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Romney's global vision still vague

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on July 28, 2012.

Published on Aug 28, 2012 11:30 AM

IT HAS been famously observed that all politics is local.

Still, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney appears to be taking that dictum to new extremes by casting his foreign policy agenda within the narrow confines of attacking the incumbent, United States President Barack Obama.

Some of that is to be expected, of course. When running for the White House four years ago, Mr Obama was similarly harsh on his predecessor George W. Bush's approach to foreign policy, particularly the decision to go to war in Iraq.

But as a candidate, then Senator Obama also sketched out the new direction in which he would take American diplomacy and his thinking on how the country should respond to the shifting balance in global power.

In a major foreign policy speech on July 15, 2008, at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, he outlined the five goals he would pursue as part of his new strategy: ending the war in Iraq, stepping up the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taleban, securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states, achieving energy security, and rebuilding US alliances to meet new challenges.

'For all of our power, America is strongest when we act alongside strong partners. Now is the time for a new era of international cooperation,' Mr Obama added.

Cynics may question whether such campaign rhetoric and promises should be taken at face value.

But given how seriously Mr Obama has pursued some of these goals since taking office - from the relentless drone strikes against Al-Qaeda's top leadership to the strategic 'pivot' towards the Asia-Pacific region - there is little reason to believe that Mr Romney would be any less committed to his stated goals.

So just what is the Republican challenger's foreign policy vision?

Beyond his firm faith in the need to shore up American military might and his equally unshakeable belief in the terribleness of Mr Obama's leadership, it is unclear what Mr Romney's overarching goals are.

When he delivered what was billed as a key foreign policy address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Reno, Nevada, last week (nearly four years to the date of Mr Obama's 2008 remarks), the big questions were left answered.

What, for instance, would American diplomacy and military engagement look like in an era of austerity, given the sharp dose of fiscal discipline and reduction in the size of the US government he has promised to deliver?

How would he try to shape or lead the emerging new world order? Would he continue with Mr Obama's embrace of multilateralism at forums like the Group of 20 and the East Asia Summit, or would he abandon them for a vastly different approach?

Anyone hoping for some clarity on these strategic issues would have been disappointed by Mr Romney and his campaign's output so far.

In his Reno speech, the former Massachusetts governor spent more time attacking Mr Obama - for recent intelligence leaks on Iran and impending defence cuts (which were actually agreed to by lawmakers from both parties as part of a larger deal last year) - than outlining a coherent vision of his own.

Mr Romney also overcompensated for his lack of experience in national security and foreign affairs with one too many hawkish stock phrases that said nothing about policy.

'I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power,' he told his audience. 'I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever.'

He further argued, as he had on other occasions, that this century must be an 'American Century', as opposed to the 'Pacific Century' that Mr Obama and his top diplomat Hillary Clinton have talked about.

'In an American Century, we secure peace through our strength. And if by absolute necessity we must employ it, we must wield our strength with resolve,' Mr Romney explained in tones reminiscent of the Bush Doctrine. 'In an American Century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world.'

How he would actually convince China, Russia, Iran or North Korea to follow his lead remains something of a mystery.

There is, however, an unmistakable 'might is right' mentality behind his foreign policy statements.

Topping the list of priorities in his national security strategy, for instance, are plans to modernise the military, increase the US Navy's shipbuilding rate from nine to about 15 a year, add 100,000 troops, and beef up the ballistic-missile defence systems for America and its allies.

These plans will have important strategic implications if Mr Romney gets to implement them. But his campaign has so far not bothered with details, or to even address the most fundamental question: Where's the money coming from?

One of Mr Romney's top foreign policy advisers, Mr Richard Williamson, was repeatedly pressed on this funding issue at a talk this week at the Brookings Institution. But the former diplomat could not clearly explain how the Republican candidate could finance a major increase in defence spending in addition to his plans to cut taxes and rein in the country's deficit.

The inconsistencies and vagueness of Mr Romney's agenda confirm what some observers are privately saying - that his foreign policy stance is shaped more by his trusted political strategists in Boston rather than the broader circle of academics and former administration officials advising him.

The overriding goal of Mr Romney's political shop in Boston is a narrow one: to find new ways to strike at Mr Obama while not giving any new information that would allow the incumbent's campaign to counter-attack.

But the stakes involved in his foreign policy debate with Mr Obama go well beyond the daily duels between the campaigns.

If Mr Romney wins in November - and pollsters suggest he has a reasonable statistical chance of winning - he would be able to set the US on a different path on a broad range of international issues, from the stand-off with Iran to the civil war in Syria to the rocky relationship with China.

Voters in America - and observers abroad - deserve better than the non-answers he is giving right now.

Background story

There is an unmistakable 'might is right'' mentality behind his foreign policy statements. Topping the list of priorities in his national security strategy are plans to modernise the military, increase the US Navy's shipbuilding rate from nine to about 15 a year, add 100,000 troops, and beef up the ballistic-missile defence systems for America and its allies.