- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Now that Governor Romney can concentrate on the general election, he would be well-advised to consider again the ways that campaigning can complicate governing when it comes to foreign policy. In this, he has no better tutor than the last challenger to successfully win the presidency.
The political process rewards hyperbolic critique of the ruling party coupled with extravagant promises of wholesale change. If candidates governed according to the letter (or perhaps even the spirit) of their campaign rhetoric, then the problems might be acute. However, the prevailing pattern of American politics is a reversion to the mean, the persistence of pragmatic continuity in defiance of flamboyant critiques from the extreme flanks.
There is still room for mischief within the boundaries of that pattern. Sometimes the mischief is minor, as when candidate Obama promised in ever-more-rigid terms to adopt a position on the Armenian genocide that all seasoned experts knew he would abandon once in office — as he did.
Sometimes the mischief is more consequential, as when candidate Obama promised unconditional leader-to-leader talks with Iran, which led the administration to squander two extraordinary opportunities in his first year in office — Iran’s short-lived Green Revolution response to electoral fraud in June 2009 and the revelations of the illegal uranium enrichment program at Fordow in September 2009. During this crucial period, Obama failed to intensify the coercive diplomacy that they developed later.
And sometimes the mischief is potentially quite profound, as when the Obama administration acted on their campaign belief that the way to leverage better cooperation from the Iraqi government was to underscore our determination to abandon them rather than to follow the Bush practice of hugging Maliki as closely as possible.
So far, Governor Romney has avoided these kinds of self-inflicted wounds. The closest he has come is calling Russia our "No. 1 geopolitical foe," which is a bit of hyperbole that the candidate probably wishes he had phrased differently.
His stance on the Chinese currency also might be a candidate for campaigning vs. governing scrutiny. He has promised to quickly declare it a currency manipulator. While many experts might agree that China has been manipulating its currency, successive administrations have shrunk from making that declaratory step because of concern about the significant repercussions of a trade/currency war that might ensue. Romney might be following a sophisticated strategy of jawboning, however, hoping to cajole China into taking more steps of their own to address the situation so that Romney’s threatened step does not need to be taken. If China calls the bluff, however, a President Romney would have a difficult choice to make.
A successful Romney would probably walk back from reckless campaign promises when confronted with the stark responsibilities of governing. But better to avoid the recklessness in the first place.