Tilting at Windmills

Mitt Romney's new, muscular foreign policy isn't new at all. And his GOP standard-issue scaremongering misses the fact that Democrats are no longer foreign-policy weaklings.

For more than six decades, Republican presidential aspirants have had a very simple but consistent message for explaining how they differ from Democrats on U.S. foreign policy: We're tough; they're not.

Friday, Oct. 7's major foreign-policy speech by GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney follows this rather familiar path. According to Romney's speech, he will adopt a very "different" approach to foreign policy than that of the current occupant of the White House: "I will not surrender America's role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today." 

How does Romney define American power? He may speak of values and economic strength, but like so many of his predecessors, it's the military. As part of his plan for lifting America from the depths of its current "weakness," Romney has pledged to increase the size of the Navy, enhance U.S. efforts to militarily deter Iran, recommit to a more robust missile defense, defend the United States against cyberthreats, review the current plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, and reverse the Obama administration's "massive defense cuts." If there's any doubt about what's forefront in Romney's mind when it comes to how to build the American Century, just look at the choice of venue: His most significant foreign-policy speech to date was given at the Citadel military school in South Carolina -- another reminder that the GOP stands with the symbolic elements of American strength. If Romney believes that the soft power of American diplomacy and statecraft have been shortchanged or de-emphasized over the past 10 years, he certainly wasn't making a point of it.

On the surface, this muscular foreign policy -- and its attendant costs -- might seem surprising in the context of a growing national debt and a new age of austerity in Washington. Where, after all, is Romney going to find the money for such an expansion of U.S. military power?

More importantly, why? The United States is enjoying a period of relative peace in the world; is in the process of moving away from one of the most disastrous periods in U.S. foreign-policy history; and lacks any significant great-power rival. According to the recent Human Security Report, there has not been a major power conflict in six decades, "the longest period of major power peace in centuries."

So who exactly is the enemy, and where are the "grave threats" that Romney believes America needs a renewed spate of military spending to confront? This is always the challenge for a candidate who wants to argue that his incumbent rival is not protecting America -- hype up the nature of foreign threats (whether its John F. Kennedy's mythical "missile gap" or George W. Bush's warning of terrorist "wolves" that threatened America).

But Friday's speech isn't the first time Romney has made this pitch; in late August, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he argued that it "is wishful thinking ... that the world is becoming a safer place. The opposite is true. Consider simply the jihadists, a near-nuclear Iran, a turbulent Middle East, an unstable Pakistan, a delusional North Korea, an assertive Russia, and an emerging global power called China." In Friday's speech, Romney added the specter of "failed and failing states" and those in the Middle East who would seek to "crush" the "yearn[ing] for freedom."

Let's ignore for a moment the idea that Romney treats these as serious threats to America rather than as more mundane foreign-policy challenges that U.S. policymakers must handle. What's perhaps more important is what he intends to do about these threats: Romney asserts that there is "no one approach" to keeping America safe, but that sort of nuance is lost in the telling. In Romney's view, America is a unique, exceptional power that leads the free world and, in turn, the entire world. It is a muscular vision of American leadership that is built on the notion that "when America is strong, the world is safer." Romney's language suggests that such things like compromise, even diplomacy, are less important than symbolic elements of American power. Indeed, in listening to Romney's remarks on Friday, one gets the impression that the former Massachusetts governor sees intrinsic value in the appearance of American "toughness" as a policy goal in its own right -- and that this can be utilized to deter future threats.

But again there is nothing terribly surprising about such an approach. (To be sure, when it comes to expressing an exceptionalist vision of American leadership and U.S. power, President Barack Obama is no shrinking violet.) After all, if there is one lesson to be gleaned from the history of foreign-policy discussions on the campaign trail, facts are often less important than stereotypes -- and this is really Romney's key target. Let's be clear: It's not really China or North Korea that Romney wants you to think is making the world more dangerous -- it's Obama. He's hoping to activate the long-held notion that Democrats aren't tough enough to keep America safe from foreign threats, and in doing so Romney is just singing off a much-used GOP hymnal. In the 1960s, Democrats were the candidates of anti-war hippies; in the 1970s they were McGovernites and pessimists; in the 1980s, "blame America firsters"; and in more recent years, "cut and runners." Today, says the GOP, Democrats are apologists for American power. The characters might change, but the script doesn't.

