Leading from the Front

It's time for some straight talk about the world, Mr. President.

Pete Marovich/Getty Images
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

It is said this election will turn on domestic and economic issues, and barring any major international upheavals, this is probably right. But it is also true that our domestic and economic success is both a central cause and an enduring benefit of our global leadership — our ability and willingness to shape international events in line with our interests and values. We are now engaged in a great debate over whether America’s core challenge is how to manage our own decline as a great power — or how to renew our capacity to carry on our proud tradition of world leadership. Ultimately, this is what’s at stake in this election, and the stakes could not be higher.

For the past four years, President Barack Obama has unfortunately pursued policies that are diminishing America’s global prestige and influence. And this begins at home. The president’s policies are undermining the domestic sources of our great power — inhibiting the dynamism of our private sector, inflating our already unsustainable debt, failing to sign new free trade agreements, and proceeding with nearly half a trillion dollars in cuts to our defense budget, while nearly $500 billion in additional defense cuts are looming under sequestration, cuts that the president’s own defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has said would be "disastrous." This is a recipe for America’s decline as a great power, and we cannot afford to continue on that course.

A Republican administration under Mitt Romney’s leadership could finally get us on the right fiscal and economic heading at home. But it would do more than that. Republicans would use the domestic renewal of our great power to lead more actively and confidently in the world. A Republican foreign policy under Romney would be built on the abiding conviction that America’s destiny is still in our hands — that decline is not a reality to which we must submit, but a choice we cannot afford to make. Republicans would restore America’s proudest traditions of global leadership — traditions that, at their best, are truly bipartisan. From diplomacy and trade to defense and human rights, Republicans would summon the will, the wisdom, and the national confidence to lead more actively in the world — not from behind, but from the front.

First, Republicans would restore America’s leadership in support of our friends and allies. I travel all across the world, and everywhere I go, our friends and allies tell me they want more of America — more of our trade, more of our diplomatic support, more of our security cooperation, and more of our moral leadership — but they feel they are being left to settle for less.

This is the feeling in Israel and the Gulf, where the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is existential, but trust in America’s willingness to address the problem has never been lower.

This is the feeling across Central and Eastern Europe, where Vladimir Putin’s Russia still casts a long shadow, but where many of our allies believe their national interests are being sacrificed by the administration’s repeated, and largely unrequited, attempts to reset relations with Moscow.

This is the feeling throughout Latin America, where many of our oldest and closest friends feel like the afterthought of U.S. foreign policy.

This is the feeling among our friends in Iraq, where the withdrawal of all U.S. troops has only reflected the administration’s wider disengagement from that critical country, which has left it more vulnerable than ever to the malicious interference of neighboring states.

This is the feeling among many of our Afghan partners, who want America to stay in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda until it is won, but who fear they will be abandoned by a president who talks far more about leaving Afghanistan than succeeding there.

This is the feeling in India, where a historic improvement in relations under the previous administration has now given way to a lack of U.S. strategic focus and persistent high-level attention that it deserves as one of the most critical U.S. partnerships of the 21st century.

This is the feeling across the Pacific, where talk of a U.S. "rebalancing" to Asia is welcome, especially amid China’s growing assertiveness, but where many question whether the reality will measure up to the rhetoric at a time when the president has not signed one new free trade agreement in four years and is proceeding with vast cuts to our defense capabilities.

Sadly, all of these people are not alone in their desire for greater U.S. leadership.

Our friends and allies know that a world with less of America will be a poorer, darker, more dangerous place, and that is why they want us to lead more actively — not unilaterally or vaingloriously, but confidently, bringing to bear America’s unique strength and vision to help solve our greatest common challenges. That is what a Republican administration should deliver.

