international analysis and commentary

Romney’s isolationism and internationalism as seen from the UK

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Should he gain high office, Mitt Romney has promised to replace the bust of Sir Winston Churchill that President Obama had removed from the Oval Office. Given the gaffe-prone nature of Romney’s campaign, Sir Winston may have to wait a tad longer before his likeness is returned to the pantheon of power. Romney’s recent trip to Europe and Israel, taken together with his other less than certain comments on all matters foreign demonstrates first and foremost a naivety on foreign policy matters not just of the candidate but a team of less than stellar foreign policy thinkers.

That is not Romney’s fault. The trip was simply one of those rites of passage US presidential candidates have to endure if they are to tick all the boxes on the way to the White House. That said, it also revealed a man who hails from a traditionalist Republican dynasty (his father George ran for the 1968 White House) with a traditional Republican world view – more Reagan than Bush 2. This can best be described as maximizing American profit abroad whilst limiting the costs of engagement.

Certainly, a Romney presidency would distance itself from the big spending global conservatism of the Bush 2 years and, of course, what Republicans regard as the speak softly with no stick foreign and security policy of President Obama. Above all, it would seek to reduce the “tax” on American leadership by freeing itself from entangling alliances which to the Romney team simply look like Obama’s healthcare plan gone global. NATO is fast becoming in the Republican mind a kind of global Medicare with the US taxpayer paying far too much for the defense of welfare-dependent Europeans.

It was that sense of the need to extricate America from costly state-building and costly hand-holding which was implicit in Romney’s recent tour. His decision to visit Britain first, for all its misplaced and slightly jealous comments about the London Olympics, was in-line with his Churchillian world-view. The Brits have again shown this past decade that they are America’s best friend with whom a Romney presidency could do business. This idea that allies should be those with whom America can do strategic business is essential to the reassertion of low-cost American leadership to which a Romney presidency would aspire. An Anglosphere would be central to that, although a President Romney would never be so crass as to call it that. 

Allies would thus be those states that not only share a similar world and cultural view to that of the US, but who are close trading and investment partners and prepared to stand with America in the turbulence that Romney instinctively believes lies ahead. Israel is of course central to that view (as are of course conservative Jewish American and Polish American voters). 

Romney rejects the Obama sophisticates who sought in the early days of the administration to replace the “special relationship” with Britain via a more purposeful relationship with the EU via France and Germany. This policy was lost not just on the battlefield of reality that is Afghanistan but Republicans view the emergence of the Eurosphere with suspicion.  Clearly, if Romney wins the White House there will be no more Afghanistans and if green-on-blue attacks continue expect US forces withdrawn far more quickly than December 2014. 

This complex mix of isolationism and internationalism will be a difficult balance to strike for Romney. There will be a shift to a stand-off strike and punish defense strategy that much reduces entangling alliances and commitments. There will be no doubt a greater emphasis on the physical defense of the American homeland (missile defense is after all merely the flip side to conservative insecurities about hyper-immigration), a determination that America’s power prestige is restored by a reinvestment in the future military with a focus on the threats posed by Iran, Russia and more implicitly China. A world view reinforced by a renewed emphasis on restoring/establishing leadership relationships with trusted allies worldwide.

American leadership would see not just a retreat from entangling alliances but a realignment to what a Romney White House would see as leadership coalitions with the likes of Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan et al as part of a worldwide security web built on and around the Romney White House.

Sir Winston is a hero of Romney as he is for many American conservatives because he embodies the spirit of defiance, independence and never-give-in leadership that Americans always seek in themselves and their leaders. What they forget is that it was Churchill who made the famous observation that one can normally rely upon the Americans to make the right decision but only after every other option has been exhausted. In the complex world in which President Romney could soon find himself time itself may not be an option.