Daniel W. Drezner

Death of the foreign policy mandarins?

Death of the foreign policy mandarins?

Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week calling the New START Treaty Obama’s "worst foreign policy mistake yet."  This prompted a fair amount of blowback.  The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Slate’s Fred Kaplan tore Romney a new one dissected the substance of Romney’s argument and found it wanting.  Senator John Kerry wrote a WaPo op-ed the next day that had a pretty contemptuous conclusion: 

I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world’s most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you’re in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation’s security is more important than scoring cheap political points.

Now reading through all of this, it seems pretty clear that Romney’s substantive critique is weak tea.  Objecting to the content of a treaty preamble is pretty silly.  Claiming that the Russians could put ICBMs on their bombers because of the treaty indicates Romney’s ghost-writer doesn’t know the first thing about the history of nuclear weapons some holes in the research effort. 

Putting the substantive objections aside, there are some interesting implications to draw from this kerfuffle.  First, START will be an easy test of the remaining power of the foreign policy mandarins.  As Time‘s Michael Crowley points out, START has the support of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Senator Richard Lugar. 

If the Obama administration can’t get Senate ratification of START despite the bipartisan support of the foreign policy community, well, it suggests that the foreign policy community doesn’t have the political capital it once did.  I posited earlier this year that START would pass because it was pretty unobtrusive and wouldn’t play a big role in political campaigns.  If GOP senators think differently, however, then you can kiss any foreign policy initiative that requires congressional approval bye-bye. 

This could seriously hamper U.S. foreign policy.  Politically, Romney was wise to pick on START, because its importance is not in the arms control.  Boosters like Kerry will talk about START like its the greatest thing since sliced bread, when in point of fact it’s a modest treaty that yields modest gains on the arms control front.  No, START matters because its a signal of better and more stable relations with Moscow (much in the same way that NAFTA was not about trade so much as about ending a century-long contentious relationship with Mexico). 

So even if Romney gets chewed up and spit out by the foreign policy mandarins, there’s a way in which he’ll win no matter what.  By belittling the treaty, Romney will get its defenders to inflate its positive attributes.  This will force analysts to say that "both sides have exaggerated their claims," putting Romney on par with the foreign policy mandarins. 

Developing… in a bad way for the mandarins. 

UPDATE:  Barron YoungSmith makes a similar point over at TNR.  He’s even more pessimistic than I am: 

[T]he responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back. Mandarins like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker, who have all testified or written on behalf of the START treaty—calling it an integral, uncontroversial way of repairing the bipartisan arms-control legacy that sustained American foreign policy all the way up until the George W. Bush administration—are going to be dead soon (or they’ve drifted into the service of Democrats). The people who will take their place will be from a generation of superhawks, like John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Robert Joseph, who are virulently opposed to the practice of negotiated arms control. Mitt Romney, though a moderate from Michigan, is not going to be the second coming of Gerald Ford.

Well…. this might be true, if you think Mitt Romney has his finger on the pulse of the GOP voter.  Based on past experience, however, Mitt Romney has never been able to find that pulse. 

Still developing….