What Would Ronald Reagan Do?

Mitt Romney shouldn't shy away from a fight on foreign policy. He can win it.

An economy in shambles. Unemployment high, even in double digits in some states. Overseas conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The U.S. military strained by budget cuts. A growing sense that America has abdicated its leadership role -- being, in the words of the Republican presidential candidate, "unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations as the leader of the free world." And an incumbent president calling his Republican challenger a warmonger whose proposed defense buildup would yield more conflict and endanger America.

The year is 1980. Or 2012.

There are many foreign-policy similarities between this year's race and the one that ushered in the Reagan revolution and the end of the Cold War. And with a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and his trip to Britain, Israel and Poland, Mitt Romney has begun outlining a foreign policy that embraces Ronald Reagan's legacy. He has highlighted the Obama administration's neglect of allies and its obsession with engaging enemies, and the resultant sense of an America adrift in a dangerous world.

This Reaganesque vision has been overshadowed by the media's obsession with several Romney "gaffes," and Boston's view that any day spent talking about something other than jobs and the economy is a lost opportunity. The campaign is also likely hesitant due to public opinion pollingthat shows President Barack Obama with a sizable advantage over Governor Romney on national security, the first time in decades that a Democratic candidate for the presidency is polling better than his Republican challenger on the issue.

Despite these challenges, as he delivers his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Tampa this week, the former Massachusetts governor has a foreign-policy message to be proud of -- a vision of an America that will once again lead rather than follow and that has the military resources to ensure the respect of its allies and the deterrence of its enemies.

It's troubling, then, that Romney has cited a story about then-President Reagan telling his close aide James Baker that he wanted no more meetings scheduled on foreign policy for the first 100 days of his presidency, because attention needed to be on turning around the economy. The story appears apocryphal, but in any case it's a poor model of presidential decision-making. Our enemies certainly won't wait 100 days to test Romney if he is elected president.

Just as Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate has encouraged the campaign to tackle controversial issues such as entitlement reform head on, so too should he be willing to engage President Obama on his national security record. Americans generally give President Obama -- who ordered the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden -- strong marks on national security. But his record is actually dismal.

Iran is increasingly closer to a nuclear weapons capability. Syria is imploding, as Bashar al-Assad's regime brutalizes its citizens. After Obama's "reset" of relations with Russia, Moscow is blocking efforts to assist the Syrian people and ramping up its repression of its own citizens. The war in Afghanistan is being mismanaged, as commanders are overruled and hard-fought gains put at risk -- just as eight years of American sacrifice in Iraq are now in jeopardy thanks to Washington's desire to talk only of ending wars and "nation building at home" rather than victory.

Perhaps most concerning, the president's repeated defense cuts are weakening our military and undermining our ability to combat current threats and future challenges such as the rise of China. The U.S. Navy currently has the smallest number of ships since 1916. If budget "sequestration" occurs in January, adding $500 billion to the already $487 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next 10 years -- says Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the U.S. Air Force would be the smallest in its history. And American ground forces are set to decrease by 100,000 soldiers and Marines in the coming years. This gutting of the U.S. military has left America's friends confused and its enemies emboldened.

On all of these issues, Romney has begun to lay out an alternative vision. One that will replace "leading from behind" with actual American leadership and the resources necessary to ensure that this is another American century.

"Who does not feel rising alarm when the question in any discussion of foreign policy is no longer, ‘Should we do something?', but ‘Do we have the capacity to do anything?' The administration which has brought us to this state is seeking your endorsement for four more years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence." So declared Reagan in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention, and the words are as true today.

In that race, Reagan embraced the foreign-policy critique of President Carter. In their sole debate, Reagan noted, "[W]e cannot shirk our responsibility as a leader of the free world because we're the only ones that can do it. Therefore, the burden of maintaining the peace falls on us. And to maintain that peace requires strength."

Not a bad message for 2012. A neo-Reaganite foreign policy to undo the damage caused by four years of Barack Obama. It's a message Romney has at times articulated, even if the media wants to cloak his foreign-policy record in supposed gaffes and his political strategists want to fight the battle on more comfortable ground. Rather than just reading the polls and talking only of jobs and the economy while ceding national security to Obama, Romney should keep up the foreign- policy fight. He can win it.

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Taking Nonalignment Seriously

Iran may have hijacked this week's conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, but America shouldn't be so quick to dismiss it.

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he will attend the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which began Sunday in Tehran. The announcement came in spite of protestations from Washington and openly flouts American efforts to keep the Iranian regime diplomatically isolated. But efforts to dissuade Ban from attending the summit -- as well as more general attempts to marginalize the NAM -- are actually significant tactical errors by the United States. They are based, moreover, on longstanding American misconceptions about nonalignment itself.

