An open letter to the Mitt Romney on American foreign policy leadership

Dear Governor Romney,

Congratulations on securing the GOP nomination and earning a roughly 50/50 shot at becoming president in January 2013.  It was an ugly primary fight, but you're passed it and have been consolidating your right flank.  Politically speaking, nicely done. 

Now, I know you want this campaign to be about the economy, the economy, and the economy, but can we talk about foreign policy for just a little bit?  Because if you don't talk about international relations, your advisors are gonna continue to bitch and moan to the press, like they did this week to Rich Oppel at the New York Times and Eli Lake at Daily Beast.  

This will be an ongoing problem for you, because an emerging meme is that your campaign has remarkably little policy content.  Your campaign didn't handle immigration terribly well, for example. Indeed, on foreign policy, you've actually been a bit more forthcoming than on other policy dimensions.  The thing is, what you've said in recent months has prompted... er... well... either mockery or derision.  No one knows whether you're the second coming of neoconservatism or a more realpolitik foreign policy leader.  This lack of certainty is making a lot of people itchy. 

One of your consistent themes has been to bash President Obama because "his positions in foreign policy have not communicated American strength and resolve."  The thing is, if you can't even control your own foreign policy advisors from blabbing to anyone and everyone who writes about foreign policy, well, then you're not really communicating strength and resolve either, are you? 

We agree that this election should primarily be about the economy.  But I suspect we also agree that voters need to be comfortable with a presidential candidate as a commander-in-chief and a foreign policy leader.  After four years, President Obama has carved out a record that is not without blemishes but is pretty clearly above the bar in terms of foreign policy competence.  The burden is on you to demonstrate that you can be above the bar as well.  So far, all you've demonstrated is that you might be better at foreign policy than Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, or Rick Perry, which is a really low bar.   

President Obama has made a hash of his policy towards Israel and Palestine.  Relations with Pakistan, Russia, India and Canada have cooled off considerably since the Bush years.  America's relationship with Latin America and Africa seems uncertain at best.  Cybersecurity remains an inchoate mess. On foreign economic policy, it's not clear at all that Obama can get the G-20 to agree on anything and the Doha trade round is dead, dead, dead.  There's clearly room for improvement, and American foreign policy benefits from a vigorous marketplace of ideas.  So show some leadership, get your team in line, and articulate a foreign policy vision that goes beyond the vague nostrums of "An American Century." 

Seriously, get it together.


Daniel W. Drezner

Daniel W. Drezner

Dear realists: please explain Russia

In my experience, American realists just love the heck out of Russia.  Go scan The National Interest and inevitably you'll see the most charitable of interpretations about Russian behavior.  As near as I can determine, they reflexively sympathize with Moscow for a few reasons:

1)  The Russians tend to be wonderfully blunt in explaining their motivations

2)  Russia rarely, if ever, dresses up their foreign policy actions in anything other than national interest motivations

3)  In the eyes of most realists, Russia is the status quo power justly defending its sphere of influence in the wake of revisionist American demands that have everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with American national interests. 

I raise all of this because a few days ago Charles Clover in the Financial Times wrote an interesting story about Russia's foreign policy in Syria:

A respected Moscow-based military think tank has published a report that is likely to fuel more questions about the wisdom of Russia’s uncompromising support for the Syrian regime. It concludes that Russia really has few – if any – fundamental national interests to defend in Syria....

Russian support for Syria appears to be more emotional than rational, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a consultancy with strong links to Russia’s defence community. It characterised the Kremlin’s Syria policy as a consensus of elites who “have rallied around the demand ‘not to allow the loss of Syria’ ”, which would cause “the final disappearance of the last ghostly traces of Soviet might” in the Middle East.

“The Syrian situation focuses all the fundamental foreign policy fears, phobias and complexes of Russian politicians and the Russian elite” said CAST.

Russia’s actual stake in Syria is not massive, according to CAST. It described Russia’s arms exports to Damascus as a “significant, but far from key” 5 per cent of total arms exports last year, and characterised Tartus, Moscow’s last foreign military base outside the former USSR, as little more than a pier and a floating repair shop on loan from the Black Sea fleet.

Now, it sounds an awful lot like CAST is arguing that Russian foreign policy leaders are wildly inflating their interests and acting in a -- dare I say it -- neoconservative fashion towards Syria. 

I'd be very curious to hear from realists if they concur with this assessment.  If it turns out that Russia is not acting in its national interests, it would be a body blow to both realism as policymaking advice and as an objective paradigm to explain world politics.  Realists would no longer be able to say that the United States was the only great power not acting in its national interest.  More significantly, if lots of great powers act to advance their emotional, historical, or ideollogical interests, then the world doesn't look very realpolitik at all.