international analysis and commentary

The problem with Romney’s foreign policy


While it is unrealistic to expect any candidate to fill in all the policy blanks of what they would do if elected, the outlines of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy are clear. Over the Iranian nuclear crisis, for example, the candidate has been most detailed. His Iranian policy makes sense… but only if you enter your time machine and set the controls for about 1990.

Since 1990, we have seen the basic structure of the world go from unipolar to multipolar; the United States, while remaining first among equals, has a number of competitors nipping at its heels in a way that it simply did not following the demise of communism. In that simpler time, America – for good and ill – shaped events. Today,  the US no longer determines largely on its own what will happen in our messier world.

In the endless series of Republican candidate debates, Romney has been at great pains to make Iran a foreign policy wedge issue. He has stated simply, “If you re-elect President Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon… If you elect me as the next President, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” So what magic trick does Romney possess that the hapless White House has been unable conjure up?

Well… none whatsoever. Romney has gone on, confidently stating that he can curb the mullahs’ drive to acquire nukes through tough sanctions, covert and overt support for domestic opposition groups within Iran, and by making clear that the threat of American military strikes remains on the table. In other words, he is rather confusingly parroting the policy that his nemesis, President Obama, has settled on.

The one critical and unspoken difference between the two is the ultimate question. If push comes to shove, and Iran breaks out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (by deciding to acquire the bomb), the Obama White House is still likely to fall back on a strategy of deterrence (extending nuclear guarantees to the Gulf states and other allies in the region and offering them advanced missile defense) rather than militarily striking Iran’s nuclear sites. With Romney, the reverse seems likely: if it comes to it, he will (either by coordinating with Israel or on his own) use air power to try to set Iran’s nuclear program back.

The idea that America can successfully take out Iran’s nuclear program harkens back to an earlier era, when the US could afford to shoot first and ask questions later. In such a unipolar (or in the Cold War bipolar) world, the superpower had a great deal of leeway. You can get a lot wrong at the margins without it really mattering strategically. Lose in Vietnam? It doesn’t really matter as long as you win the Cold War. Fall to pieces over a handful of casualties in Somalia? Utterly unimportant strategically, as you have no primary interests in the country in the first place. Wars and humanitarian interventions of choice are eminently doable for a superpower with strategic give, whose dominance is so great as to go unquestioned, who can afford an almost endless series of tactical mistakes. But in a multipolar world, the margin for such foolishness is infinitely smaller. Wars of choice and unilateral thinking in general (which makes perfect sense if you are the only game in town) have to go out the window if a declining superpower is to halt its slide in an epoch with multiple peer competitors – especially ones who, every year, get a little bit stronger economically.

Just as the John Wayne theory (shoot first and apologize after, if you kill the bartender by mistake) doesn’t work any more, so is the second part of Romney’s critique of Obama over Iran equally nonsensical. Aping the views of the hapless George W. Bush administration, Romney has ridiculed Obama’s early attempts to engage Iran’s leaders as an exhibition of monumental naivety.

It is such views themselves that are otherworldly. We simply don’t live in a world where the rest of the planet, at some primal level, craves American attention. The world is not some passive-aggressive sullen teenager who, beneath it all, just wants daddy to love them. Such an out-of-touch view is precisely what the rest of the world (friends and enemies alike) cannot stand about American arrogance.

Nor does this view pass the historical laugh test. From the Olympian heights of American power, FDR still rightly deigned to talk to and align America with the blood-thirsty Stalin, in order to dispatch Nazism from the face of the planet. Likewise, Nixon’s America, in reaching a rapprochement with Mao (probably the most murderous man to have ever lived, in terms of sheer numbers), strategically completely negated US losses in Vietnam, by decisively turning the tables on the USSR in one brilliant stroke. Moral superiority is a luxury today’s far weaker America simply cannot afford.

Talking to the mullahs in Iran will either lead to an agreement largely on America’s terms (no nuclear weapons for Iran), or it will not. Critically, if it is this second option that comes to pass (as seems more likely), at least Obama can go to the international community and genuinely say he has walked the extra mile to achieve agreement. It is precisely by going through the process in good faith that America will more easily succeed in assembling an international coalition to confront Iran. That is what the diplomatic minuet is all about: it is not about stupidly believing in the good intentions of one’s foes, but rather organizing the process so that if worse comes to the worst, America will find itself surrounded by allies prepared to contain and constrain a recalcitrant Iran.

In the end, in devising a policy for the wrong era – in assuming that America can still do pretty much as it pleases, while the actual key decisions over Iran will be made in Tehran and Israel – it is Romney who shows himself to possess an Alice-in-Wonderland view of America’s present place in the world. Wishing things does not make them true; America remains powerful, but not all-powerful. The failure to get this central fact right is the surest way to corrode America’s position in the world, and quickly.