The Innocents Abroad

The 'tradition' of American presidential challengers demonstrating their foreign-policy chops with a big international trip is no tradition at all.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

As Republican challenger Mitt Romney heads off on a foreign trip that seems conspicuously timed to coincide with the anniversary of U.S. President Barack Obama’s now famous 2008 Berlin speech, it’s easy to forget just how odd it seemed just four years ago for a candidate to fly abroad in the middle of campaign season.

The Washington press corps was incredulous when Obama, then a senator with just two years under his belt announced his trip, which included stops in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, France, and Britain as well as the July 24 speech before a crowd of more than 200,000 in the German capital — essentially a campaign rally on foreign soil.

"Since when do American candidates, particularly candidates who are not incumbents, actually conduct their campaigns abroad? No one I’ve talked to can think of a real precedent," wrote the Washington Post‘s Anne Applebaum at the time. Obama was forced to give up on his original choice of venue, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided that the site of historic presidential addresses by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan was an "inappropriate" backdrop for a political speech by a candidate.

Obama’s opponent Sen. John McCain also went on the offensive, telling CNN that he would prefer to give speeches to audiences in Europe "as president of the United States, rather than as a candidate for the office of presidency" and would instead spend his time "campaigning across the heartland of America and talking about the issues that are challenging America today." Clips of Obama speaking before crowds of admiring Germans would later be prominently featured in the McCain campaign’s famous "celebrity" ad.

McCain would himself take a tour of Latin America several weeks later, but the senator’s aides stressed that it was intended to highlight his positions on trade and democracy promotion in the region rather than simply burnishing his foreign-policy credentials. McCain had already visited Israel as the presumptive GOP nominee in March 2008.

This time around, the Obama team is certainly using the Republican candidate’s trip as an opportunity to attack Romney’s foreign policy, but the trip itself no longer seems like such an unusual undertaking. "Overseas trips by candidates have almost become an expected part of the ‘I can be president‘ process," writes Michael Shear of the New York Times. ABC News has headlined a story about the tour, "Mitt Romney Embarks on First Foreign Trip of His Candidacy" as if it the odd thing was that it took him so long.

So has the trip abroad now become — like the Iowa Straw Poll, the convention speech, and leaks about the running mate — an expected ritual of presidential campaign season? It appears so. On the face of it, flying off to foreign shores rather than pressing the flesh in Florida and Ohio makes little sense. There are few electoral votes to be had in the streets in Berlin, Warsaw, or Jerusalem; less than 300,000 American expats voted in the last presidential election.

But in 2008, Obama was able to use his trip to turn a perceived disadvantage — his lack of national security experience — into an advantage by highlighting the immense global popularity of opposition to George W. Bush’s foreign policy. This time around, it is Romney, a relative foreign-policy neophyte, hoping to turn that perception around.

Obama’s big Berlin speech aside, using foreign travel to lend gravitas to a presidential campaign isn’t actually unprecedented — though such trips have traditionally made under the official auspices of the candidate’s day job. In September 1971, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, who was hoping for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Richard Nixon the following year, traveled to South Vietnam in what was billed as an attempt to find a way to negotiate a peace settlement. McGovern also met with North Vietnamese representatives in Paris on his way there. Not much came out of McGovern’s meetings with VIPs, including South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, but the trip gave the senator an opportunity to blast the Nixon administration’s handling of Vietnam as a "glaring failure." McGovern went on to win the Democratic nomination the following year in a campaign centered on his opposition to the war but lost to Nixon in a historic landslide.

McGovern’s Vietnam gambit — a brazen attempt to conduct a parallel U.S. foreign policy — hasn’t been repeated. Sen. John Kerry, who based much of his campaign on opposition to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, discussed the possibility of taking a fact-finding trip to Iraq in 2004 but never actually went until after the election.

More commonly, candidates — particularly governors — with little foreign-policy experience will take foreign trips before an election begins. Jimmy Carter for instance, made several trips abroad while he was governor of Georgia with an eye on an eventual run for the presidency. In 1992, the international experience of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, "consisted of three trade missions to Japan, Taiwan and other East Asian nations, two to Western Europe and one to the Soviet Union." Obama might have described Bush as "a president who chortled about the fact that he has not left the country before he was president," but in addition to numerous trips to neighboring Mexico, the Texas governor had, in fact, done the requisite passport stamping as he was considering a presidential run in 1998, participating in a Middle East trip with several other governors on which he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli President Ariel Sharon.

(These junkets come with political risks as well. Romney’s father George, when running for the GOP nomination in 1968, infamously described his earlier staunch support for the Vietnam War as the result of "brainwashing" he had received from U.S. commanders while visiting the country as governor of Michigan two years earlier.)

But, of course, all these trips — as well as Obama’s own well-publicized visit to his father’s homeland of Kenya in 2006, were official visits that conveniently doubled as presidential gravitas builders. Obama’s 2008 Europe trip changed the stakes by introducing the notion that the candidate should tour the world solely in the context of the campaign. Obama may have begun his remarks by saying he spoke not "as a candidate for president, but as … a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world," but by invoking Kennedy and Reagan, it was pretty clear this was not just the junior senator from Illinois talking.

The trip made sense at the time. In 2008, a majority of Americans from both parties believed that world opinion of the United States had declined during the Bush years and also — for the first time –believed that was a major problem. Candidate typically tour struggling rust belt neighborhoods to highlight unemployment or a national parks to demonstrate his commitment to the environment. Likewise, an adoring crowd in a foreign city was a potent reminder of one of Obama’s main 2008 selling points – the fact that, in contrast to Bush, he was widely liked around the world.

The United States may still poll higher around the world today than it did in the closing years of the Bush administration, but the numbers are slipping. And a vast majority of Republicans and 44 percent of independents now say they don’t believe other world leaders respect Obama. It makes sense that Romney would use an international trip to some carefully chosen countries to argue that the president has not fulfilled his promise to restore America’s standing in the world. The stop in London during the Olympic Games will allow him to highlight his successful stewardship of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics at a time when there’s unwelcome attention on other sections of his resume. In Poland, a country the administration has not always been particularly deft in dealing with, Romney will attack Obama’s "reset" with the country he considers America’s  "No. 1 geopolitical foe." In Israel, Romney can highlight his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a stark contrast with Obama’s fraught ties — and highlight what many Americans feel is the White House’s insufficient support for Israel. It will also remind voters that Obama has not yet visited the country in his first term.

Of course, there are risks as well. Despite some regrettable moments, Obama is still fairly popular in the three countries Romney is visiting. And as always, focusing too much on international affairs – particularly a lower-profile issue like the Russian reset — during a time of domestic  economic distress carries the risk of making a candidate seem out of touch. Every moment Romney is talking about Israel or Russia is a moment he’s not talking about unemployment or the deficit.

Using foreign locales as a backdrop for campaign speeches may be a superficial gesture, but judging by the fact that the Romney campaign felt it necessary to make this trip and that its importance was basically universally accepted, it now seems that American candidates are expected to demonstrate that they are respected abroad as part of their appeal to voters. However the Romney trip turns out, that’s encouraging.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola