How the leading GOP candidate sees American foreign policy and its challenges ahead
Declare China a currency manipulator. Impose harsh sanctions on Iran. Build a missile shield against Russia. Keep American troops in Afghanistan. Halt negotiations with the Taliban. Visit Israel on first presidential trip. And add 100,000 soldiers to the U.S. army.
To be sure, as a former moderate Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney needed to out-chest-thump his Republican rivals to become the party's presumptive nominee. But don't expect Romney to tack to the center in this year's general election.
A review of Romney's foreign policy stands and an interview with one of his senior foreign policy advisers point toward a bruising battle over America's place in the world. In the months ahead, the foreign policy debate could be just as ideologically polarized as clashes over the economy and role of government.
"Both the United States and the world are better off when the United States leads," Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, told me in an interview Thursday. "A stronger national defense is our best deterrent from having to go to war."
Sound familiar? It should. Williamson, who held ambassadorial posts in the last three Republican administrations, said the Romney campaign plans to embrace a Reagan-like push for expanded American military might. While skeptics may argue that the world of 2012 is vastly different from that of 1982, Williamson insisted it was not. Increased American military power was both possible, he contended, and popular with other nations.
"In the '30s Churchill was right, and in the '80s Reagan was right," he said. "Strength does deter mischief."
Rhetorically at least, that is the polar opposite of the Obama administration. While exceptions exist, the White House has focused on reducing American troop presence around the world, relying on drones and commandos to kill terrorists, and working closely with allies. From the killing of Osama bin Laden to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq to the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, Obama administration officials say they have a vastly more effective, focused and pragmatic foreign policy than that of the Bush administration.
Nearly every successful presidential candidate, of course, reverses foreign policy positions after taking office. Ronald Reagan vowed to get tough with the Soviets but then signed historic arms reduction treaties with them. Bill Clinton vowed to oppose Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization and then supported it.
At the same time, campaign positions reflect a candidate's vision of America and its role in the world. And voters should remember that foreign policy matters at home. The American economy is more intertwined with the world economy than ever. And a third of federal spending relates to foreign policy, with 20% going to defense, 8% to veterans' benefits, and 7% to the State Department and other agencies.
Here is a rough summary of Romney's positions, Williamson's statements and my comments.
American leadership: On the campaign trail, Romney has repeatedly professed his belief in "American exceptionalism." In the interview, Williamson accused Obama of trying to "manage" America's inevitable decline. Expect Romney to accuse Obama of not believing that the U.S. is an exceptional nation that can and should lead the world. Romney will argue that the pessimism and passivity of Obama -- a.k.a. Jimmy Carter - has created an unstable. Around the globe, he will contend, people welcome American leadership.
Annual worldwide polling by the Pew Research Center shows a more complex picture. Obama's election in 2008 generally improved views of the U.S., but the financial crisis then badly damaged it. Polling in 18 countries in 2010 showed that 47% of those contacted believed China will replace -- or already has replaced -- the U.S. as the world's lone superpower. Strikingly, a plurality of Americans - 43% - declared China the world's leading economic power. Only 38% of Americans named the United States. I believe military spending alone cannot revive the U.S.'s standing. Only an American economic resurgence will.
China: Williamson accused Obama of being too "polite and patient" with China. "We all know China cheats," he said. "Full stop." When I visited China last fall, though, Chinese officials were infuriated by Romney's vow to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day as president. Citing the financial crisis and Washington's political paralysis, they argued that America's economic decline was the U.S.'s fault. I believe declaring China a currency manipulator could result in a trade war that would devastate the fragile American economy. Getting tough with China is not as simple as it sounds.
Iran: Williamson accused Obama of wasting years on a "mother may I approach" to sanctions that involved bringing allies on board. He promised immediate unilateral sanctions by a Romney administration. Whoever is in the White House, expect Tehran to do everything it can to send oil prices skyrocketing. Iran will be a hornet's nest for an Obama or Romney administration.
Russia: Obama's effort to "reset" relations with Moscow has "failed," according to Williamson. But with Putin already convinced the U.S. is trying to foment a revolution against him, more saber rattling is unlikely to have much effect. As Gaddafi, Assad and others have shown, autocrats don't capitulate when scolded by the U.S.
Afghanistan: Romney has vowed to stop all negotiations with the Taliban. As I argued last week, tough talk is good, but the war there is unwinnable as long as the Pakistani military continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. The only solution to the conflict is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and its Pakistani military patrons.
Israel: Romney has accused Obama of failing to sufficiently back Israel. In reality, Israel is increasingly isolated in a rapidly changing Middle East. Pursuing a two-state solution is in the interest of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and the region.
Adding troops: Obama is proposing an 80,000 soldier reduction in the size of the U.S. Army that would save an estimated $150 billion over 10 years. Romney's 100,000 soldier increase would likely cost $150 billion. Williamson said a growing economy and Pentagon procurement reforms will pay for the increase.
I agree with Romney that the United States is not in irrevocable decline. The U.S. can, and does, play a vital role in the world, particularly through the ideals it represents. But Romney's failure to discuss the lessons of America's trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan troubles me. So does his failure to seriously grapple with the deep structural changes in the world economy that have weakened the American middle class.
In the contest ahead, both candidates will hopefully offer more than platitudes about America and the world. Economic strength, alliances and choosing our fiscal priorities are the key to reinvigorating American power. Not lofty rhetoric from Obama or martial rhetoric from Romney.
This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.