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.

The United States will exercise leadership in multilateral organizations and alliances. American leadership lends credibility and breeds faith in the ultimate success of any action, facilitating the participation not only of allies but also of others who are sitting on the sidelines. American leadership will also focus multilateral institutions like the United Nations on achieving the substantive goals of democracy and human rights enshrined in their charters. Bodies like the United Nations tend to confuse process with substance, prizing the act of negotiating over the outcomes that negotiations can reach. Even worse, these organizations have become forums for the tantrums of tyrants and for airing of the world's most ancient of prejudices: anti-Semitism. In the tradition of such U.N. ambassadors as Daniel P. Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick and John Bolton, the United States must fight to return these bodies to their proper role of promoting democracy, human rights, and a peaceful and prosperous world. But while America should always try to work with others nations, America will always reserve the right to act alone to protect our vital interests.

There's something in here for everybody. It begins and ends with a declaration that multilateral organizations and alliances are important tools in statecraft and that a Romney administration would make full use of them, exerting American leadership to urge them on the right course. The middle is chock full of dog whistles to the anti-UN crowd. The combination of the two is a paragraph that says nothing.

The next several pages (there are 27 in all) are pretty standard Republican foreign policy boilerplate, drawing heavily on the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan. There are the requisite nods to the Declaration of Independence, Winthrop's "shining city on a hill," Abraham Lincoln, and the like. Unfortunately, there's too much campaign trail red meat, too, with the obligatory shots at Obama's "apologies" for American greatness.

On page 14, he tells us,

President Obama came into office with a military in serious need of modernization. However, instead of rebuilding our strength, President Obama has put us on course toward a "hollow" force. He has already cut the projected defense budget by $350 billion over the next twelve years and he has sought even further massive cuts over the same period. What is more, he agreed to a budget process that holds up the possibility of far sharper decreases in military spending, on the order of $600 billion over the same period. This budget cutting enterprise is proceeding while American troops are in combat in Afghanistan, facing dangers in Iraq, and fighting the remnants of al Qaeda worldwide.

Granting that this is fundamentally a campaign document rather than a governing platform, this is rather silly. The war in Iraq is all but over and the fight in Afghanistan is scheduled to end by the end of 2014. While there's little doubt that we need to recapitalize some systems that have been worn out by two decades of near-constant deployment or simple obsolescence, that can be done within the framework of a defense budget that would exceed the combined spending of our allies and competitors alike even if the most draconian cuts on the table were enacted. To the extent the force is "hollow," it's because the troops are worn out from an unsustainable operations tempo, not because we're cutting too deep.

The Obama administration's cuts have left us with a military inventory largely composed of weapons designed forty to fifty years ago. The average age of our tanker aircraft is 47 years, of strategic bombers 34 years.

Obama has been in office less than three years. The math on this just doesn't work out. But the general thrust of this section is strategically prudent as well as being a useful political talking point:

The Obama administration is seeking to reap a "peace dividend" when we are not at peace and when the dangers to our security are mounting. This flies directly in the face of conclusions from the bipartisan Perry-Hadley Commission set up by Congress last year. Even before Congress has adopted its latest round of cuts and even before President Obama had proposed yet deeper cuts, the Commission warned that: "[t]he aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure."

The next president will face some weighty problems. Defense cuts are unavoidable given the fiscal state of affairs. At the same time, the force is undercapitalized and our allies are cutting already paltry spending further. So, what would a President Romney do?

He will put our Navy on the path to increase its shipbuilding rate from nine per year to approximately fifteen per year. He will also modernize and replace the aging inventories of the Air Force, Army, and Marines, and selectively strengthen our force structure. And he will fully commit to a robust, multi-layered national ballistic-missile defense system to deter and defend against nuclear attacks on our homeland and our allies.

This will not be a cost-free process. We cannot rebuild our military strength without paying for it. Romney will begin by reversing Obama-era defense cuts and return to the budget baseline established by Secretary Robert Gates in 2010, with the goal of setting core defense spending --meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development -- at a floor of 4 percent of GDP.

