The world according to Romney

By David Rohde
January 20, 2012

Update: Given yesterday’s results in South Carolina, I clearly shouldn’t have called Romney the Republican party’s “presumptive nominee.” For a critical look at a Gingrich administration foreign policy, take a look at this analysis by The Atlantic’s Max Fisher. Here’s my Jan. 20th take on Romney’s foreign policy.

Declare China a currency manipulator. Impose harsh sanctions on Iran. Build a missile shield against Russia. Keep American troops in Afghanistan. Halt negotiations with the Taliban. Visit Israel on first presidential trip. And add 100,000 soldiers to the U.S. army.

To be sure, as a former moderate Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney needed to out-chest-thump his Republican rivals to become the party’s presumptive nominee. But don’t expect Romney to tack to the center in this year’s general election.

A review of Romney’s foreign policy stands and an interview with one of his senior foreign policy advisers point toward a bruising battle over America’s place in the world. In the months ahead, the foreign policy debate could be just as ideologically polarized as clashes over the economy and role of government.

“Both the United States and the world are better off when the United States leads,” Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, told me in an interview Thursday. “A stronger national defense is our best deterrent from having to go to war.”

Sound familiar? It should. Williamson, who held ambassadorial posts in the last three Republican administrations, said the Romney campaign plans to embrace a Reagan-like push for expanded American military might. While skeptics may argue that the world of 2012 is vastly different from that of 1982, Williamson insisted it was not. Increased American military power was both possible, he contended, and popular with other nations.

“In the ’30s Churchill was right, and in the ’80s Reagan was right,” he said. “Strength does deter mischief.”

Rhetorically at least, that is the polar opposite of the Obama administration. While exceptions exist, the White House has focused on reducing American troop presence around the world, relying on drones and commandos to kill terrorists, and working closely with allies. From the killing of Osama bin Laden to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq to the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, Obama administration officials say they have a vastly more effective, focused and pragmatic foreign policy than that of the Bush administration.

Nearly every successful presidential candidate, of course, reverses foreign policy positions after taking office. Ronald Reagan vowed to get tough with the Soviets but then signed historic arms reduction treaties with them. Bill Clinton vowed to oppose Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization and then supported it.

At the same time, campaign positions reflect a candidate’s vision of America and its role in the world. And voters should remember that foreign policy matters at home. The American economy is more intertwined with the world economy than ever. And a third of federal spending relates to foreign policy, with 20% going to defense, 8% to veterans’ benefits, and 7% to the State Department and other agencies.

Here is a rough summary of Romney’s positions, Williamson’s statements and my comments.

American leadership: On the campaign trail, Romney has repeatedly professed his belief in “American exceptionalism.” In the interview, Williamson accused Obama of trying to “manage” America’s inevitable decline. Expect Romney to accuse Obama of not believing that the U.S. is an exceptional nation that can and should lead the world. Romney will argue that the pessimism and passivity of Obama — a.k.a. Jimmy Carter – has created an unstable. Around the globe, he will contend, people welcome American leadership.

Annual worldwide polling by the Pew Research Center shows a more complex picture. Obama’s election in 2008 generally improved views of the U.S., but the financial crisis then badly damaged it. Polling in 18 countries in 2010 showed that 47% of those contacted believed China will replace — or already has replaced — the U.S. as the world’s lone superpower. Strikingly, a plurality of Americans – 43% – declared China the world’s leading economic power. Only 38% of Americans named the United States. I believe military spending alone cannot revive the U.S.’s standing. Only an American economic resurgence will.

China: Williamson accused Obama of being too “polite and patient” with China. “We all know China cheats,” he said. “Full stop.” When I visited China last fall, though, Chinese officials were infuriated by Romney’s vow to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day as president. Citing the financial crisis and Washington’s political paralysis, they argued that America’s economic decline was the U.S.’s fault. I believe declaring China a currency manipulator could result in a trade war that would devastate the fragile American economy. Getting tough with China is not as simple as it sounds.

Iran: Williamson accused Obama of wasting years on a “mother may I approach” to sanctions that involved bringing allies on board. He promised immediate unilateral sanctions by a Romney administration. Whoever is in the White House, expect Tehran to do everything it can to send oil prices skyrocketing. Iran will be a hornet’s nest for an Obama or Romney administration.

Russia: Obama’s effort to “reset” relations with Moscow has “failed,” according to Williamson. But with Putin already convinced the U.S. is trying to foment a revolution against him, more saber rattling is unlikely to have much effect. As Gaddafi, Assad and others have shown, autocrats don’t capitulate when scolded by the U.S.

Afghanistan: Romney has vowed to stop all negotiations with the Taliban. As I argued last week, tough talk is good, but the war there is unwinnable as long as the Pakistani military continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. The only solution to the conflict is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and its Pakistani military patrons.

Israel: Romney has accused Obama of failing to sufficiently back Israel. In reality, Israel is increasingly isolated in a rapidly changing Middle East. Pursuing a two-state solution is in the interest of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and the region.

Adding troops: Obama is proposing an 80,000 soldier reduction in the size of the U.S. Army that would save an estimated $150 billion over 10 years. Romney’s 100,000 soldier increase would likely cost $150 billion. Williamson said a growing economy and Pentagon procurement reforms will pay for the increase.

I agree with Romney that the United States is not in irrevocable decline. The U.S. can, and does, play a vital role in the world, particularly through the ideals it represents. But Romney’s failure to discuss the lessons of America’s trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan troubles me. So does his failure to seriously grapple with the deep structural changes in the world economy that have weakened the American middle class.

