Shadow Government
A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

How to measure foreign policy differences

This weekend, the New York Times assured us that there was relatively little difference between President Obama and Gov. Romney on international affairs. "Romney and Obama Strain to Show Gap on Foreign Policy," read the web headline Saturday. Peter Baker writes: "…once the incendiary flourishes are stripped away, the actual foreign policy differences between the ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages

This weekend, the New York Times assured us that there was relatively little difference between President Obama and Gov. Romney on international affairs. "Romney and Obama Strain to Show Gap on Foreign Policy," read the web headline Saturday. Peter Baker writes:

This weekend, the New York Times assured us that there was relatively little difference between President Obama and Gov. Romney on international affairs. "Romney and Obama Strain to Show Gap on Foreign Policy," read the web headline Saturday. Peter Baker writes:

"…once the incendiary flourishes are stripped away, the actual foreign policy differences between the two seem more a matter of degree and tone than the articulation of a profound debate about the course of America in the world today."

The story builds around a debate between campaign surrogates at the Brookings institution, at which Marvin Kalb, the moderator, concluded that differences "were more about words than substance." What would a real disagreement look like? The story offers an example of a significant contrast from times past: the debates over the Iraq war.

There is a political implication of such reporting, at a time when Gov. Romney is meeting with world leaders abroad: No reason to oppose the incumbent on foreign policy grounds. They are all the same. Nothing to see here. Move along. [Disclosure: I advise the Romney campaign on some foreign policy matters].

At the risk of drawing my Shadow Government colleagues away from their Olympic Beach Volleyball, let me pose a question to them: How should one measure foreign policy differences? Or, as we economists are wont to say: What’s your metric?

I might be willing to accept these bland statements about continuity in foreign policy if only we had not spent the last few years elevating every presidential utterance into the start of a new era in foreign policy. Consider as Exhibit A the "pivot to Asia." After a period of shameful neglect, the implication went, the Obama administration was finally returning attention to a strategically critical region.

If only the same skeptics who covered the Brookings debate had covered those administration speeches, they might have asked some probing questions: Other than tone and words, what has really changed? Is this a dramatic new commitment of military resources? (No.) Is this a newly launched regional trade agreement? (No. The TPP was actually launched under the Bush administration). Will we now have bureaus at State, DoD, and NSC to watch East Asia and the Pacific, when formerly we dozed? (No. Those were there before, fully staffed and awake).

What of the story’s example of real policy differences from days gone by: the Iraq war. Did President Obama order all American troops to leave on January 21, 2009? Or did the withdrawal basically follow the timetable set out in a status of forces agreement negotiated before the last presidential election?

I do not mean to suggest that nothing ever changes in U.S. foreign policy. Far from it. Alliances, left untended, can fall into disrepair (I think the Libya campaign did nothing to strengthen NATO, for example). A lack of presidential leadership on issues like trade can leave institutions to crumble (the Word Trade Organization) and can leave partners feeling snubbed (Korea and Colombia, enduring needless years of delay; and now potentially Russia). My Shadow Government colleagues have provided numerous other examples over the years.

We either attach weight to amorphous factors like tone, and words, and leadership, or we do not. If we are going to score a foreign policy shift only when the country refocuses its grand strategy around alliances with Uruguay and Mongolia, then so be it. I look forward to the future headline, "Reporters Strain to Show Gap Between Bush and Obama on Foreign Policy."

Phil Levy is the chief economist at Flexport and a former senior economist for trade on the Council of Economic Advisers in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @philipilevy

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