The other day, Mitt Romney gave a speech about foreign policy that he seemed to actually believe. In a quite revealing address to the Clinton Global Initiative on the subject of foreign aid, Romney offered a distinctive explanation of the Arab Spring as a mass movement for economic, rather than political, rights. He spoke of how Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation in December 2010 sparked the demonstrations which led to the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, had been provoked by the seizure of "his only real capital equipment," his weighing scales. "I'm a simple person," Romney quoted Bouazizi as crying out to the Tunisian police officer. "I just want to work. I just want to work."
Work, Romney went on, almost poetically, "does not long tolerate corruption," nor "the brazen theft by government" of economic products. Substitute the word "liberty," and one could have been listening to George Bush on the motive force of human endeavor. People want meaningful work.
You may disagree with Romney's interpretation of events, but you can scarcely doubt his sincerity. Indeed, we already knew about the depth of Romney's commitment to the liberating power of work thanks to Mother Jones, which recently published a recording of a speech he gave to donors. Romney explained to a crowd that America is afflicted by a culture of dependence in which almost half the country considers itself "entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it." Romney sees himself as the spokesman for the free-market virtues of self-reliance and self-discipline. That plutocratic contempt for life's non-winners may not be altogether compatible with democracy, much less electoral success -- but it is what Romney believes.
Until now, Romney has had trouble finding anything to say about foreign policy which seems to spring from his basic intuitions about life. His major foreign policy speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, consisted chiefly of flattery to the vets and his usual vaporous and disingenuous claim that, unlike President Barack Obama, he was not "ashamed of American power." He accused Obama of political posturing on Afghanistan, but called for withdrawing American troops by the end of 2014 -- just like Obama.
In fact, the hallmark of Romney's foreign policy critique has been self-contradiction. He has insisted that Obama has "abandoned the Freedom Agenda" of George W. Bush, but also described the democratic election of an Islamist as president of Egypt as a calamity for which Obama is responsible. Romney himself doesn't seem to accept Bush's magical faith in liberty, but can't bring himself to say so. The only unifying theme of his foreign policy critique has been opportunism. Oh, and "strength." And not apologizing. Of course, Romney seems to have very few fixed convictions about anything: he was for health care reform before he was against it, for abortion rights before he was against them, and so on.
But now we have the 47 percent, and the heroic tale of Mohamed Bouazizi. Romney's own life experience has led him to view economic freedom as the summum bonum -- one which liberal interventionist polices have denied to all too many people. We know what this dictates on domestic policy: tax cuts, deregulation, and a drastically shrunken state. And now we finally know something about how would it shape a Romney foreign policy. In his speech at the Clinton event, Romney observed that the overwhelming fraction of resources now flowing to developing nations come not from foreign aid but from private sector investment. Traditional aid has thus become marginal, and Romney vowed to reorient American assistance to "access the transformative nature of free enterprise." He proposed signing "Prosperity Pacts" with nations prepared to remove barriers to free markets.