In the contest ahead, both candidates will hopefully offer more than platitudes about America and the world. Economic strength, alliances and choosing our fiscal priorities are the key to reinvigorating American power. Not lofty rhetoric from Obama or martial rhetoric from Romney.

8 comments

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Please offer proof of American exceptional-ism in 2012. Where does this (hypothetical) exceptional-sim exists ? GDP per capita ? (no, citizens of Norway and Lichenstein, Luxembourg and Qatar) Happiness (Ask the Danes) ? Highest literacy (ask the Swedes) ? Least obese (ask the Japanese)?

Belief and facts are not the same.

Most troubling of all is Romney’s steadfast belief in a world which no longer exists.

Posted by Econstudent | Report as abusive

Get some perspective: the entire Norwegian population is the size of a largish American city. Easy to manage things in the small especially when there are massive oil revenues.

Similarly the Danes are a small pretty homogeneous society (though they cleaving to the right because of Arab immigration). Easy to manage.

As far as Japan is concerned, big deal, they are less fat than the US. I guess based on that criterion Ethiopia and Somalia must be the most successful countries.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

Econstudent: when you make comparisons between the United States and countries such as Norway, Liechtenstein (note the first “t”), Luxembourg, and Qatar, you are grasping at statistical straws: the disparity of populations make such points questionable at best.

American exceptionalism (no hyphen, please) is a valid concept in both the United States and in other parts of the world, and is by no means an argument based on “a world that no longer exists.” The 2012 election is (or would be, if rational conversation were part of the process) a discussion about America’s role in the world going forward.

The United States is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, a dominant economic and military power. The fundamental question we face is the degree to which we choose to interact with the rest of the world, and the manner in which that interaction is expressed.

Posted by HerrCIO | Report as abusive

> “Williamson said a growing economy and Pentagon procurement reforms will pay for the increase.”

Romney’s advisers sound like Reagan Republicans, and Romney has been recorded talking about Reagan’s economic policies as though history had proven them to be the promised panacea!

Is this just positioning for the Republican nomination contest? If so, they’re being a little too convincing.

What, do they think that the American economy grows due to the mere boost in optimism that inevitably accompanies incoming Republican administrations?

Then why didn’t this work for Reagan (who boosted national debt by more than he did national growth, and who quietly reversed his economic policies before the American economy started enjoying a recovery), Bush I (who was forced by reality into boosting taxes because Reaganomics hadn’t worked), Bush II (whose extreme repetition of the failed policies drove the USA into historic amounts of debt, and furthermore DESTROYED economic growth), or Obama (who has been hamstrung by Boehner into continuing Bush II’s failed policies that the American public evidently wanted to see the end of)?

If it didn’t work for Reagan, Bush I, Bush II or Obama, then why would it work for Romney?

Why are American voters so gullible that we don’t hear loud jeers every time “Reaganomics” is cited?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

…There is some merit to Romney’s apparent position that preparation deters mischief. But preparation doesn’t need to constitute an increase in the full-time head-count of the US Army. That sort of preparation, in my view of history, CREATES war!

Better to promote boy scouting activities, public health (mental and physical), industrial technology etc. Better to be ready to CONVERT to a war-economy in the eventuality of war, rather than run an economy-destroying war-economy during peace-time!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

“I believe declaring China a currency manipulator could result in a trade war that would devastate the fragile American economy. Getting tough with China is not as simple as it sounds.”

David, we’re already in a trade war with China, and we’re losing BADLY because we haven’t been willing to even put up a fight. It’s already devastated our economy. The only side that stands to lose anything by restoring a balance of trade is the one who currently enjoys the big trade surplus – China. The one who stands to come out the winner is the one who currently has the huge trade deficit – the U.S. The U.S. was far better off when trade with China was virtually non-existant.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

In 1938, Churchill faced Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperialist Japan.

In 1982, Reagan faced the USSR and the Red Army.

In 2012, Romney faces … no one.

The biggest problem American foreign policy faces is that there is no Enemy State to go toe to toe with. There is just Islam that does not want to kowtow to Zionism.

We have no opposing Army. What we need is the Secret Police to hunt down non-conforming “enemies of the State”. A Gestapo, a STASI to feed our Star Chamber.

And for this reason, pray no Republican wins, unless it is Ron Paul.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Romney’s America IS today’s America–he and his pals are strip-mining us of our wealth!!! America’s “wealth” IS being “strip-mined” by the 1%, something all of “us” and OWS seem to sense but don’t really verbalize coherently. So, may I? At 58 years old, I first “saw” outsourcing when my mother’s job (key-punch operator for Prudential Life) was shipped to Korea–circa 1960. Hmmmm, but the company was growing and she wasn’t “dumped” as “we” are today. Today: jobs go away permanently, salaries too (to the BRIC’s) at huge savings (more profits into the pockets of the 1%) then they come back with goods to sell HERE, achieving larger profits (into the pockets of the 1%) and then (as just one example) the IPods, IPads, et al, are “conceived” and maybe some “design” in America, BUTT made WHERE? and then sold HERE!!! It all adds up to an “economic undertow” as vast sink holes swallowing our economy…”US.” There is STILL a whale of a lot of wealth to strip away from “US.” Yes, THIS IS ROMNEY & FRIENDS’ America, they can’t wait to take power (to remove the regulations & spend the money–taxes) and re-create another BOOM-BUST a la 2008. If they win, that is what they will do, and it all will happen fast. If the Democrats win, it all will still happen, just slow. Reality sucks at certain times in history. As a friend said, “This would be a fascinating story except for one thing–we’re living in it.”

Posted by WouldChuk | Report as abusive