This will be ridiculously expensive. And 4 percent of GDP may be hard to justify given the inability to raise taxes and the demands of entitlement programs.

Romney will also find efficiencies throughout the Department of Defense budget that can be reinvested into the force. The Department's bureaucracy is bloated to the point of dysfunction and is ripe for being pared. In the years since 2000, the Pentagon's civilian staff grew by 20 percent while our active duty fighting force grew by only 3.4 percent. That imbalance needs to be rectified.

If there's a more annoying talking point in budgetary politics than "efficiencies," I can't think of it offhand. While there's no doubt waste in the budget and bloat on the staff, it's not where the problem is.

During World War II the United States built 1,000 ships per year with 1,000 people employed in the Bureau of Ships, as the naval purchasing department of the Department of War was then called. By the 1980s, we were building seventeen ships per year, with 4,000 people in purchasing. Today, when we are building only nine ships a year, the Pentagon manages the shipbuilding process with some 25,000 people. That kind of excess must be brought to an end along with the byzantine rules and wasteful practices that riddle the military procurement process.

The intricacies of the procurement process is beyond my expertise. But I do know that the Department of War (which housed the Army and Air Force) isn't the place to look for Department of the Navy spending in World War II. Further, while I couldn't tell you why we need 25,000 people to manage the process of building nine ships--I'm taking the numbers on faith--"byzantine rules" and teams of accountants, auditors, and technical experts are surely needed to oversee a multi-billion dollar enterprise outsourced to private industry.

Other highlights:

If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia. Mitt Romney will implement a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system.


Toward that end, the United States should maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific. We should be assisting partners that require help to enhance their defensive capabilities. The Department of Defense should reconsider recent decisions not to sell top-of-theline equipment to our closest Asian allies. We should be coordinating with Taiwan to determine its military needs and supplying them with adequate aircraft and other military platforms.

This strikes me as a giant step backwards, to before Nixon's opening to China four decades ago. Bolstering the power of a breakaway state that they consider a nuisance and menace hardly seems conducive to curtailing China's regional ambitions, much less putting them on a path to more fruitful membership in the international community.

We need to continue to strengthen alliances and relations with strategic partners like India and build stronger ties to influential countries like Indonesia. Our aim should be to work with all these countries bilaterally but also to encourage them to work with one another as they have begun to do. Our objective is not to build an anti-China coalition. Rather it is to strengthen cooperation among countries with which we share a concern about China's growing power and increasing assertiveness and with whom we also share an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation and ensuring that disputes over resources are resolved by peaceful means. It is yet another way of closing off China's option of expanding its influence through coercion.

This is classic balance of power politics and makes much more sense in the cases of India and Indonesia -- who are actually important regional powers in their own right -- than Taiwan.

On the matter of the Arab Spring:

To protect our enduring national interests and to promote our ideals, a Romney administration will pursue a strategy of supporting groups and governments across the Middle East to advance the values of representative government, economic opportunity, and human rights, and opposing any extension of Iranian or jihadist influence. The Romney administration will strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter.

This is a statement of vision, not policy. But that's probably just as well; the situation will be radically different come January 2013, so there's not much point in outlining concrete responses now.

Israel is the United States' closest ally in the Middle East and a beacon of democracy and freedom in the region.

The last part of this is demonstrably untrue. But it's de rigueur.

To ensure Israel's security, Mitt Romney will work closely with Israel to maintain it strategic military edge. The United States will work intensively with Turkey and Egypt to shore up the now fraying relationships with Israel that have underpinned peace in the Middle East for decades. The United States must forcefully resist the emergence of anti-Israel policies in Turkey and Egypt, and work to make clear that their interests are not served by isolating Israel.

The recognition of Turkey's key role, especially, is gratifying. It's not at all clear what it is that the United States can or should do to influence that country's political decision-making, however.

