Whatever you think of Mitt Romney’s domestic policy, the Republican presidential nominee at least has one. His foreign policy is, let’s say, unformed.
Of course, Romney is pro-Israel without qualification -- we know that much. As for the rest, he looks forward to an “American century” founded on American exceptionalism, surpassing military strength and no more apologizing. Yet the purpose of this pre-eminence, except as an end in itself, is unclear. Is it mainly to subdue potential enemies and keep the U.S. safe, or does Romney have ambitions to revive the neoconservative project of reshaping the world?
Romney is happy to call a rival a rival. He has been blunt about Russia, for instance. He has promised he won’t let Iran get the bomb -- but so has President Barack Obama. He says he’ll declare China an illegal currency manipulator as soon as he takes office -- but then what? Romney’s campaign says he has no intention of immediately imposing tariffs and starting a trade war. In that case, what’s the point?
The contrast between Romney’s vagueness on foreign policy and the radicalism of his fiscal plans reflects his party’s new priorities. He underscored the point by choosing U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, a budget specialist and a foreign- affairs blank slate, as his running mate. The U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the Republicans diffident on foreign policy: The subject is best avoided.
Coherence hasn’t been a hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy either. But by killing Osama bin Laden and expanding the Bush administration’s program of drone assassinations, the president has taken “weak on national security” off the table, and for electoral purposes that will do. For the next two months, there aren’t really any other purposes. So long as Israel doesn’t attack Iran and nothing else bad happens, neither side wants or needs clarity on foreign policy.
Suppose Romney decided he would like some anyway. What might an intelligent and distinctively Republican foreign policy look like? It so happens that Robert Zoellick, a foreign-affairs veteran of previous Republican administrations, former head of the World Bank and leader of Romney’s transition team for national security, has set one out.
Zoellick gave a lecture last month in London titled, “American Exceptionalism: Time for New Thinking on Economics and Security.” It read to me like an application for the position of secretary of State -- a rather persuasive one at that -- and got less attention than it deserved.
His main theme was that a long tradition in U.S. foreign policy links economics and security. It goes back to Alexander Hamilton and the words he drafted for George Washington’s farewell address: The new nation must “cherish credit as a means of strength and security.”
For the subsequent century and longer, growth through commerce was an organizing principle of U.S. diplomacy, and from time to time of military action. The U.S. often settled disputes by buying territory: the Louisiana Purchase, Florida and California, to name a few. “Admittedly,” Zoellick said, “in some cases the use of force led to price discounts.”
The North American Free Trade Agreement and other recent free-trade pacts with Latin America were anticipated by Secretary of State Henry Clay in the 1820s. Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its economy in 1854. Commerce was the goal of policy toward China at the end of the 19th century.
According to many international-relations scholars, Zoellick argued, the necessary connection between economics and security was broken in the aftermath of World War II. Economics was subordinated to security. Zoellick describes the conventional view this way: In “a world of superpower confrontation and containment, the traditional American foreign policy aims of amity and commerce seemed quaint and outdated. Military balance took precedence” and “economics became a resource factor in the national security state.”
He argued that the break was less decisive than that, but significant nonetheless. “Over time, the imperatives of the Cold War led to a pragmatic convergence of the national-security planners and the economic designers.”
Yet, he said, there is a crucial difference. “The national-security focus on resources of the state treated international economic issues as benefits to be exchanged to support security aims: trade concessions, foreign assistance, military aid -- not necessarily inclusive growth, good governance, and open, competitive markets.”
In Zoellick’s view, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher understood and revived the more equal partnership between capitalism (at home and abroad) and security (national and international). The collapse of Soviet communism vindicated their vision. Now, though, the Great Recession has called global capitalism into question all over again. The U.S. is recovering slowly, Europe is still in dire trouble, emerging economies such as India and China have seen their growth rates subside, and political upheaval has thrown the prospects for North Africa and the Middle East into doubt.
The U.S. must take the lead, Zoellick said, in attacking these issues and can do so by affirming the fusion of economics and security that has guided its strategy in the past. At home, the next administration needs to focus on economic strength through fiscal prudence. Internationally, it should lead by example in advancing global economic integration.
“Through twists and turns, the American experience has demonstrated that its greatest asset is its openness -- to ideas, goods, capital, people and change,” he said. “Every country makes mistakes -- but open countries are quicker to correct theirs -- and to forge ahead.”
Well put, and a fine rubric for a distinctively Republican approach to foreign economic policy. Why distinctively Republican? Because of its emphasis on markets and capitalism, forces for good that progressive Democrats feel constrained to question, or at least to damn with faint praise.
It’s a sad commentary on today’s Republican Party, however, that a full-throated commitment to openness is something Romney would find problematic. Openness to people, you might have noticed, is hardly part of the Republican platform. These days the party seems to be more eager to punish supposedly unfair traders than to engage with foreigners or force U.S. producers to raise their game and compete.
Here’s another sad commentary: Many Republicans reacted furiously to Zoellick’s appointment to the transition team. Apparently, he’s too moderate, too centrist, too pragmatic and far too soft on China to be given a say -- let alone the top foreign-policy job. It was pointed out that managing the transition wasn’t the same as guiding or influencing policy. The party’s hardliners weren’t much soothed.
So Romney will fight the election without a foreign policy. The party prefers it that way, and the country doesn’t much care.
(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Clive Crook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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