international analysis and commentary

The Republican ticket and foreign policy: a test of inexperience


In choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney did something striking in historical terms. The Romney/Ryan ticket is the first Republicans have put forward since 1948 with no foreign policy experience. From 1948 until now the Republican Party has taken national security and foreign policy seriously and they have put forward candidates that reflected that priority.

Republican presidential candidates have sometimes had extensive foreign policy experience before winning the nomination. Dwight D. Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander Europe before his nomination in 1952. More recently, John McCain had served for over three decades on the Senate Armed Services Committee before winning the 2008 nomination. In the past, Republican presidential nominees without foreign policy experience – usually governors – have sought running mates with such experience to balance the ticket. Ronald Reagan had been governor of California and, so, chose George H.W. Bush as his running mate. The elder Bush had served as the Director of Central Intelligence, Ambassador to China and Ambassador to the United Nations before Reagan chose him as vice presidential nominee. Even in 2000, when foreign policy issues were not of significant concern to voters, Texas Governor George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney as his running mate because of the latter’s foreign policy experience.

Does it matter that neither governor Romney nor Congressman Ryan have foreign policy experience? It does. First, having experience in domestic politics does not translate into good foreign policy decision making. Knowing the history and context of issues is a critical prerequisite to making good decisions about them. How can one expect to facilitate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without an understanding of the conflict’s lengthy history? Moreover, strategic interaction in the international realm is different from that at the national or local level. The international realm is less rule bound, entails a wider variety of actors, and one’s adversaries often have deadly means at their disposal. Getting the Iranians to give up their nuclear program is fundamentally different – fundamentally more complex – than getting the Massachusetts legislature to pass a budget. In fact, Romney’s lack of experience may explain the gaffes in the candidate’s trip earlier this summer. While Romney has criticized Obama for being insufficiently supportive of allies, he offended British government officials by being critical of their preparations for the Olympic games.

Of course, this is not to say that experience guarantees good decisions. All Dick Cheney’s experience did not keep him from leading the charge into the 2003 Iraq War. Inexperience does make bad decisions more likely, however. In his acceptance speech to the GOP convention, governor Romney attributed recent American economic performance to President Obama’s lack of business experience. Why is experience important in the economic realm but not in foreign policy?

On the contrary, foreign policy experience is especially important because of the consequences of making mistakes. Errors in the domestic field may lead to job losses or foreclosures but those in foreign policy can lead to thousands or even millions of lives lost. Because we are talking about the presidency of the United States the consequences are even greater. The United States possesses the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal and the world’s most powerful military. That is a lot of firepower to put in the hands of two men who do not have a day of foreign policy experience between them.

There have been moments when international problems did not loom large and, thus, it might have been fair for the president and vice president to leave foreign policy to the National Security Council principals. That is not the case today and the Romney/Ryan campaign recognizes it. Their website declares that “[o]ur country today faces a bewildering array of threats and opportunities.” Why are we to believe that a team with no foreign policy experience can best address such a world?

Foreign policy experience might also not be as important if a ticket is proposing foreign policy retrenchment. The Romney/Ryan team’s lack of experience is especially disconcerting because they are in favor of a more assertive stance toward Iran (including an increased regional naval presence), countering China’s rise to hegemony, and disarming North Korea. If implemented, any of these policies could lead the United States into armed conflict.

Given all this, why have the Republicans chosen a ticket with no foreign policy experience? Perhaps it is an indicator of arrogance. Even after George W. Bush’s presidency Republicans may feel that they still have an advantage on foreign policy no matter who they nominate. Or perhaps they have nominated this team because they do not believe they can defeat the Obama/Biden ticket on this issue regardless of their ticket.

It is impossible to know, but they have made a dangerous political gamble that may have disastrous consequences for America and the world.