A Republican foreign policy under Romney would, of course, recognize that America’s great power has limits, but it would also recognize that the greatest way to prevent conflict, secure our interests, advance our values, and support our friends is not by disengaging and waiting for problems to emerge, but by leading upfront to shape events in the world for the better. Republicans recognize that our first responsibility is to our allies and partners and that our president should never appear more eager to engage with our enemies than to deepen ties with our friends. Negotiations do not succeed, especially with governments that care only about preserving their own power, simply because the American president makes a speech or promises "more flexibility." And at times, when the dangers to our allies and to us are greatest, as in the case of Iran’s ongoing pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, the best hope for diplomacy rests on the unambiguous threat to act, if necessary, in defense of our interests and values.

People look to the United States for leadership not simply because of who we are, but because we have stood with them and taken risks with them that have benefited us both. That is why a Republican foreign policy must sustain critical investments in our institutions of diplomacy, development, and democracy promotion. That is why we must forge new partnerships with dynamic emerging powers, such as Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico. And that is why, when our friends and allies demand more of us, as they are now doing in every region of the world, we must demand more of ourselves. The more America is viewed as a trustworthy and effective partner, the safer, freer, and better our nation and the world will be.

Second, Republicans would restore America’s leadership on free trade. The only trade agreements that have been ratified in the past four years were negotiated and signed not by this president, but by his Republican predecessor. Even their ratification was stalled for three years for political reasons. No further trade liberalization has happened since, and the world has not slowed down to wait for us. China, the European Union, and our other economic competitors have been busy signing new trade deals in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. U.S. businesses are losing market share, and American workers are missing out on new opportunities for jobs.

Under a Republican administration, the United States could finally get back to leading the expansion of free trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a worthy initiative that should be continued, but it should be the beginning, not the end, of our trade agenda. Negotiations on free trade agreements could be started immediately — or in some cases, restarted — with India, Taiwan, Tunisia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, to name but a few. Trade should also become a more strategic component of our response to the Arab Spring, which it has not been thus far. These revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa are as much, or more, about jobs and the economy as they are about freedom and democracy. The United States should be leading an effort, together with our European allies, to devise new multilateral trade initiatives that could serve as an incentive for political and economic reforms in the region.

Third, Republicans would restore America’s leadership on national defense. The president has consistently gotten it backward, allowing budget arithmetic to drive military strategy. In April 2011, the president pledged to cut the defense budget by $400 billion over 10 years, and his then-secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was only told about it the day before the announcement was made. These promised cuts came on top of the more than $150 billion in "efficiencies" that Gates was admirably saving at the Defense Department.

The president’s defense cuts have now crept up to nearly $500 billion, and though the administration claims its 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance was "strategy-driven," it clearly was not: It sought to implement reductions the president had already announced without any military or strategic rationale. On top of all this, the Defense Department is now facing nearly $500 billion of additional cuts under sequestration, which are scheduled to take effect in January. And yet, the president is not playing a leadership role to prevent this crippling blow to our military.

All totaled, America is now on course to make more than $1 trillion in cuts to our defense budget over the next decade. I count myself second to no one in demanding that the Defense Department fix its cultural problem of rampant inefficiencies, cost overruns, and wasteful spending. It is absolutely essential that we fix our broken defense procurement system and promote a new culture of accountability and efficiency in the Defense Department. However, defense cuts of the magnitude now contemplated would amount to a reckless act of unilateral disarmament. They would result, as Secretary Panetta has correctly stated, in the smallest ground forces since 1940, the lowest number of ships since 1914, and the smallest air force in American history. The defense budget is not what is bankrupting our country, and if we continue to act as though it is, we will incur a truly unaffordable cost: the decline of U.S. military power.

A Republican administration would reverse this looming calamity. It would recognize, as the leaders of our intelligence community have continually testified to Congress, that our world is growing more dangerous, not less. For this reason, we cannot afford to repeat our past mistake of cashing in on a presumed "peace dividend" and seeking a vacation from history.

Instead, a Republican administration would propose sufficient defense spending to invest in the next generation of advanced weapons systems, increase the readiness of our ground forces across a range of contingencies, and increase the size of our maritime forces. Our Navy is already retiring more ships than we are building. If we are serious about rebalancing our defense priorities toward the Asia-Pacific, as we must, without diminishing our readiness for other military contingencies, first and foremost in the Middle East, then we need to invest in the necessary defense capabilities to expand our military presence and relevance in the world’s largest maritime theater, especially amid China’s ongoing and opaque military modernization.

