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