The speeches at this week's Republican National Convention, on top of those that Mitt Romney has been giving during the campaign, make clear that Americans face as stark a choice on foreign policy as on domestic policy. Whereas President Barack Obama has claimed the middle ground and crafted a strategy based on principled pragmatism, Romney is following in the footsteps of George W. Bush, relying more on bluster than strategy and veering to ideological extremes.
Contrary to the rebuttal to this article written by our colleague Peter Feaver, there is much good to be said about Obama's foreign policy. In this piece, timed to coincide with the Republican Convention, our focus is on what's wrong with Romney's approach. We'll respond to Feaver's critique of Obama next week as attention turns to the Democratic Convention.
It's not just Romney's positions on particular issues, however vague they may be, that are cause for concern. It's his core world view. Guided by a Republican Party virtually devoid of moderate centrists, Romney has embraced a global assessment distorted by ideological excess, pledged to wield power in a way that will leave the nation weakened and isolated, and demonstrated a failure to appreciate the key linkages between strength at home and influence abroad.
Romney's view of the changing global landscape rests not on a sober assessment of the world that is emerging, but on the same neoconservative myths that led George W. Bush astray. Like Bush, Romney seems to fixate on the wrong threats -- and dangerously inflate them He has, for example, identified Russia as America's chief geopolitical foe. But with the Cold War long over, terrorists still planning attacks against Americans, Iran seeking nuclear weapons, and China flexing its muscles, it is a flight of fancy to see Moscow as the nation's top threat.
On Afghanistan, Romney regularly bashes Obama for his scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops -- but without providing a clear rationale for extending the U.S. mission. Absent more capable partners in Afghanistan and cooperation from Pakistan, U.S. forces have limited ability to bring stability. To pretend otherwise is to fritter away American lives and resources. American forces have accomplished their main objective -- dismantling al Qaeda and eliminating Osama bin Laden; it is now up to local parties to find their way to peace. Good statecraft aims at the achievable, not impossible maximums.
Romney's worldview also reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of power in international affairs. The Republican Convention has been one long paean to American Exceptionalism. In speech after speech, Romney and his entourage invoke "leadership" and "resolve" as if all the United States has to do is take a stand and flex its muscles -- others will get in line, get out of the way, or pay the price.
The United States unquestionably occupies a unique role in history of which it should be plenty proud, and American security and leadership ultimately rest on the nation's economic strength and military superiority. It's also true that most threats can best be met and problems best be solved if the U.S. plays a leadership role.
Leadership, however, is much less about chest-thumping and self-congratulation than building partnerships and taking effective action with like-minded nations. Brute force and national self-confidence certainly have their place, but they can do more to invite resistance than acquiescence unless wielded with care. How the United States deploys its power and influence is key to its success as the world's dominant country. Judicious diplomacy, the fashioning of coalitions, engagement with international institutions -- these are the critical elements of good statecraft.