Even in less navel-gazing moments, foreign policy is a marginal topic for most presidential contenders. We talk about their "views," but many barely have views. Few candidates, and especially the former governors who have occupied the White House for 28 of the past 50 years, have had to think in very specific terms about America's place in the world. So candidates ask themselves, in effect, "What kind of foreign policy would a person like me have?" This is not necessarily a useful guide to their later behavior. Bill Clinton thought he was a human rights-driven idealist until he found out how hard it is to do the right thing; Bush thought he was a hardheaded realist until the 9/11 attacks turned him into a true-believing democracy promoter. Who they are probably matters more than what they think, or what they think they think. As Elliott Abrams, the neoconservative ex-aide to Bush and Ronald Reagan, says, "What really matters in the end is character."
Some of the 2012 candidates mimic McCain's muscular idealism, but their hearts don't seem to be in it. Pawlenty was a McCain acolyte who traveled abroad with him and absorbed much of his worldview; he warned the Council on Foreign Relations about the "isolationist sentiments" newly ascendant in the GOP. But the rise of the Tea Party in recent years has reshaped Republican politics entirely, not only on domestic policy but also on foreign policy. The Tea Party is the faction of Less -- less spending, less government, and, generally, less engagement abroad. And all the Republicans aspiring to win the 2012 nomination have responded to this powerful new voice in one way or another. None of the candidates save Paul can genuinely be called isolationist -- and perhaps not even he. But Rep. Michele Bachmann shares the Tea Party's suspicion of foreign interventions and foreign countries more generally; former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has called for "nation-building at home" rather than "nation-building in Afghanistan" or elsewhere; and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has warned vaguely of "military adventurism." Rick Santorum, a fringe candidate like Paul, anchors the opposite end of the foreign-policy spectrum, the pole of bristling aggression and furious denunciation (both of Obama and of Paul). And Mitt Romney falls somewhere in the middle, which seems to be where he falls whenever he is dropped.
ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, as on domestic policy, Romney serves as a faithful gauge of party orthodoxy, as well as of shifts in that orthodoxy. In 2008, the former Massachusetts governor sought to distinguish himself from the other Bush epigones by proposing the use of soft power as well as hard power in the Middle East by the United States and its allies: "We as great nations," he said in a debate in January 2008, "need to help them have the rule of law, have good schools that are not Wahhabi schools, strengthen their economies."
Four years later, Romney no longer talks about reforming madrassas. He has made modest adjustments in his views to conform to the Republican Party's current ideological line, which one former official in the Bush White House described to me as "free trade, strong defense, skepticism about China, a robust view of the war on terror." Romney has relatively little to say about Iraq or Afghanistan and does not share Pawlenty's enthusiasm for spreading America's values abroad. The core of his foreign-policy message is that America is threatened in ways that Obama cannot or will not recognize. His latest book, last year's No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, sets forth a formulation of these threats that, one conservative policy figure told me, Romney developed on his own and of which he is quite proud. In the book and his speeches, Romney argues, "There are four competing nations or groups of nations … that are vying to lead the world before the end of this century": China, Russia, jihadists, and, of course, us, the democracies. Only if America wins this existential battle, Romney warns, "will freedom endure." Never mind that "jihadism" is not a geographical or even organizational entity, and that Russia is not a potential threat to U.S. security on a par with China; these are not the kinds of distinctions that make their way into presidential debate.
America, in short, faces the same threat it has faced since 9/11, and several new ones too. The country thus must rearm itself, even though the historic increases in defense spending during the Bush years mean that the Pentagon's budget is now greater, in real terms, than at any time since World War II. Here Romney, to his credit, has been specific: Pentagon spending, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, must be "at least 4 percent of GDP." This would increase annual defense spending to $600 billion or more, and overall military spending to about $720 billion -- though how he would do this while balancing the budget is anyone's guess.
But it's not always clear quite how ardently Romney himself embraces the party's orthodoxy. He has, to put it gently, an acute sense of what the market will bear, which makes him almost as useful a barometer of the misgivings of GOP primary voters as he is of elite opinion. Asked about Afghanistan during the Manchester debate, he said, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can" -- the standard critique of Obama policy from the left -- "consistent with the word that comes from our generals," an allusion to the critique from the right that Obama adopted a schedule of withdrawal quicker than the one proposed by David Petraeus, then his commanding general. It is hard to recognize the spirit of Reagan, or McCain for that matter, in this artful waffle; Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute called him "a little bit of a weather vane." Romney used the next debate to clarify his views -- i.e., rectify his mistake -- by repeating the second half of the formulation without the first.