National Security

A Tale of Two Mitts

We know where Barack Obama stands on the world's most dangerous weapons. But what's Mitt Romney's nuclear policy?

For a sense of what's at stake for nuclear policy in this year's election, consider this: The U.S. government is on track to spend $640 billion over the next 10 years on nuclear weapons and related programs -- more than the military's budget for an entire year. The next president will make key policy decisions early in his term that will have an impact on these budgets and global security more broadly. Four years ago, Barack Obama and John McCain largely agreed on the need to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, but this year the candidates are poles apart.

Obama has a well-established agenda on this issue. But Mitt Romney's policies will depend on whether he brings into the Oval Office the hawkish positions that he staked out for most of the campaign or the moderate posture that he's assumed in the past month.

The president, for his part, has implemented only part of the comprehensive nuclear policies that he detailed early in his term. Having been frustrated by an entrenched bureaucracy, reluctant global partners, and political opponents for four years, he will likely pick up where he left off if he wins reelection. Senior aides insist Obama is personally committed to breaking with Cold War strategies and weapons. If so, we could expect early action on several fronts.

First, Obama will finally issue the presidential guidance the White House developed to implement the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. "It is the key to all the nuclear decision-making for the next 20 years," Jon Wolfsthal, a former nuclear security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, recently told Global Security Newswire. "It is the first commandment in setting all other nuclear decisions." The guidance could cut U.S. strategic warheads from the 1,550 permitted under New START, Obama's nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, to about 1,000. The White House completed the guidance during the summer but never sent the document to the Pentagon, presumably to mute it as a campaign issue. Once the guidance is issued, the president will then need to decide how to make these cuts. He could move to adjust U.S. nuclear forces to these levels quickly, either through unilateral reductions or reciprocal reductions with the Russians.

On that front, Obama is also likely to seek a new round of negotiations with Moscow on a cooperative approach to missile defense and on a treaty to spell out deeper reductions in each country's nuclear arsenal. The missile talks could take months; the new treaty talks, two or three years. Brookings scholars Steve Pifer and Michael O'Hanlon believe the new treaty should "limit each country to no more than 2,000-2,500 total nuclear warheads," down from the 8,000-10,000 that each side now possesses.

The Obama administration will also have to decide whether to push for Senate approval of the treaty banning all nuclear tests everywhere. President Bill Clinton negotiated the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 but could not get Senate approval in 1999 during Republican impeachment efforts. If the president thinks he has a reasonable chance of securing Senate backing for the treaty, he may very well pursue what could prove to be a major part of his legacy -- and Clinton's.

Iran, of course, will remain at the top of the president's foreign-policy agenda as well. We will likely emerge from 2012 without military strikes on Iran (conducted by either Israel or the United States), without an Iranian dash toward the bomb, and with some political space for diplomacy intact. Obama's key strategic challenge will be to expand political support for a negotiated solution and to develop the process and substance for an agreement that restrains Iran's program.

And what if Romney emerges victorious this week? Should Romney the Hawk become president, he would deep-six most of this agenda. You could kiss CTBT goodbye, expect U.S. and Russian nuclear buildups rather than reductions, forget about negotiations with Russia, and get ready for a rough ride with Iran.

Romney's corral of advisors and acidic attacks on New START provide evidence for this view. Security expert Susan Eisenhower, who broke with the Republican Party to endorse Obama four years ago, worries that "[i]n the foreign policy realm, where Romney has little personal experience, he will be heavily reliant on his advisors, most of whom are neocons as well as former Bush administration officials." Eisenhower told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that a first-term Romney administration would likely hew to more conservative policies to avoid a far-right primary challenger four years hence.

This President Romney would likely abandon the process of negotiating reductions in nuclear weapons -- as the Bush administration did -- expand missile defense programs, increase nuclear weapons funding, and perhaps test new nuclear weapons. He would eschew arms control agreements based on the logic that they weaken America's security, pay scant attention to international forums like the Non-Proliferation Treaty conferences, and seek to overthrow hostile regimes in Iran and North Korea through either sabotage and sanctions or direct military action. John Bolton, whom Romney hinted could become his secretary of state, has said that "America should support an Israeli attack [on Iran] as the least-worst option."

While many experts consider Romney's promise to increase the military budget to 4 percent of GDP unrealistic, even moving toward that goal will likely mean major funding increases for nuclear weapons. He, like Obama, will have to decide in the next two or three years whether to produce the new nuclear-armed submarines, missiles, and bombers in development. Intended to replace the Cold War weapons due for retirement in the next decade, these systems would be with us for another 50 years -- and the price tag would be enormous. The Navy estimates that the new nuclear submarine fleet alone would cost $350 billion over the life of the program. Obama's policies could shrink this force and its budget; Romney's could increase it.

On the other hand, if conservative columnist David Brooks is right, Romney could decide to govern from the middle. "Mr. Romney's shape-shifting nature," Brooks writes, "would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate." He could implement an Obama-lite agenda -- or even outperform Obama. The truth is, Republicans do arms control better than Democrats. Freed from attacks from the right, Republican presidents can oversee reductions the GOP would never permit Democratic presidents to make. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush cut the nuclear arsenal by 50 percent, and George W. Bush cut it another 50 percent -- including unilateral reductions implemented by executive order. The fact that this isn't widely known shows how uncontroversial cuts are when Republicans implement them.