It is also critical to our national defense that we succeed in Afghanistan. The president has repeatedly disregarded the advice of his military leaders and announced plans to withdraw our troops before they have achieved their goals. These decisions have only discouraged our friends, emboldened our enemies, made it harder for our troops to achieve their goals, and in the words of our commanders, put our mission at greater risk. A Republican administration must immediately assess the military impact of these withdrawals and be prepared to follow the best advice of our commanders on the ground, based on conditions on the ground. Ultimately, a Republican president must build the necessary public support for our mission in Afghanistan and for our troops who are fighting it. Republicans know that Americans are war-weary. But our commander in chief has an obligation to lead public opinion, not just to follow it — and that starts with explaining to the American people why we cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan.

Finally, Republicans would restore America’s leadership on human rights. The president has spoken many stirring words about America’s historic role in promoting freedom and justice in the world. But when set against his record, so many of these words sadly ring hollow.

When millions of Iranians rose up for their freedom in June 2009 — when they cried out to the president, in English, "Are you with us, or are you with them?" — these brave Iranians were left feeling that the leader of the free world was less interested in showing solidarity with the oppressed than doing business with their oppressors. Similarly, as the Arab Spring spread across the region, courageous champions of change felt the United States was consistently a day late and a dollar short in standing with them. Even in Libya, where the president intervened militarily, correctly though belatedly, he then withdrew America’s unique military capabilities and left our NATO allies, as well as brave Libyans on the ground, to fight largely on their own.

And then there is Syria. How can anyone believe the president’s words about the need for America to lead the defense of freedom, justice, and human dignity in a world where Syria exists? How can it be the policy of the United States, as stated in Presidential Study Directive 10, that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States," when Bashar al-Assad’s regime has slaughtered more than 20,000 people over the past 18 months — annihilating them with tanks and artillery, with helicopter gunships and fighter jets, and with the active support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah — and the United States does nothing meaningful to help end the killing? Every day this conflict continues, it gets worse for the Syrian people and more dangerous for us.

In past struggles like Syria, when brave peoples fought for their liberation from enemies of the United States, we were fortunate to have presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, who recognized that it was in keeping with both our interests and our values to help the forces of freedom prevail. And they acted on that conviction. A Republican foreign policy would reclaim this proud tradition of U.S. leadership. It would, of course, accept that our interests require us to make tradeoffs at times, but wherever people struggle for human rights, no one should have any doubt whose side America is ultimately on. When people risk everything for their freedom, as they are doing in the Arab world today, our president should take their side — not just when it is safe and convenient for him, when they are on the verge of success, but when it really matters, when the fate of their cause hangs in the balance. And if Russia, China, or any other nation wishes to use the U.N. Security Council as moral cover for tyrants and war criminals, the United States should lead the effort to create multilateral action that is both principled and effective.

It is tempting these days, amid our myriad domestic difficulties, to want to leave the world to its own devices while we deal with our own problems. In fact, we have traveled such a road before in our history, and time and time again, it has led to ruin. The world will not stand still while America catches its breath on the sidelines. Nor do our friends and allies want that from us. To the contrary, their demand for American leadership has never been greater.

In country after country I visit, our nation’s friends and allies tell me they still have faith in America. What they want to know is whether America still has faith in itself — whether we have the capacity and political will to solve our fiscal problems, turn around our economy, fix our broken government, renew the foundations of our great power, and rise to our unique responsibilities as the world’s leading nation. There are so many people who still believe in America and who still want to live in a world shaped by American power, American values, and American leadership. With all of these people counting on us, and by no means counting us out, the least we can do is endeavor to be worthy of their high hopes.

Mitt Romney has this faith in America, and foreign policy under a Republican administration would ensure that America can remain the best hope for mankind.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.