As president, Romney will reject any measure that would frustrate direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He will make clear to the Palestinians that the unilateral attempt to decide issues that are designated for final negotiations by the Oslo Accords is unacceptable. The United States will reduce assistance to the Palestinians if they continue to pursue United Nations recognition or form a unity government that includes Hamas, a terrorist group dedicated to Israel's destruction.

For the most part, this has been the bipartisan policy of the United States--to include the Obama administration -- for years.

The United States must recognize Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for what he is: an unscrupulous dictator, a killer, and a proxy for Iran. For far too long, the Obama administration held out hope that it could negotiate with Assad to stop his violent crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. It even labeled him a "reformer" while he was turning heavy weapons on his own people. Mitt Romney holds no illusions about Assad's character or about Iran's interest in maintaining a client regime in Damascus.Mitt Romney believes the United States should pursue a strategy of isolating and pressuring the Assad regime to increase the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions that cut off funding sources that serve to maintain the regime's grip on power. We should work with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to call on Syria's military to protect civilians rather than attack them. This effort would aim to drive a wedge between Assad and his military, minimize violence, and increase the possibility that the ruling minority Alawites will be able to reconcile with the majority Sunni population in a post-Assad Syria. And we should make clear that the United States and our allies will support the Syrian opposition when the time comes for them to forge a post-Assad government.

This sounds remarkably like current American policy. Most gratifyingly, there does not seem to be a hidden call for war here.

As president, Mitt Romney's strategy will be to end Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon, eliminate the threat of Iranian nuclear terrorism against the United States and our allies, and prevent nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with an understanding on Iran's part that a military option to deal with their nuclear program remains on the table. This message should not only be delivered through words, but through actions.

As with the Bush and Obama administrations, this combines frustrated fist waving at "unacceptable" outcomes with the prudent recognition that there's not a whole hell of a lot that we can do to prevent them. Thankfully, the "actions" Romney advocates include bringing back the carrier task force that got redeployed to Libya, working more closely with Israel and Arab partners, and yet more sanctions. Aside from keeping options "on the table," there's no real call for military force.

In the conclusion, Romney calls for the return to a bipartisanship in America's foreign policy, evoking Senator Arthur Vandenberg's 1952 dictum that "politics stops at the water's edge," saying this was not mere slogan but "sufficient consensus to enable America to stand largely united as we moved forward with such monumental projects as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and the Truman Doctrine to check Soviet expansion."

Noting that Vietnam and then the bitterness over the Iraq War broke down that consensus, Romney calls for restoring it. But, in the next breath, he seems to say that it's unlikely.

Healing our longstanding divisions should be a primary objective of any American president. Politics should indeed stop at the water's edge, as Vandenberg implored. But we need to see our current circumstances plainly. It is not the quest for political advantage that underlies our sharp divisions about national security. Rather, those divisions arise from fundamental disagreements about the nature of the international system and equally fundamental disagreements about the best American policies to contend with the perils of a deeply troubled world.

This white paper sets out Mitt Romney's view of America's position in the world, the dangers and opportunities that lie before us, and the policy choices that will make us safe. It is a view starkly different from that held by President Obama, and it leads to a set of prescriptions starkly different from those which he has set in motion over the past three years. The American people deserve the opportunity to make an informed choice about the kind of world in which they want to live. If we fall short of Vandenberg's ideal, if we continue to have profound disagreements about how best to protect our country, at least we continue to settle our disagreements by discussions, debates, campaigns, and elections. That is what our democracy is all about.

Interestingly, aside from the standard point scoring that goes along with a campaign to oust a sitting president, it's remarkable how much continuity there is between Romney's vision and Obama's -- which itself isn't all that different from that which George W. Bush campaigned on in 2000 and governed by starting in 2006 or so. There's some shibboleths uttered for the crowd to signal that he's one of them but this is fundamentally a realist foreign policy vision couched in a lot of rhetoric about values.

Like Romney himself, it's not particularly exciting. Nor, thankfully, is it frightening.