Romney's 'No Apologies' Diplomacy in Action as U.K. Trip Turns to Public Spat

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Mitt Romney has criticized Obama's diplomacy as "apologizing for America" and urged more backbone abroad, but so far that's not working great in London.

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Mitt Romney meets with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (Reuters)

In March 2010, Mitt Romney published one of those profile-raising books that American politicians often put out before a presidential run: No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. The implication, made more explicit in the text, was that President Obama was traveling the world shamefully apologizing for America, and that if only someone would lead America with more pride and backbone, then the dream of American greatness would once again be realized. Romney's "no apology" line continued a "no more apologies" campaign that Fox News host Sean Hannity led through much of 2009, decrying Obama's foreign trips as "apology tours" (Hannity said of Obama's "apology tour" stop in Cairo, "it might do him good to remember that apologizing didn't get the allied forces anywhere in World War II").

Romney, who has a strong executive record as a governor and business leader but little foreign policy experience, got a chance to try out his "no apologies" diplomacy with a week-long tour of American allies. He is visiting three of the most consistently pro-American countries in the world -- the U.K., Israel, and Poland -- all of which also happen to be popular among American conservatives (the U.K. for Churchill, Poland for its anti-Soviet resistance, and Israel for Israel). So it would seem to be a low-pressure trip.

But it hasn't gone well. Before meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and other U.K. officials, Romney told U.S. reporters that he had doubts about his host country's readiness for the London Olympics. "It is hard to know just how well it will turn out," he said, calling the government's efforts "disconcerting" and questioning whether the British people would "come together and celebrate the Olympic moment."

It all kind of blew up from there. Cameron hit back publicly, adding that he would raise it with Romney when they met in person today. The famously vicious British press is taking it from there, with every major paper running a story playing up Cameron's rebuttal. The Daily Mail ran the headline, "Who invited him? US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney questions British public's appetite for the Games during visit to London." The Guardian is running a liveblog of the "gaffe" and its fallout on their site, trouncing on every public rebuke and even noting what they call "another blunder" with Romney's comment that he had met with the head of the MI6 spy agency, the existence of which is not supposed to be publicly acknowledged.

The American press is picking up as well, and it looks like what was supposed to be a rubber-stamp trip demonstrating the candidate's familiarity with important allies has, on just its second day, turned into a story about a "test [of] his skills on foreign diplomacy," as the New York Times put it, "terrain in which he is not necessarily as comfortable as when dealing with economic issues." Romney isn't apologizing, but he has grown significantly more diplomatic in the past 24 hours, publicly praising the London games and the U.K.'s hosting effort. "What I've seen shows imagination and forethought and a lot of organization and expect the games to be highly successful," he said.

Alas, diplomacy is hard. It's no less hard when approached with the sort of chest-thumping, non-apologizing American exceptionalism (don't call it nationalism!) that Romney described in his book. "Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined," he wrote in reference to Obama's goodwill speeches in Cairo and elsewhere. A president's role was to stamp out anti-Americanism, he argued, not to encourage such dissent. "There are anti-American fires burning all across the globe; President Obama's words are like kindling to them." And what better to way to put out those fires than by projecting confidence, strength, and assertiveness? "The truth is that we are at war with a formidable enemy and that nations like Russia and China are intent on neutralizing our military lead," he wrote.

Maybe it's just a coincidence that Romney wrote a book dismissing routine soft-power diplomacy as dangerously weak and instead calling for assertive (some might say confrontational) power projection, and that two years later he made some brusque, less-than-sensitive comments that have needlessly rankled a close American ally. After all, the book was clearly written as a campaign booster and not a weighty foreign policy doctrine, and it's entirely possible that Romney's comment was an innocent misstep.

Still, it's hard not to see this incident as a reminder of the potential pitfalls of a worldview that sees thoughtful diplomacy as "apologizing" and emphasizes American dominance through American strength. Romney, who has reacted to the spate not by doubling down on his criticism but by backing off and offering some polite flattery to his offended host nation, seems to realize this himself. Fortunately, it doesn't look like Prime Minister Cameron will be asking for an apology. Such a demand, after all, would be poor diplomacy.


Update, 2:25 p.m. EST: Is Mitt Romney even all that crazy about the United Kingdom? A section of his 2010 book, unearthed by Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating, describes the country in terms that seem alternatively glowing and, well, not:

England [sic] is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn't make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn't been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler's ambitions. Yet only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind. Britain controlled a quarter of the earth's land and a quarter of the earth's population.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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