Romney’s foreign policy: Reagan redux

October 13, 2011

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

After yet another GOP debate where foreign policy took a near-total backseat to economic and domestic policy, Mitt Romney is in the catbird seat for the nomination. He even locked up the endorsement of Tea Party AND Republican machine favorite, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Romney’s only problem: it’s October 2011. Not one primary has yet taken place. Romney will have to return to his foreign policy platform to expand it, should he be fortunate enough to make it to the general election. And based on the speech he gave at The Citadel, we can already see that Mitt Romney intends to return to the American exceptionalism of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush eras.

For Romney, as for many politicians of both parties in decades past, the United States is not just a big and powerful country. Rather, it is the only country in the world that deserves superpower status. What’s unfortunate for Mitt and his all-star, Bush-heavy foreign policy team is that, these days, that line of thinking is more nostalgic than realistic. (By the way, though Romney was almost bombastic at times, calling Iran’s leaders “suicidal fanatics,” his actual policies are unlikely to reflect or adopt that tone — at least not with his foreign policy team as constituted now.) The idea of the U.S. as the leader of the free world is at a post-WWII nadir. However, that’s not because some other country, like China, has risen to fill the vacuum. No, the fault is wholly our own.

In fact, right now there’s a global debate about whether the U.S. really deserves its superpower mantle, given the political and economic issues of recent years that have unquestionably eroded its leadership position. It’s helpful to compare the two camps:

The exceptionalist camp believes that America’s pole position comes from more than its economic and political power– that it comes from our set of values and worldviews, which no other global power possesses. These types of thinkers believe that no matter how powerful, for example, China, becomes, it can never truly take up the role of global leader, because its policies are fundamentally incompatible with the Western world’s.

Those of us who traveled in the Soviet Union prior to its collapse or in Eastern Europe soon afterwards, saw that dissidents and newly liberated peoples there thought about the U.S. in a different way, because America stood for a set of ideas that represented the gold standard of what free people could aspire to achieve. The non-exceptionalist camp believes less in the U.S. as the most influential country in the world, seeing that influence as having seriously eroded of late. Specifically, the events of the 2000 election, in which the Supreme Court took a vote divided among party lines to place George W. Bush into office, is seen by many as the beginning of the end of the era of U.S. infallibility abroad.

In trying to channel Reagan, Romney is also trying to link Obama to an era of economic and political malaise, to paint him as a modern-day Carter. But Romney is missing the very real toll on U.S global prestige in the last decade and its serious implications for foreign policy. It started with the 2000 election and the erosion of the U.S. as a political gold standard, but with the problems of Enron and Worldcom in the middle of the decade, and then the financial crisis’s roots in the U.S. financial system, America’s reputation as the gold standard of finance also began to crumble. In other words, global leaders aren’t paying as much mind to the Obama administration not because of Obama, but because Obama represents a diminished United States, one that can’t be trusted. This is ubiquitous — and currently playing out between the US and EU, where Timothy Geithner was recently rebuffed by Europe’s finance ministers when he tried to tell them what to do at a meeting in Poland. The world seems a little sick of the idea that America knows best, precisely because recently, it very visibly demonstrated that it does not.

President Obama has left himself vulnerable in the coming election due to his seeming inability to espouse and defend America’s values at home and abroad — his inability, in other words, to symbolically begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild American prestige. He has lost sight of the power of American values and become hyper-pragmatic in his approach to foreign policy. His foreign policy may be an effective one, but, drone-strikes aside, it’s missing the grand gestures that Americans look to in order to reaffirm their place in the world.  And even drone strikes are often, by design, intended as a case-specific alternative to more grandiose — and controversial — measures that could go further to tie military strategy to an overarching ideology.

Yet Romney’s foreign policy seems designed to be nothing more than a Reagan redux — to paper over the faults of the last decade in a way that will be implausible on the world stage. That could come back to hurt him. Romney has identified and gone after President Obama’s weaknesses, and he has struck an early blow in the GOP field as the first candidate to even bother with a foreign policy speech at this stage. That counts for a lot.