There's one problem, however, with such arguments: They don't stick so easily to Obama. As president, Obama has bent over backward to do away with the image of him as conciliatory to enemies and tough on allies. He's dramatically ramped up the drone war against the remnants of al Qaeda, killed Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, sent surge troops to Afghanistan, and successfully prosecuted a war in Libya. In short, it's hard to be more muscular than Obama has been over the past 33 months.

At a time when Obama's overall poll numbers could hardly look worse, his handling of terrorism and foreign policy are one area where voters seem relatively pleased with his performance. It's a view even embraced, wait for it, by the Republican speaker of the House. In remarks on Thursday, John Boehner suggested that Obama has more aggressively prosecuted the war effort against "the enemy" in the "tribal areas" of Pakistan than President George W. Bush did.

In reality, what Romney is recommending and what Obama is doing as president are not necessarily all that different in practice. They both believe in exceptionalist visions of American power; they both share the view that America has limitless national security interests; they both see the military as a key tool of American power, and neither is terribly interested in embracing a vision of U.S. retrenchment.

There are important differences between the two men: on the size of the defense budget, the role of multilateral institutions, and the need for diplomacy. But these are distinctions that exist along the margins of America's foreign-policy debates -- and truth be told, they are issues that voters are unlikely to care about in a year when the economy is front and center. Rather than a robust national debate about the nature of U.S. power or American national security interests in an increasingly post-"war on terror" world, if Romney's remarks Friday are any indication, campaign 2012 is likely to focus on the issue it all too often does -- who's tougher.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Unloved at Any Speed

Instead of conquering India's roads, the much-hyped Tata Nano -- the world's cheapest car -- is struggling to find buyers.

Two-and-a-half years after its glitzy launch, a car that was meant to revolutionize personal transport in India -- and perhaps all of Asia -- remains stuck in first gear. August was the second-worst sales month ever for the Tata Nano, the world's cheapest mass-produced car and a flagship product of India's giant steel-to-software Tata Group. Tata Motors, whose plant in the western state of Gujarat has the capacity to turn out 250,000 cars a year, shipped only about 1,200 Nanos to dealers in August, compared with slightly more than 8,000 in the same month last year. Clumsy marketing, a rash of mysterious electrical fires, and an unusual design (e.g., a welded -shut trunk, only one side-view mirror) have all dented the car's appeal. The Nano was projected to be selling 20,000 to 25,000 units a month by now, and some of the car's more enthusiastic boosters had even predicted a market in Europe and the United States. Instead, only about 129,000 Nanos ply Indian roads.

Although it's too early to rule out a comeback for the Nano -- Tata Motors has proved naysayers wrong before -- the car's failure thus far is illuminating. For Tata, it raises a question mark over what was meant to be one of the Mumbai-headquartered conglomerate's great strengths -- frugal innovation, or products designed specifically for the developing world's vast number of poor and middle-class people. But more broadly, it shows that developing-country multinationals -- often praised for their hunger and agility -- aren't necessarily world beaters, even on their home turf. For every Embraer or Infosys, there's also a Cemex or Satyam. Indeed, local subsidiaries of Japan's Suzuki and South Korea's Hyundai dominate India's fast-growing passenger-car market. For India itself, the Nano's somewhat oversold promise as an engine of industrialization and prosperity remains unfulfilled.

By now, the Nano's conception is the stuff of legend. The brainchild of Ratan Tata, the 73-year-old multi-millionaire chairman of the holding company that controls the $84 billion Tata Group, the car was allegedly inspired by a ubiquitous sight -- a family of four piled atop a scooter in Mumbai traffic. Mopeds, of course, have long been a popular mode of transportation in urban India: cheap, efficient, and reliable -- but dangerous, particularly during the monsoon season. As the story goes, the thought of providing such a family with the comfort and safety of four wheels and a roof set Tata off on his quest to give India its first authentic people's car. It was to be priced at 100,000 rupees, or about $2,200, when announced in 2008, approximately half as expensive as the cheapest offering of the Suzuki offshoot, the Maruti 800. That's still a lot of money for most Indians -- yearly per capita income is only about 55,000 rupees -- but a growing middle class has created a booming economy, clocking double-digit growth rates. Passenger-car sales grew nearly 30 percent last year to 2.5 million.

