A Dangerous Mind

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy isn’t an afterthought, it’s a frightening return to a bullying neoconservative ideology -- and Americans should be worried.


The speeches at this week’s Republican National Convention, on top of those that Mitt Romney has been giving during the campaign, make clear that Americans face as stark a choice on foreign policy as on domestic policy. Whereas President Barack Obama has claimed the middle ground and crafted a strategy based on principled pragmatism, Romney is following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, relying more on bluster than strategy and veering to ideological extremes.

Contrary to the rebuttal to this article written by our colleague Peter Feaver, there is much good to be said about Obama’s foreign policy. In this piece, timed to coincide with the Republican Convention, our focus is on what’s wrong with Romney’s approach. We’ll respond to Feaver’s critique of Obama next week as attention turns to the Democratic Convention.

It’s not just Romney’s positions on particular issues, however vague they may be, that are cause for concern.  It’s his core world view. Guided by a Republican Party virtually devoid of moderate centrists, Romney has embraced a global assessment distorted by ideological excess, pledged to wield power in a way that will leave the nation weakened and isolated, and demonstrated a failure to appreciate the key linkages between strength at home and influence abroad.

Romney’s view of the changing global landscape rests not on a sober assessment of the world that is emerging, but on the same neoconservative myths that led George W. Bush astray. Like Bush, Romney seems to fixate on the wrong threats — and dangerously inflate them   He has, for example, identified Russia as America’s chief geopolitical foe. But with the Cold War long over, terrorists still planning attacks against Americans, Iran seeking nuclear weapons, and China flexing its muscles, it is a flight of fancy to see Moscow as the nation’s top threat.

On Afghanistan, Romney regularly bashes Obama for his scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops — but without providing a clear rationale for extending the U.S. mission. Absent more capable partners in Afghanistan and cooperation from Pakistan, U.S. forces have limited ability to bring stability. To pretend otherwise is to fritter away American lives and resources. American forces have accomplished their main objective — dismantling al Qaeda and eliminating Osama bin Laden; it is now up to local parties to find their way to peace. Good statecraft aims at the achievable, not impossible maximums.

Romney’s worldview also reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of power in international affairs.  The Republican Convention has been one long paean to American Exceptionalism. In speech after speech, Romney and his entourage invoke "leadership" and "resolve" as if all the United States has to do is take a stand and flex its muscles — others will get in line, get out of the way, or pay the price.

The United States unquestionably occupies a unique role in history of which it should be plenty proud, and American security and leadership ultimately rest on the nation’s economic strength and military superiority. It’s also true that most threats can best be met and problems best be solved if the U.S. plays a leadership role.

Leadership, however, is much less about chest-thumping and self-congratulation than building partnerships and taking effective action with like-minded nations. Brute force and national self-confidence certainly have their place, but they can do more to invite resistance than acquiescence unless wielded with care. How the United States deploys its power and influence is key to its success as the world’s dominant country. Judicious diplomacy, the fashioning of coalitions, engagement with international institutions — these are the critical elements of good statecraft.

These guidelines will preserve strong relations with traditional allies like Europe, Japan, and Israel. They also need to be applied when dealing with emerging powers like India, Turkey, and Brazil that are seeking partnerships with Washington based on mutuality and respect, not hierarchy and deference. And the Middle East is in the midst of political transformation, defying the neoconservative penchant for putting nations into neat democratic/nondemocratic, secular/Islamist, for us/against us camps.  American diplomacy must adjust nimbly to a world in flux.

It is worrying that Romney pledges to reinstate a foreign policy of reflexive toughness just four years after Bush’s assertive unilateralism left the United States mired in Iraq and estranged from much of the world. In Tampa this week, Senator John McCain put his bellicosity on full display and Secretary Condoleezza Rice glossed over her role in the errant war in Iraq.  The Republicans would do better to heed the wisdom of their own Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, who has warned that a president who wants to take the nation into another major war that is not absolutely necessary should "have his head examined."

To be sure, Americans don’t want a president who is too gun shy. Against bin Laden, in drone attacks on terrorists, in Libya, and in developing a NATO-backed missile defense system, President Obama has shown that he is not. Polls show that only 38 percent of Americans believe Romney would be a good commander-in-chief, indicative of anxiety that he and his team might be too trigger happy.

As to Romney’s pledge to return the United States to the vocation of democracy promotion, Obama has hardly dropped the ball on that front — as made clear by the intervention in Libya, diplomacy with Egypt, and other efforts to shepherd unrest in the Middle East in the right direction. And in contrast to neoconservative preferences for spreading democracy through preaching, hammering, or occupying, Obama has shown the payoffs of persistent diplomacy that has finally brought political change to Burma, and of the careful, quiet negotiations that freed the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Finally, Romney seems oblivious to the intimate connection between America’s strength at home and its mission abroad. His pledge to increase defense spending belies his commitment to restore the nation’s fiscal solvency. Indiscriminant defense cuts must be avoided, but it is not credible to exempt the military budget from the hard fiscal choices before the nation.

And oddly, especially for someone who touts himself as a savvy businessman, Romney refuses to realistically address how to right the U.S. economy. The outsourcing of jobs, the stagnating income of America’s middle class, growing inequality — correcting these ills requires more than cutting taxes and federal spending while maximizing corporate profits. The private sector will of course be the engine of economic recovery.  But orchestrating that recovery will require a balanced mix of revenue increases and spending cuts, coupled with strategic investment in infrastructure, education, and job creation.  In a globalized world economy, enhancing competitiveness, reclaiming a prosperity broadly shared among all Americans, and restoring the economic foundations of U.S. power will require more than business as usual.

Pulling off an economic rebound that reduces inequality and redresses the economic plight of the middle class is essential to restoring not just economic strength, but also the steady conduct of U.S. diplomacy. The United States is today deeply polarized, bereft of the bipartisan consensus that long anchored its statecraft. That consensus, which emerged after World War II, rested in part on the rising economy’s dampening effect on partisan cleavages. Today, economic pain and growing inequality are rekindling ideological confrontation. Romney’s abandonment of centrism in favor of the far right, coupled with his disregard for the needs of average Americans, promises only to exacerbate the political divisions that compromise American power and purpose.

Romney is poised to take the United States down a dangerous path on foreign policy. But at least he is doing Americans a service by clarifying their choices in November.

Bruce W. Jentleson is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and the author of The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons From Twentieth-Century Statesmanship. Twitter: @BWJ777

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

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