Ever since nonalignment emerged in the 1950s, Americans have struggled to comprehend the phenomenon. At that time, in the early years of the Cold War, nonalignment seemed an ominous new development because of its apparent susceptibility to communist influence. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, in particular, thought that the nonaligned states, which included pivotal nations such as India, Egypt, and Indonesia, could play a decisive role in the Cold War.

Then, as now, Americans tended to understand nonalignment as something akin to neutrality. Neutrality, however, was not a particularly helpful lens through which to view the movement. Although the NAM has eschewed direct alliances with the major powers, this was never the movement's sole defining attribute. A broad gap exists between the classical neutrality of a state like Sweden, on the one hand, and the outlook of a nonaligned state on the other. Nonaligned states have historically been defined by several common traits: They were recently decolonized, generally remain mired in poverty, and their economies are overwhelmingly based on the export of raw materials. These common experiences and problems have driven nonaligned states toward an assertive stance on the world stage, rather than the reticent neutrality expected of them. As such, Americans have often found the actions of the NAM baffling or hypocritical. Asked about the direction of the movement in the wake of its September 2006 meeting in Havana, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mused, "I've never quite understood what it is they would be nonaligned against at this point. I mean, you know, the movement came out of the Cold War."

It was a classic misreading of nonalignment. The Cold War dominates U.S. recollections of the postwar years, making it far more difficult for Americans to understand the outlook behind the NAM. Nonaligned states did not merely declare that they wanted little part of the U.S.-Soviet conflict. Their rhetoric openly questioned whether the Cold War was the most important struggle confronting humanity. Far more relevant to these countries were ongoing battles against underdevelopment, poverty, and racism -- as well as lingering questions of empire underscored by events like the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956.

The nonaligned states posed a profound challenge to the United States. Their shared desire for rapid economic development made them receptive to the alluring promises offered by the Soviets (well before the deficiencies of communism were apparent to all). Their anti-colonial agenda also naturally pitted them against vital NATO allies of the United States. Finally, their rejection of the Cold War -- which Americans broadly perceived as a moral struggle -- was difficult for the United States to swallow. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke for many in 1956 when he deemed nonalignment in the Cold War to be "immoral." Since they believed the Cold War could be decided by these states, however, American presidents had to adapt. Over time the Eisenhower administration shifted away from its unease toward nonalignment and began courting some of the movement's most important states, notably India. As detailed in my forthcoming book, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, Kennedy built upon Eisenhower's tentative steps, making a far-reaching effort to engage the nonaligned world. This entailed promises of economic aid, meetings with nonaligned leaders, and real shifts in policy.

The road was not easy, but Kennedy achieved real successes in his short presidency. He obtained critical Indian assistance in stabilizing the fragmenting Belgian Congo, and the 1962 Sino-Indian War raised the possibility of establishing lasting military ties with New Delhi. Kennedy's meetings with nonaligned leaders forged helpful bonds that served to limit disagreements. Agricultural and developmental assistance programs were well received across Africa and Asia, as was the dispatch of Peace Corps volunteers. The response of the nonaligned world to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis gratified and encouraged the New Frontiersmen. The Kennedy administration entered its final year with a sense of having made broad strides throughout the nonaligned world.

Upon his death in November 1963, Kennedy was widely mourned in places such as India, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, and Ghana. But for a variety of reasons, including the Vietnam War, the policy of engagement came apart during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. In subsequent decades, as nonaligned states grew increasingly critical of the United States, it became easy to forget that relations with the nonaligned world had once been more cordial.

What lessons does the early American encounter with nonalignment offer today as the Obama administration struggles to contain Iran? First, this history cautions against writing the movement off: Nonalignment is not a passing fancy and its summits are not trivial events. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy, faced with conferences in Bandung and Belgrade, concluded that they could not oppose these meetings without incurring the wrath of their attendees. Broad U.S. opposition to the summit in Tehran risks the charge of attacking nonalignment itself.

Second, the White House should consider a program of outreach. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy acted in advance of nonaligned gatherings to furnish moderate attendees with information. Kennedy even issued a friendly statement to the Belgrade meeting. Constructive diplomacy of this sort kept unfriendly states from dominating the conferences. Obama can draw encouragement from the core principles behind the establishment of the NAM. Some of the movement's founders, notably India's Jawaharlal Nehru, sought to advance the values of nonviolence and toleration. These tenets can be powerful weapons against an Iranian regime that spews noxious, threatening statements toward Israel with reckless abandon.

Finally, Americans must remember that this is a diverse movement. While it shares some common principles, it brings together a remarkably wide range of states. Understanding the NAM requires not characterizing it by the most hostile states in its midst, or treating it as a kind of grand "Axis of Evil." If it has represented anything across the last 50 years, it has expressed the desire of the world's newer states to retain their political independence in an often threatening world. This should be a readily comprehensible motivation to Americans who remember the words of George Washington's farewell address. Nonalignment, in sum, cannot be wished away, and the Obama administration will repeat the errors of the past if it strays down that road again.

Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images