Precise Foreign Policy Intentions Can Be Tough to Gauge

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Courtesy of The New York Times

In foreign policy, the relationship between what presidential candidates say on the campaign trail and what they do once elected can be tenuous. If Mitt Romney wins in November, he may be in this respect no different from the men who preceded him, despite his tough talk on China, Iran and Russia.

But if recent presidents have kept more of their predecessor’s foreign policy than expected, Mr. Romney may also put his own stamp on international affairs in ways both surprising and not. If his policy prescriptions at this point do not vary radically from Mr. Obama’s — they both want to exit Afghanistan by 2014 — his outlook and emphasis, and the pressures that will bear on him, may push him in different directions.

National security surfaced in the Republican presidential campaign on Wednesday in a way that it rarely had so far in this election season. Mr. Romney broke off from the Republican National Convention to fly to Indianapolis, where he told the American Legion that he would stop “reckless defense cuts” and said that Mr. Obama “has failed to lead.” Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later reinforced that message in their speeches to the convention.

The challenge is figuring out when the speeches are just words intended to highlight or even invent differences for political purposes and when they genuinely signal a change in America’s relationship with the world. Listening to Mr. Romney and taking note of the advisers around him, it is hard to decide if he is more George Bush the relationship-managing internationalist or George W. Bush the change-the-world evangelist.

As a former governor and businessman, Mr. Romney may not really know himself yet. Though he lived overseas as a young man, he has no real experience on the geopolitical stage. Briefings on the campaign bus between rallies in Iowa cannot fully capture the complexities of the shadow war in Yemen or rising tension in the South China Sea.

Some of Mr. Romney’s most provocative language — calling Russia the nation’s pre-eminent foe, promising a virtual trade war with China and rattling sabers for a possible strike on Iran — seems calculated at least in part to appeal to conservatives eager for a more muscular policy. Mr. Romney will surely feel compelled by his own campaign language to enact tougher policies than Mr. Obama in those areas once in office, and conservatives have made clear they will hold him to his words.

“I take Governor Romney very seriously when he talks about the Obama administration’s neglect of allies and turning a blind eye to Russian foreign and domestic policies which undermine our interests and our values,” said Randy Scheunemann, a former foreign policy adviser to Mr. McCain.

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state who now heads Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group, said already-chilling relations with Russia, China and Iran might free Mr. Romney to be more assertive without worrying about sacrificing cooperation that no longer seems as apparent.

Mr. Romney is “likely to feel less constrained than Obama has been by other considerations,” Mr. Kramer said, like nuclear negotiations with Iran “and economic ties with Beijing when it comes to their egregious treatment of their citizens.”

And yet, the pragmatic dealmaker in Mr. Romney may find that even if he does not want to sign a nuclear arms treaty with Moscow as Mr. Obama did, it is useful to be able to move supplies through Russian territory to Afghanistan.

Likewise, Mr. Romney may want trade restrictions on China, but Beijing has been an important creditor for the United States and is a potentially critical partner in containing a nuclear-armed North Korea. And his more hard-line talk about a military option to stop Iran’s nuclear program may be useful leverage, even if an actual attack may be unattractive for the same reasons that made George W. Bush never seriously consider it.

“There is a saying: campaign in poetry, govern in prose,” said Robert S. Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “In foreign policy, Mr. Romney’s campaign rhetoric to accentuate differences with Mr. Obama would run up against hard strategic and economic realities on a host of issues, from Iran to China.”

The poetry of Mr. Romney’s foreign policy pronouncements has been more about the nature of leadership, and this may be where he would strike a difference with Mr. Obama. While he criticizes Mr. Obama for alienating allies, meaning primarily Israel, Mr. Romney also emphasizes the importance of the United States’ exerting leadership without letting international criticism get in the way.

“President Obama has allowed our leadership to diminish,” Mr. Romney told veterans at the American Legion in Indianapolis. “In dealings with other nations, he has given trust where it’s not earned, insult where it’s not deserved and apology where it’s not due.”

Mr. Obama disputes those assertions, but they reflect the seriously held views of many around Mr. Romney. Mr. Obama’s efforts at outreach, whether in his 2009 speech in Cairo or on other occasions, struck many Republicans as soft, and they consider his responses to what they see as gathering threats or crises like Syria to have been too often passive.

The phrase “leading from behind,” attributed to an unnamed Obama aide in a New Yorker article but later disavowed by the White House, sums up how Mr. Romney views Mr. Obama’s leadership. Even if he pursues similar policies, he promises to do so in a different, more assertive manner.

His surrogates on Wednesday night hammered home that point.

“We cannot be reluctant to lead, and one cannot lead from behind,” Ms. Rice said.

“We must return to our best traditions of American leadership,” Mr. McCain said.

There are some areas where it is possible to forecast differences. Mr. Romney would presumably pursue free-trade agreements more vigorously than has Mr. Obama, who modified an agreement with South Korea negotiated by George W. Bush and has pushed to normalize trade ties with Russia but otherwise has initiated no major trade deals.

Military spending also seems an area where Mr. Romney would differ. In Indianapolis, Mr. Romney vowed to stop “reckless defense cuts” taking effect at year’s end. The nearly $500 billion in cuts over 10 years were mandated by legislation supported last year by lawmakers in both parties, including Mr. Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, to force the White House and Congress to develop a deficit reduction plan more palatable to both sides.

These issues may not be decisive in the election, but Mr. Romney’s campaign believes it needs to draw distinctions to present the candidate as a plausible commander in chief.

“The No. 1 issue on people’s minds is the economy,” said Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser, “but national security, leadership abroad, America’s place, American power around the globe is part of the course of consideration that many voters go through.”

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