"This century must be an American century," Mitt Romney insisted in a recent speech on foreign policy. "In an American century," the former Massachusetts governor continued, "America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world." Adhering to his party's traditional playbook, the likely Republican nominee went on to reaffirm that the United States is "an exceptional country with a unique destiny."
In an election season, such talk rolls easily off the tongue. But Romney's hackneyed rhetoric is woefully out of step -- both with an American electorate hungry for a less costly brand of foreign policy and with a world in the midst of tectonic change. A sharp economic downturn and expensive, inconclusive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left Americans ready for a focus on the home front. Abroad, the charge for the next U.S. president can hardly be to stick his head in the sand and deny that the global distribution of power is fast changing. On the contrary, it is to react soberly and steadily to the implications of such change and ensure that the United States remains secure and prosperous even as economic and military strength spreads to new quarters.
President Barack Obama is on the correct path. Leaving Iraq and overseeing a paced withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring U.S. commitments back into line with U.S. interests. Special operations and drone strikes have proved far more effective in fighting al Qaeda than has occupying countries in the Middle East and South Asia, and an offshore posture in the Persian Gulf is the best way to deal with Iran. Amid China's rise and the economic dynamism building in its neighborhood, Obama is right to downsize the U.S. presence in Europe and orchestrate a strategic "pivot" to East Asia. The move constitutes a necessary hedge against Chinese ambition and ensures that American workers will benefit from expanding markets in the Pacific Rim. These policies will enable the United States to simultaneously adjust to a shifting global landscape, husband its resources, and grow its economy -- facilitating the president's pledge to focus on "nation-building here at home."
Romney has already denigrated Obama's pragmatism, charging that "our president thinks America is in decline." Obama shot back in his State of the Union address on Jan. 24 that "anyone who tells you that America is in decline … doesn't know what they're talking about." Obama decidedly has the upper hand in this back-and-forth. He recognizes that, the country's strengths notwithstanding, U.S. strategy must adjust to a world in which power will be more broadly distributed. And his focus on rebuilding the American economy speaks directly to an electorate yearning for more equity and prosperity at home.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of Americans want the United States to "mind its own business," and 76 percent think the country should "concentrate more on our own national problems" than on foreign challenges. These are high numbers by historical standards -- a clear indication that the electorate is hurting economically and wary of strategic overreach. Romney should take note. His chest-thumping talk of a new American century still plays well in some quarters. But Obama's commitment to nation-building at home will play even better.