It is difficult to tell just what Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s vision for American foreign policy is. Based on his rhetoric and personnel decisions, he could either be a neoconservative or a realist.
Romney has vehemently criticized incumbent president Barack Obama for projecting “weakness” abroad. He has claimed that the United States Navy “is smaller than it’s been since 1917” because of the Obama Administration’s defense spending reductions. He has vowed to “crack down on cheaters” like China, which keeps its exports artificially underpriced, where the president won’t. He promises to pursue an “opposite” policy toward Israel than the president and claimed that if Barack Obama is reelected in November, “Iran will have a nuclear weapon” whereas he would prevent it.
Yet Romney hasn’t unveiled a budget plan that would allocate much more funding to defense. It is difficult to believe that as a former businessman and governor, he would risk instigating a trade war with China and not pursue the very policy that the Obama Administration has, one which the Chinese regard as pretty confrontational as it is. His Israel policy likely won’t be at all different from the president’s.
On the question of whether or not to take military action to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability, there may be a difference of opinion between the candidates but both claim to be committed to preventing the Islamic country from becoming a nuclear weapons state.
Indeed, it seems the only real difference in terms of foreign policy is one that Romney rarely talks about: his rejection of a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Republicans believe that in announcing an intention to retreat by 2014, the United States and their allies have given the Taliban a reason to wait out the remaining two years of the war and return to power once Western forces have left. It’s far from certain whether Romney will reverse that policy however, given the war’s mounting unpopularity at home.
The candidate’s personnel decisions don’t particularly shine a light on his own foreign policy views. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a national-security hawk whose views aligned with those of the Bush Administration’s, is an advisor to Romney’s foreign-policy team and said to be among his candidates for secretary of state. The rumor has been picked up on by the left to lament that Romney’s would be a perpetuation of the Bush era’s interventionist, “warmongering” policy.
Former World Bank president Bob Zoellick’s appointment as head of the former Massachusetts governor’s national-security transition team suggests the very opposite. The man who served as President George W. Bush’s trade representative between 2001 and 2005 is seen as to the left of neoconservatives even if, in 1998, he urged President Bill Clinton to intervene in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
According to Danielle Pletka, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Zoellick is “pro-China to the point of mania, he’s an establishment guy, he’s a trade first guy. He’s basically a George H.W. Bush, old school Republican.” Which would seem to conflict with Romney’s tough talk on pushing China to relinquish protectionist policies to create a “level playing field” with American producers. (Something Barack Obama has also vowed to do.)
Former secretary of state Jim Baker takes exception to Pletka’s denunciation of “old school” Republicanism, telling Foreign Policy magazine that the realist school which Zoellick is supposed to adhere to as did the elder Bush and himself — a pragmatic foreign policy that understands the limits of American power and eschews costly and lengthy interventions in countries that aren’t crucial to American interests — is particularly relevant today.
The fact of the matter is that if the Romney campaign and the Romney Administration employ somebody like Bob Zoellick, they’re going to get somebody who’s been there, who’s done that, who understands how to make things work and who understands how to get things done. And that’s what we need, above all, in our leadership.
The Romney campaign’s foreign policy white paper echoes Baker’s views. The introduction by Eliot Cohen, a neoconservative, reads, “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” — not a very neoconservative position which usually maintains that American interests and values are not in tension. (A position that also happens to be espoused by liberal interventionists.)
The part of the white paper that is supposed to have been written by the candidate himself suggests that Zoellick rather than Bolton reflects Romney’s foreign policy views. “Our prosperity is tied to free markets and free trade,” it reads.
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.
The observation that the spread of Western policies — which isn’t the same as values — enhances American commercial and strategic interests is not the same as neoconservatism which advocates the forceful implementation of such policies in countries that are hostile to American interests. Nor is the appraisal of America’s role as shepherd of globalization a justification for aggression.
If one goes by Romney’s actual appointments, not rumors of appointments, and his writings, he may well be an “old school Republican” realist in the tradition of George H.W. Bush. It’s only his rhetoric that suggests he sympathizes more with the former president’s son’s policies.