Stephen M. Walt

Friends and allies: Romney fails International Relations 101

The pundits I tend to read seem to think Mitt Romney won last night’s GOP candidates’ debate.  I didn’t watch it, so I don’t have an opinion on that issue. But according to the New York Times coverage, none of the contenders covered themselves with glory on foreign policy, and Romney himself made a statement ...

Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool/Getty Images
Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool/Getty Images

The pundits I tend to read seem to think Mitt Romney won last night’s GOP candidates’ debate.  I didn’t watch it, so I don’t have an opinion on that issue. But according to the New York Times coverage, none of the contenders covered themselves with glory on foreign policy, and Romney himself made a statement that suggests he’d have trouble passing International Relations 101.

Specifically, at one point in the debate Romney reportedly said "You don’t allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies." He said it in the context of a question about Israel, but notice that he’s actually making a much broader claim. Such a statement might be smart campaigning but it’s dumb foreign policy, no matter which ally or friend you’re referring to.

Why? Because no two states have identical interests. We have good relations with lots of countries around the world — Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Israel, Colombia, Germany, Poland, Australia, and many, many others — but that doesn’t mean that what’s good for them is always good for us and vice versa. When our interests conflict — as they inevitably will — it is the task of diplomacy to make our position clear and to try to resolve things in a way that conforms as much as possible to our preferred outcome. In practice, this means "allowing space" (and sometimes a lot more than an inch of it), to exist between us and our friends.

This principle isn’t rocket science: the same is true in our personal lives. I’ve got some wonderful friends, but we don’t agree on everything and sometimes we have to sort out disagreements about rules for raising children, which movie we’re going to see, or even more fundamental issues of politics. Try taking a vacation with even close friends and you’ll probably have at least one or two moments where you’re genuinely ticked off at each other. Conflicts between close friends or family members can get especially intense when you think a friend is doing something foolish and you try to get them to change their minds and their behavior.  In ordinary life, as in international politics, in short, there’s often a lot of airspace between various parties even when some of their other interests and objectives are closely aligned.

Perhaps one shouldn’t make too much of a single utterance like this; if pressed, Romney might even acknowledge that he exaggerated for effect. But his statement does betray a typically American belief that the world is divided into good states and bad states. The former are our friends and we’re just one big happy democratic family; the latter are evil and our enemies and have little or no good in them. This black-white view is cognitively efficient and makes us feel good about our side; the only problem is that it is dangerous oversimplification of reality. And when your views on foreign policy don’t conform to the world as it really is, then the policies you adopt are likely to fail.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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