So why has the Nano been such a bust?

Rarely are a concept and a company so perfectly matched on paper. The idea of a people's car meshes with the Tata Group's carefully burnished image as a business empire imbued with a larger social purpose. Tata Steel, which virtually runs the manufacturing town of Jamshedpur in eastern India's Jharkhand state, has long held a reputation for cradle-to-grave paternalism. Tata Group companies shun such morally questionable businesses as alcohol and tobacco. In line with an avowed nation-building ethos, during the course of its 143-year history the group has given India its first airline, as well as the first Indian-owned steel and power plants. Charitable trusts own about two-thirds of the Tata holding company, Tata Sons, and the group's philanthropy -- in medicine, science, and education among other fields -- has long set it apart from its peers.

And yet the sprawling Tata empire is no stranger to luxury. The group owns India's largest high-end hotel chain, the Taj Group, and in 2008 Tata Motors plunked down $2.3 billion for British luxury-car maker Jaguar Land Rover. But in an era when flashy tycoons build billion-dollar homes or flaunt an image of Richard Bransonesque excess, Ratan Tata, arguably India's most powerful businessman, is widely known for his down-to-earth demeanor and spartan personal habits. Unlike most scions of Indian business dynasties, he owns only 1 percent of the company that bears his family name. Tata reputedly drives himself to work in a simple sedan and lives in a relatively modest apartment surrounded by books and CDs. He's easily India's best-known businessman not on Forbes magazine's list of the country's 100 richest people.

But misfortune has plagued the frugal tycoon's pet project from the start. In 2008, Tata abandoned a 1,000-acre factory site in West Bengal state after coming under attack from a rabble-rousing politician -- Mamata Banerjee, currently the state's chief minister -- upset by the government's acquisition of land for the project. The factory relocated to the business-friendly western state of Gujarat smoothly enough, but the Nano's worst troubles lay ahead.

To begin with, the lack of dealers in small towns -- home to much of the car's presumed market -- cut off the Nano from potential customers. The absence of a trunk -- like the original Volkswagen Beetle, the Nano's engine sits in the back -- was befuddling to many potential buyers. Rising material costs and stricter emission standards edged the car's price tag last year about 10 percent above the promised 100,000 rupees, bringing it in line with a used Maruti 800. And finally, at least half a dozen highly publicized fires traced to the car's electrical or exhaust systems have raised safety concerns.

But the biggest blunder made by a company with as much experience with Indian consumers as any may well have been the most elementary, and confounding: the hype about the Nano's low cost ended up making it less attractive to its target audience -- people seeking to climb a rung up the social ladder from two wheels to four. "In communications, it's gone out as the world's cheapest car," says Hormazd Sorabjee, the Mumbai-based editor of Autocar India. "There's a kind of stigma attached to it, as though you can't afford anything else."

For all its problems, it may be too early to write off the Nano. Debasis Ray, a spokesman for Tata Motors, says over 90 percent of the car's buyers say they're either satisfied or highly satisfied. The company is in the process of extending its distribution network into small towns across India and has begun exporting the Nano to Sri Lanka and Nepal. Tata Motors has made it easier for consumers without sophisticated credit histories -- such as small shopkeepers and traders -- to receive a car loan for the Nano. And a new advertising campaign that focuses on a personal relationship with the car has commenced on national television. As for the fires, Ray says they weren't the Nano's fault to begin with -- media reports have blamed ad hoc rewiring by customers to fit in stereos and air-conditioning (neither of which are included in the base model) -- but Tata engineers have revisited the car, anyway, and certified it safe.

For now, though, the car that was meant to be India's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle looks a lot more like Ford's unfortunate Edsel. Unless the Nano can engineer a turnaround, it may well go down in history as Ratan Tata's folly.