Terms of Engagement

Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?

The Republican candidate gave us a tantalizing hint this week of what his foreign policy might actually look like -- but does he have the guts to actually do what we think he thinks?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The other day, Mitt Romney gave a speech about foreign policy that he seemed to actually believe. In a quite revealing address to the Clinton Global Initiative on the subject of foreign aid, Romney offered a distinctive explanation of the Arab Spring as a mass movement for economic, rather than political, rights. He spoke of how Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation in December 2010 sparked the demonstrations which led to the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, had been provoked by the seizure of "his only real capital equipment," his weighing scales. "I’m a simple person," Romney quoted Bouazizi as crying out to the Tunisian police officer. "I just want to work. I just want to work."

Work, Romney went on, almost poetically, "does not long tolerate corruption," nor "the brazen theft by government" of economic products. Substitute the word "liberty," and one could have been listening to George Bush on the motive force of human endeavor. People want meaningful work.

You may disagree with Romney’s interpretation of events, but you can scarcely doubt his sincerity. Indeed, we already knew about the depth of Romney’s commitment to the liberating power of work thanks to Mother Jones, which recently published a recording of a speech he gave to donors. Romney explained to a crowd that America is afflicted by a culture of dependence in which almost half the country considers itself "entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it." Romney sees himself as the spokesman for the free-market virtues of self-reliance and self-discipline. That  plutocratic contempt for life’s non-winners may not be altogether compatible with democracy, much less electoral success — but it is what Romney believes.

Until now, Romney has had trouble finding anything to say about foreign policy which seems to spring from his basic intuitions about life. His major foreign policy speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, consisted chiefly of flattery to the vets and his usual vaporous and disingenuous claim that, unlike President Barack Obama, he was not "ashamed of American power." He accused Obama of political posturing on Afghanistan, but called for withdrawing American troops by the end of 2014 — just like Obama.

In fact, the hallmark of Romney’s foreign policy critique has been self-contradiction. He has insisted that Obama has "abandoned the Freedom Agenda" of George W. Bush, but also described the democratic election of an Islamist as president of Egypt as a calamity for which Obama is responsible. Romney himself doesn’t seem to accept Bush’s magical faith in liberty, but can’t bring himself to say so. The only unifying theme of his foreign policy critique has been opportunism. Oh, and "strength." And not apologizing. Of course, Romney seems to have very few fixed convictions about anything: he was for health care reform before he was against it, for abortion rights before he was against them, and so on.

But now we have the 47 percent, and the heroic tale of Mohamed Bouazizi. Romney’s own life experience has led him to view economic freedom as the summum bonum — one which liberal interventionist polices have denied to all too many people. We know what this dictates on domestic policy: tax cuts, deregulation, and a drastically shrunken state. And now we finally know something about how would it shape a Romney foreign policy. In his speech at the Clinton event, Romney observed that the overwhelming fraction of resources now flowing to developing nations come not from foreign aid but from private sector investment. Traditional aid has thus become marginal, and Romney vowed to reorient American assistance to "access the transformative nature of free enterprise." He proposed signing "Prosperity Pacts" with nations prepared to remove barriers to free markets.

The speech was greeted with deathly silence by an audience that probably contained very few Romney voters. But Romney was certainly right that traditional aid has not been very effective, that outside assistance won’t help much in countries with bad economic policies, and that aid will work best by leveraging private investment. A blogger for the Center for Global Development, a liberal group which supports increased aid, praised Romney for the proposal. The New York Times editorial board even found something nice to say.

The proposition that aid should be the handmaiden to private sector-led growth is scarcely the unfamiliar idea it once was. The same insight led President Bush to establish the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which directs American assistance to relatively well-governed countries. The Obama administration has consistently sought to increase funding for the MCC. Liberals have long since accepted that old-fashioned aid doesn’t work, just as they have accepted that welfare can lead to dependence. So Romney is shadow-boxing once again, rhetorically separating himself from an administration approach which, in fact, he largely accepts. But the CGI speech leaves the impression that he would  prefer a more modest policy, since the "assistance packages" he had in mind would be limited to "developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights."

One could easily imagine a much more ambitious Romney approach — and one more in line with his governing philosophy. If trade can do much more than aid to promote growth in poor countries, then of course rich countries must lower trade barriers just as poor countries must. You could cut foreign aid — as a President Romney would almost surely do — and more than compensate for the effect by increasing exports to the United States from the affected countries. And for a free-market ideologue like Romney, free trade is as much an intuitive principle as low taxes. Alex MacGillis of The New Republic recently unearthed the video of a 2009 speech in which Romney made a profoundly cogent and passionate case that lowering trade barriers with China, and with the rest of the world, would be good for American and good for others. Watching it, I thought for the first time: This is a really smart guy.

But of course MacGillis’s point is that this would never happen: the Mitt Romney of 2012 accuses Obama of failing to protect American workers from Chinese trade violations, and promises to be much tougher. There’s no political mileage right now in free trade. It’s striking that Romney never sounds as intelligent making the protectionist argument as he did in the 2009 speech — no one sounds very bright when they are arguing against their own beliefs. And that, of course, is why Romney rarely sounds convincing when he talks about the Arab Spring or Syria or Afghanistan or democracy promotion. He’s speaking for effect, rather than from conviction.

At next month’s foreign policy debate, Romney is sure to be firing at Obama from all possible directions, as he has throughout the campaign. It’s unlikely to do him much good, since voters stubbornly refuse to view Obama as weak and irresolute on foreign affairs. Romney might do himself a service — he’d certainly do voters a service — if he stood in one place and made a limited but coherent case. He could argue that America will have better luck promoting capitalism than democracy, not because the one is more important than the other but because it is easier to teach. He could argue that the United States should be prepared to work with autocratic countries which nevertheless offer protection to property rights and the private sector. He could stand up for free trade. Of course, if Romney thought that America wanted to hear astringent truths, he would have been telling them. Still, pandering hasn’t worked very well for him either. If he’s going to lose, he might as well lose with conviction.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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