The logical result of Romney’s foreign policy, as enumerated in his speech, is the same as the logical result of George W. Bush’s — a unilateralism that could leave the U.S. standing largely alone, diplomatically and militarily. At a time when military spending almost certainly must be cut to fix America’s budget problems, that’s a pose any president can ill-afford to strike.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) holds up a statue of former US President Ronald Reagan presented to him by California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R) during an Orange County “Change Begins With Us” tour stop at Bassett Furniture in Fountain Valley, California, January 31, 2008. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok


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I don’t believe that Romney will actually be as unilateralist as Dr. Bremmer supposes. Remember, the audience for his foreign policy speech was conservative Republican primary voters. “Red meat” in a purely partisan political context is the order of the day in both parties. Romney no doubt knows there is a “Not Romney” movement in the party and he, rightly, is attempting to get out in front of the other candidates and stake his claim to a tough-minded foreign policy/national security stance. If elected, based on his background both politically and personally, Romney will probably be more centrist in dealing with foreign matters. Now, one must take into account what sort of Congress he will have if he’s elected. THAT will be the catalyst for either a centrist, balanced approach or one leaning more towards interventionist.

Posted by cobudho | Report as abusive

cobudho: So what you seem to be acknowledging is that Romney tries to be all things to all people and will say whatever it takes to win votes. The man lacks any real convictions. If HE doesn’t lack conviction, then no one does.

So, which Romney will the electorate be considering when casting their votes? The Romney who IS a unilateralist or the Romney who isn’t? The Romney who DOES support the ideas behind RomneyCare and ObamaCare or the Romney who doesn’t? The pro-choice Romney or the pro-life Romney? Perhaps Mr. Romney thinks so highly of himself that he figures that the specifics don’t matter to a bunch of dumb Americans.

Posted by doggydaddy | Report as abusive

Mr. Bremmer, your article appears ironic in some ways since for example:

* You mention the debasing of a “gold standard” of American values, without mentioning the parallel with the debasing of the economic “gold standard” in 1972…
* You mention America’s loss of ideological standing through the various financial crises of recent years, without comparing these losses with the precipitous loss of moral authority that came about through Nixon’s misdeeds.

Let’s say Romney is an American values politician, who talks tough unilateralist policies. Nixon built his name on a similar stance. Once in office, he went with Kissinger to visit Mao’s China, and scored the biggest diplomatic coup of the 20th Century – which would not have been remotely possible if Nixon had not been such a hard-headed true-blue American as to deny his political opponents the opportunity of accusing him of being a closet Communist.

(Nixon-Romney comparisons must end there since Romney has more private integrity than Nixon had, so is unlikely to get sucked easily into the same kind of scandal. Romney also has a stronger policy head on his shoulders, from what I have read of history so far.)

I believe that great years are ahead for America (and I say this, not being American and never having lived in the USA.) But how soon America returns to greatness largely depends (at this juncture) on the vision and integrity of its leaders. nomics-and-prudent-taxation/
America badly needs:
* Increases in taxation, coupled with;
* Abolition of the pork-barrel spending machine (through reform of political process); coupled with
* Leaders who know how to negotiate a good deal (Romney stands far ahead of his peers on this point).
Contrary to Reagan’s dogma (which he abandoned himself a few years into his presidency); raising taxes at this juncture (in a debt+deficit fuelled crisis) will INCREASE economic growth, along with virtually all other measures of American prosperity. Sorry for continuing to emphasise this one point (I almost despair at the blind, unthinking repetition of the opposing dogma.)

Sooner or later, Romney is going to be forced by economic circumstances to INCREASE taxes. The sooner he starts acknowledging the possibility and stops claiming he’s going to boost the American economy by reducing taxes; the better…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Absolutely correct about the year 2000 and the Bush/Cheney reign. America, until it does something to atone for the injustices done during those years, which have plunged the world into war and financial disaster, has lost all moral legs to stand on.

Posted by lhathaway | Report as abusive

The election will be a referendum on Obama’s presidency.

Obama puts off any serious focus on job growth until his 3rd year in office, and then offers a “solution” modelled on the first stimulus – which was a bunch of failed partisan pork serving mostly to prop up failing democrat run city and state governments for the short term. This allowed them to put off much needed reforms, thus merely delaying (economic) judgement day and making it worse when it finally comes.

Posted by Parker1227 | Report as abusive

Ian wrote:
In fact, the political situation in the U.S. may not be pretty or easy to watch, but it’s functioning. The President and Republicans continue to hammer out centrist deals on issues like tax hikes and the debt ceiling, albeit at the last possible minute after much gnashing of teeth. Ignore naysayers who say that budget supercommittee doom is coming; a deal will likely get done. And after the presidential election, things will get even better. That’s because Republicans are almost certain to retain the House and take the Senate. Whether Obama or the likely GOP candidate Romney wins the election, their dealings with a unified legislative branch will become far easier than the current divided government.

Apparently Ian has been quaffing his own Kool-Aid…again.

“Centrist deals” (chuckle) that’s a good one.

Posted by zimmeric | Report as abusive