mitt plan” provided by the campaign lacks any sense of how Romney will achieve that either. The “American Century” thus leaves observers of world politics left with many questions but few answers and a sense that this will not be the “American Century” if this represents the thinking of a potential President of the United States.