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.