Can Mitt Romney Recover the Soul of Republican Foreign Policy?

Brent Scowcroft, a lifelong Republican who served in the Gerald Ford and Bush 41 presidencies, notes that there always have been strident people in American politics, but in the past there were a greater number willing to aim for cooperation and compromise. Now his party has embraced the Newt Gingrich approach of "rote opposition and 'just say no,'" says Scowcroft, who calls this approach "grossly dysfunctional." He adds, "That makes it very hard for any president to lead internationally."

Romney's task of articulating a Republican foreign-policy narrative is complicated also by Obama's deftness in occupying the middle ground of liberal internationalism, most obviously evidenced by his decision to keep Robert Gates on as defense secretary. Thus, some of his foreign-policy initiatives in the realms of nonproliferation and Middle East peacemaking have been supported by moderate Republicans, including Scowcroft, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Richard Lugar, Gates, and Chuck Hagel.

To draw clear distinctions with the Obama record, Romney has attacked the president from the right while embracing Ronald Reagan's "peace through strength" rhetoric. That explains both Romney's endorsement of major increases in defense spending and the size of the military even as the nation ends two ground wars and his criticism of Obama as weak and conciliatory toward adversaries.

In Romney's narrative, Obama's outreach to the Islamic world and talk about past U.S. missteps--supporting autocrats in Muslim countries or adopting counter-terrorism policies that ran "contrary to our ideals"--amounts to apologizing for America's greatness. "Never before in American history has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds," Romney wrote in his 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. "It is his way of signaling to foreign countries and foreign leaders that their dislike for America is something he understands and that is, at least in part, understandable."

Romney has focused his most intense criticism at Obama's pressure on Israel to end settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as a way to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations going back decades have opposed settlements, but Romney argues that Obama's approach amounts to "[throwing] Israel under the bus." The clear message, driven home by Romney's visit to Israel this summer in his sole overseas trip of the campaign, is that Romney would back Israel unconditionally and adopt the "hands-off" approach to the Middle East peace process that George W. Bush took in his first term.

Regarding great-power relations, Romney also has taken a hard line, criticizing the Obama administration's "reset" in relations with Moscow and tolerance of China's unfair trade practices. "Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world's worst actors," Romney told CNN. And Romney has threatened to label Beijing a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office if the communist regime continues to refuse to float its currency against the dollar. "If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China, and that's what's happened for twenty years," Romney said.

Romney's surrogates also criticize Obama's attempts to build international consensus for action at the United Nations as multilateralism run amok, too often tying America's hands. They accuse the administration of "leading from behind" in the NATO operation to oust Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi, belittle its willingness to negotiate with adversaries such as Syria and Iran, and deride its attempts to close the Guantánamo Bay prison as being soft on terrorism.

"Like Ronald Reagan, Governor Romney believes that America and the world are better off when the United States leads from a position of unchallenged strength, and that our values should animate our foreign policy," former ambassador Richard Williamson, a foreign-policy adviser to Romney, said in an interview. "Contrast that to President Obama's preference for 'leading from behind,' for engagement for engagement's sake, and his undue deference to multilateralism that has compromised U.S. policies towards Syria, Iran and North Korea."

Romney's critique has a common theme: Obama's outreach to global constituencies, and embrace of a multilateral worldview, represent a turning away from "American exceptionalism," or the notion that the United States embodies a unique set of values, principles and attributes that make it a beacon of democracy and the natural global leader. "I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world," Romney said at the Citadel last year. "Not exceptional, as the President has derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama's profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States." He adds, "If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President. You have that President today."

Of course, one danger of such a hard-line foreign-policy narrative is that it takes lessons from the Reagan era out of time and context. Reagan burdened the country with high levels of debt, for instance, to overwhelm the monolithic threat of the Soviet Union. That gamble paid off with the Soviet collapse. Today, by contrast, both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of defense argue persuasively that the United States' crippling debt is the number one national-security threat to the nation. Yet when Obama proposed creating a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission whose hard medicine would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote in Congress, a number of Republicans who had previously supported the idea changed positions to thwart the president, a clear indication that a post-Cold War consensus for addressing the nation's most pressing problems remains elusive.

There also is a danger that the Romney narrative may remind voters less of Ronald Reagan than of George W. Bush, and it could lead to a repeat of Bush's controversial first-term mistakes. Chief among them, in the view of some, was the failure to recognize some of the important implications of the current age of globalization, such as the erosion of national borders, empowerment of nonstate actors and political awakening of ordinary citizens around the world. These developments have created problems such as terrorism, the threat of proliferation and destabilizing revolutions that can be dealt with only through multilateral cooperation. As Scowcroft puts it, "The decision by the [Bush 43] administration to go in the opposite direction, and try and deal with those problems as a unilateral nation-state using traditional military power, is what brought America to the point of crisis."

One interpretation of the evolving narrative of American power is that after periods of transformative upheaval brought about by crisis or confrontation, the system ultimately self-corrects to a more sustainable foreign policy bearing hallmarks of the liberal-internationalist worldview. Something similar happened after the revolutionary first terms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, when the foreign-policy pendulum eventually swung back to more realist sensibilities during their second terms. In that view, the obvious foreign-policy continuity between the second Reagan term and the George H. W. Bush administration and between the second George W. Bush term and the Obama administration may represent a sort of sweet spot between the dynamic political tensions that shape America's role in the world.

Trying to explain American foreign policy by the various "schools" of foreign-policy thought is ultimately too simplistic, because modern American presidents have pursued a pretty consistent set of general principles you might call "pragmatic idealism," which is heavily guided both by American ideals but also by situational balances of power,

said Robert Kagan, the neoconservative intellectual and author whose book, The World America Made, has been lauded by both Romney and Obama. He goes on:

We will have predictable arguments between different foreign-policy camps that end predictably, but there is far more continuity to U.S. foreign policy than the candidates and experts like to acknowledge. That's why despite Obama's running as the polar opposite of President Bush, Obama's foreign policy looks more like the Bush administration's than almost anyone expected.

A more ominous interpretation of the current debate about American power would view the steady disappearance of traditional realists and liberal internationalists within the Republican Party as enduring. The realist/internationalist wing of the party may be fading with the passing of the Cold War generation of Republicans who championed it and as a result of the party's shift toward the South and Mountain West.

"In terms of the division between the neoconservative and realist wings of the Republican Party, I would argue that all of the intellectual energy is on the neoconservative side," Elliot Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser in the Bush 43 administration, told me in a comment echoed by other prominent Republicans. "It's hard to think of anyone below the age of forty who is pushing those ideas anymore. Where is the next generation of Republican realists?"

If the Republican Party moves so far to the right that liberal internationalists have no home other than with the Democrats, their brand of international engagement and moderation risks becoming just another political football tossed about in the partisan scrum of Washington politics. In that case, U.S. foreign policy will continue to vacillate wildly whenever power changes hands between the parties, the congressional opposition will keep stubbornly obstructing the president's foreign-policy initiatives out of a sense of duty and ideology, and the perceived erosion in the quality of U.S. global leadership will persist. Meanwhile, the ongoing quest for a bipartisan, post-Cold War consensus on America's rightful role in the world will remain quixotic. That's not a prescription for American exceptionalism but rather a narrative of continued American decline.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

Presented by

James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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