Moderate Mitt, blocked by fiscal reality from ramping up the Pentagon budget, could squeeze budget savings out of the nuclear weapons programs, bring more nations into reduction talks, cut a deal with Iran and not test any new weapons (even if he refrains from ratifying the test ban treaty). And he could do it with overwhelming congressional support.

One can only hope.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Argument

A Stronger Pivot

Mitt Romney would manage relations with a rising China better than Barack Obama.

The most significant "pivot" of Barack Obama's first (and perhaps only) term as president was his own 180-degree reversal on China. In his first year in office, the president prioritized relations with Beijing over those with Tokyo, New Delhi, and other partners -- including our European allies. This created the distinct impression, at home and abroad, that Obama was abandoning our traditional friends in favor of a neo-Nixonian "China-first" strategy.

This idea of a "G2" -- the notion that the current superpower and the rising one could form a condominium of power to manage global governance -- backfired. It contributed to Beijing's sense that it was a near-equal to Washington, superior to everyone else, and fueled Chinese assertiveness over a range of previously dormant territorial conflicts with its neighbors. By late 2011, Obama had shifted gears: He announced a new "pivot to Asia" that appeared, to our Chinese friends, to be a policy of encircling and containing Chinese power. The White House's course now was heightening suspicions in Beijing that the original Obama policy was designed to allay.

Every new U.S. president goes through a learning curve on China. In 2013, however, the stakes will be much higher: China is much more powerful than when Governor Bill Clinton spoke of "the butchers of Beijing" or when Governor George W. Bush labeled China a "strategic competitor."

China is a global economic power -- the world's second largest -- whose decisions on interest rates and budgets move markets. China is an aspiring regional hegemon: Its sharp-elbowed approaches toward its neighbors, and Japan in particular, risk igniting a shooting war that draws in the United States. At the same time, China is also more politically brittle than it has been since 1949. Its decade-long leadership transition has exposed enormous strains within the governing elite and society over endemic corruption, abuse of power, inequality, and the future of reform.

The stakes in U.S.-China relations, therefore, have rarely been higher. Both countries are struggling to find a formula that makes peaceful coexistence, rather than militarized competition, more likely. Conflict serves neither country's interests: America's next president will no doubt spend much of his term digging the United States out of debt, while China's next president will be obsessed with maintaining social stability and transitioning to a sustainable economic model amidst rising grassroots pressure for change. A global test of wills promises to only make both leaders' most pressing priorities even more difficult to achieve.

The problem is that neither China nor the United States can separate domestic politics from foreign policy. China's currency manipulation and unfair trade practices make it a domestic issue in the United States, as we have seen in this election cycle. America's determination to defend its allies and interests in Asia against Beijing's expansionism incite popular nationalism in China -- which its leaders manipulate to divert attention from problems at home and ingratiate themselves with key constituencies like the People's Liberation Army.

Should Obama manage to win reelection, he will have to invest resources behind what has been mostly a rhetorical policy of rebalancing U.S. power toward Asia. Whether he will do so successfully, however, remains to be seen. How can the president "pivot to Asia" at a time when U.S. armed forces are already stretched thin, and sequestration threatens to cut $1 trillion from defense spending? How can he reinvigorate U.S. economic leadership in Asia -- as important as our military power in securing our influence there -- when he has proposed not one new trade initiative? How can he reassure our Japanese allies that Washington will honor its treaty obligations to firmly deter armed Chinese revisionism in the Sekakus -- islands long under Japanese control that China now seeks to reclaim -- while at the same time triggering Japanese insecurity by saying publicly that Washington is "neutral" over that territorial conflict?

To effectively manage Chinese power in a second term, Obama is going to need to do more than deploy 2,400 Marines to Australia and give a set of good speeches. He is going to need to do more than tilt U.S. Navy deployments toward the Pacific at a time when the United States has the smallest Navy since World War I (yes, it is a more capable Navy -- but China's aggressive naval, missile and air power buildup puts U.S. maritime access at serious risk). And the president is going to need to do more to assure our Japanese and Indian friends, who have felt neglected by his focus on engaging China, Russia and Iran.

At a more parochial level, Obama will need to find suitable replacements for the departing hawks who drove the Asia "pivot," including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell. In the economic realm, he will need to return the United States to its historic commitment to lead on free trade. Finally, the president will have to formulate a more strategic response to China's unfair trade practices than imposing tactical tit-for-tat sanctions on particular sectors of the economy.

A President Mitt Romney will face these same challenges. He will, however, have a stronger hand to play. First, his pragmatism makes him more likely than Obama to cut a deal with Congress to put the United States on a sustainable fiscal trajectory. His business savvy makes him more likely to reinvigorate the U.S. private sector, which has struggled with uncertainty over the outlook on budgets, taxes, trade, and entitlements under this administration. In the eyes of this Republican voter, a President Romney seems more likely to renew American economic vitality than his competitor -- reinvigorating American power and international prestige in the process. This will have important and beneficial consequences for the United States' ability to manage a rising China.

Governor Romney has been clear on the issues where President Obama has been fuzzy: He has put Beijing on notice that he will directly confront its unfair trade practices, he would increase rather than cut naval shipbuilding, and he would increase, not hollow out, defense spending -- sustaining an American military that no country would dare to openly challenge.

Wouldn't China react negatively to this new president's policies? On the contrary: Our Chinese friends respect strength, clarity, and predictability. So do our allies in Asia. They too would welcome a president who put them, rather than their adversaries, back at the center of American foreign policy.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images