Romney's Realist Foreign Policy Is a Lot Like Obama's

The Republican presidential hopeful is largely wrong on China but mostly right on dealing with every other part of the world

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Mitt Romney has rolled out his foreign policy strategy in a white paper titled, "An American Century -- A Strategy to Secure America's Enduring Interests and Ideals." Here's how to make sense of the dense document and tease out how the next possible president of the United States may conduct business abroad.

Eliot Cohen's Foreword

Now, as in the 1970s, as in the 1930s, and as at other times in our past, Americans are being told that the ability of the United States to influence international politics has passed. On both ends of the political spectrum we hear that the United States should clip its own wings, because it is too broke, too unpopular, or simply too incompetent to act like a superpower.

This is something of a straw man. What many of us are arguing is that the United States has limited ability to influence the domestic landscape in large swaths of the developing world and that our resources could better be deployed elsewhere. That this is complicated by our burgeoning debt and damage to our soft power is not in serious dispute.

The United States cannot withdraw from world affairs without grave danger to itself and to others.

Few are suggesting otherwise.

America has global interests. Without a free and orderly international trading and financial system our own economic system cannot flourish. The values that make us Americans are universal: our Founders declared that "all men," not some, "are created equal," and Lincoln insisted that the Civil War was a test of whether "any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." Whether we wish it or not, our values, our policies, and our example matter to all who cherish freedom, and our conduct inspires or dismays them accordingly. A world without American leadership will be an unstable world, in which unscrupulous or tyrannical regimes feel free to get their way by force, and in which international cooperation frays and ultimately dissolves.

The American choice is not, therefore, whether it should lead: it is how to lead wisely. Skillful leadership requires an ability to recognize that sometimes our interests and our values will be in tension, and to figure out how to live with that ambiguity, without forsaking either. It means maintaining strength and using it prudently, while refraining from useless bluster or diplomacy conducted from a position of weakness. It means sustaining old friendships and alliances while seeking out and strengthening new relationships. It requires prudence in calculating risks, while realizing that sometimes nothing matters as much as communicating resolve. And it demands self-awareness, because, to a degree that often surprises Americans, others abroad take the doubts we express about ourselves here with the utmost seriousness.

This is an elegant summary of the elite consensus, of which I join. The hard part is actually making the choices alluded to. What constitutes "wise" leadership? What is the balance between values and interests? Which risks are acceptable?

Job one for the next administration will, no doubt, be restoring our economy as a great engine for the production of jobs and prosperity. But the world will not give the United States several years of furlough from international politics to put its own house in order.

Quite true.

Gimmicks (e.g., reset buttons), declarations of utopian aspirations (e.g., the abolition of nuclear weapons), confessions of lack of staying power (e.g., proclaiming a date certain for leaving Afghanistan), undermining one's allies (e.g., waffling on trade agreements with friends like Colombia, or visiting Israel's neighbors but ostentatiously shunning Jerusalem), and currying favor with our enemies (e.g., the abortive outreach to Syria's Assad) have, collectively, undermined America's position in the world as much as any economic bad news.

This intermixes a lot of truth with stump speech polemics. The notion that we could "reset" relations with Russia without a significant reprioritization of policy preferences was naive. Ronald Reagan spoke of a dream of abolishing nuclear weapons, so it's not some Democratic Party fantasy; but it's a fantasy nonetheless. And I tend to agree that undermining agreements made under one administration by the next does more harm than good to America's credibility. But it's not clear that any this has, in any serious way, undermined America's leadership.

Further, while one can question parts of the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East, it's just nonsense to suggest that not giving Benjamin Netanyahu everything he wants amounts to "shunning Jerusalem." And carrying on diplomacy with bad actors is simply unavoidable in a neighborhood with few good ones.


Powerful countries such as China and Russia are growing in strength and seeking their place in the sun. Their economic success and rising power could contribute significantly to the health of an international system built on economic and political freedom. But it also could help unravel such a system. The authoritarian character of China and Russia already propels those countries to engage in behavior that undermines international security. Checking their harmful ambitions while promoting their transformation into decent and democratic political actors is a primary challenge facing any American leader.

This is largely right, although framed in too adversarial a manner. In the main, the "harmful ambitions" of China and Russia are to restore old glories by asserting themselves as regional powers. Still, the recognition that gains made by old adversaries are quite potentially to the benefit of the United States and its allies is welcome, indeed.

The next several paragraphs simply describe the various risk factors in the world: terrorists and other transnational actors, the turmoil in the "broad arc of the world extending from Pakistan to Libya," failed states, and rogue nations. While there may be some room to quibble, most would agree with almost all of it. This is followed by some rather sensible boilerplate:

Discrete circumstances in disparate regions of the world demand different kinds of approaches. There is no silver bullet for the problem of securing the United States and protecting our interests around the world.

While these declarations amount to a blinding flash of the obvious, they stand in stark contrast to some of the more extreme ideological views on foreign policy that have captivated left and right in recent years.

It is only American power -- conceived in the broadest terms -- that can provide the foundation of an international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies. Every American has a profound interest in global peace and prosperity. Our prosperity is tied to free markets and free trade. Our security is dependent on the security of Asia and Europe. We created this world order, and our well-being as a nation depends on preserving it against the many challenges it faces.

While this seems a touch arrogant, it was conventional wisdom in recent memory. While there is heated disagreement over how it should translate into policy, this vision is actually shared by much of the world. Romney offers four "guiding principles" for bringing "American strength" to bear.

The United States will clearly enunciate its interests and values. 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. As the world's greatest power, the United States will strive to set the international policy agenda, create a predictable economic and security environment that enables other countries to develop policies that are in conformity with our own, and minimize those occasions on which the United States is confronted by instability and surprise.

This is unobjectionable on its face -- who doesn't like clarity and honesty, after all -- but would actually be a foolish policy if implemented in earnest. Strategic ambiguity is a key tool of foreign relations. While one can take it too far, some uncertainty as to what actions will provoke military response from the United States is a good thing, indeed.

A Romney administration will seek to maintain and advance an international system that is congenial to the institutions of open markets, representative government, and respect for human rights. The United States will work vigorously to encourage all nations to develop modern and enduring governmental systems that foster the rule of law, protect human dignity, and defend the unalienable rights of man, including freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The path from authoritarianism to freedom and representative government is not always a straight line or an easy evolution, but history teaches that nations that share our values will be more reliable U.S. partners and will tend to stand together in pursuit of common security and shared prosperity.

While I agree with all of this, it really doesn't tell us anything, either. What is it that a Romney administration would actually do to advance democracy?

The United States will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict. In defending America's national interest in a world of danger, the United States should always retain a powerful military capacity to defend itself and its allies. Resort to force is always the least desirable option, the costliest in resources and human life. A Romney administration will therefore employ all the tools of statecraft to shape the outcome of threatening situations before they demand military action. Though the use of armed force will never be off the table when the safety of America is at stake, a President Romney will take a comprehensive approach to America's security challenges. The tools of "hard" and "soft" power must work together to be effective. They are complements not substitutes for one another.

This is at once incredibly banal and potentially a breath of fresh air. The buzz words "soft power," "all the tools of statecraft," and "comprehensive approach" amount to a coded signal that the days of treating military power as the solution to everything are behind us. Of course, having Eliot Cohen, a signatory to the Project for a New American Century declaration that founded the modern neoconservative movement, write your foreword sends the opposite signal.

Presented by

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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