Tilting at Windmills

Mitt Romney's new, muscular foreign policy isn't new at all. And his GOP standard-issue scaremongering misses the fact that Democrats are no longer foreign-policy weaklings.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For more than six decades, Republican presidential aspirants have had a very simple but consistent message for explaining how they differ from Democrats on U.S. foreign policy: We’re tough; they’re not.

Friday, Oct. 7’s major foreign-policy speech by GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney follows this rather familiar path. According to Romney’s speech, he will adopt a very "different" approach to foreign policy than that of the current occupant of the White House: "I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today." 

How does Romney define American power? He may speak of values and economic strength, but like so many of his predecessors, it’s the military. As part of his plan for lifting America from the depths of its current "weakness," Romney has pledged to increase the size of the Navy, enhance U.S. efforts to militarily deter Iran, recommit to a more robust missile defense, defend the United States against cyberthreats, review the current plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, and reverse the Obama administration’s "massive defense cuts." If there’s any doubt about what’s forefront in Romney’s mind when it comes to how to build the American Century, just look at the choice of venue: His most significant foreign-policy speech to date was given at the Citadel military school in South Carolina — another reminder that the GOP stands with the symbolic elements of American strength. If Romney believes that the soft power of American diplomacy and statecraft have been shortchanged or de-emphasized over the past 10 years, he certainly wasn’t making a point of it.

On the surface, this muscular foreign policy — and its attendant costs — might seem surprising in the context of a growing national debt and a new age of austerity in Washington. Where, after all, is Romney going to find the money for such an expansion of U.S. military power?

More importantly, why? The United States is enjoying a period of relative peace in the world; is in the process of moving away from one of the most disastrous periods in U.S. foreign-policy history; and lacks any significant great-power rival. According to the recent Human Security Report, there has not been a major power conflict in six decades, "the longest period of major power peace in centuries."

So who exactly is the enemy, and where are the "grave threats" that Romney believes America needs a renewed spate of military spending to confront? This is always the challenge for a candidate who wants to argue that his incumbent rival is not protecting America — hype up the nature of foreign threats (whether its John F. Kennedy’s mythical "missile gap" or George W. Bush’s warning of terrorist "wolves" that threatened America).

But Friday’s speech isn’t the first time Romney has made this pitch; in late August, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he argued that it "is wishful thinking … that the world is becoming a safer place. The opposite is true. Consider simply the jihadists, a near-nuclear Iran, a turbulent Middle East, an unstable Pakistan, a delusional North Korea, an assertive Russia, and an emerging global power called China." In Friday’s speech, Romney added the specter of "failed and failing states" and those in the Middle East who would seek to "crush" the "yearn[ing] for freedom."

Let’s ignore for a moment the idea that Romney treats these as serious threats to America rather than as more mundane foreign-policy challenges that U.S. policymakers must handle. What’s perhaps more important is what he intends to do about these threats: Romney asserts that there is "no one approach" to keeping America safe, but that sort of nuance is lost in the telling. In Romney’s view, America is a unique, exceptional power that leads the free world and, in turn, the entire world. It is a muscular vision of American leadership that is built on the notion that "when America is strong, the world is safer." Romney’s language suggests that such things like compromise, even diplomacy, are less important than symbolic elements of American power. Indeed, in listening to Romney’s remarks on Friday, one gets the impression that the former Massachusetts governor sees intrinsic value in the appearance of American "toughness" as a policy goal in its own right — and that this can be utilized to deter future threats.

But again there is nothing terribly surprising about such an approach. (To be sure, when it comes to expressing an exceptionalist vision of American leadership and U.S. power, President Barack Obama is no shrinking violet.) After all, if there is one lesson to be gleaned from the history of foreign-policy discussions on the campaign trail, facts are often less important than stereotypes — and this is really Romney’s key target. Let’s be clear: It’s not really China or North Korea that Romney wants you to think is making the world more dangerous — it’s Obama. He’s hoping to activate the long-held notion that Democrats aren’t tough enough to keep America safe from foreign threats, and in doing so Romney is just singing off a much-used GOP hymnal. In the 1960s, Democrats were the candidates of anti-war hippies; in the 1970s they were McGovernites and pessimists; in the 1980s, "blame America firsters"; and in more recent years, "cut and runners." Today, says the GOP, Democrats are apologists for American power. The characters might change, but the script doesn’t.

There’s one problem, however, with such arguments: They don’t stick so easily to Obama. As president, Obama has bent over backward to do away with the image of him as conciliatory to enemies and tough on allies. He’s dramatically ramped up the drone war against the remnants of al Qaeda, killed Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, sent surge troops to Afghanistan, and successfully prosecuted a war in Libya. In short, it’s hard to be more muscular than Obama has been over the past 33 months.

At a time when Obama’s overall poll numbers could hardly look worse, his handling of terrorism and foreign policy are one area where voters seem relatively pleased with his performance. It’s a view even embraced, wait for it, by the Republican speaker of the House. In remarks on Thursday, John Boehner suggested that Obama has more aggressively prosecuted the war effort against "the enemy" in the "tribal areas" of Pakistan than President George W. Bush did.

In reality, what Romney is recommending and what Obama is doing as president are not necessarily all that different in practice. They both believe in exceptionalist visions of American power; they both share the view that America has limitless national security interests; they both see the military as a key tool of American power, and neither is terribly interested in embracing a vision of U.S. retrenchment.

There are important differences between the two men: on the size of the defense budget, the role of multilateral institutions, and the need for diplomacy. But these are distinctions that exist along the margins of America’s foreign-policy debates — and truth be told, they are issues that voters are unlikely to care about in a year when the economy is front and center. Rather than a robust national debate about the nature of U.S. power or American national security interests in an increasingly post-"war on terror" world, if Romney’s remarks Friday are any indication, campaign 2012 is likely to focus on the issue it all too often does — who’s tougher.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola