While undoubtedly entertaining (it could hardly fail to be so with Joe Biden as one of the protagonists), the recent vice-presidential debate is highly unlikely to prove a game-changer in the now too-close-to-call 2012 campaign. Voters rarely if ever determine their vote for president based on who the White House is likely to send abroad to represent America at foreign funerals. Saying this, the two prospective candidates did get to the heart of the matter in terms of foreign policy.
On the offensive, Paul Ryan rightly questioned what in the world the Obama administration had been doing in terms of security, following a terrorist attack from al Qaeda affiliates that led to the tragic murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Ryan bluntly stated that the Obama foreign policy had made Americans less safe. True to his populist style, Vice President Biden responded “That’s malarkey,” an archaic term of scorn not often used other than by someone’s grandparents.
But it is safe to say that in those few general words lies the heart of the electoral difference between the two parties over foreign policy. Certainly Ryan spoke for the mainstream GOP view that in apologizing for historical American mistakes around the globe, and in trying to re-set relations with Russia and the Arab world, this White House’s strategy has proved feckless at best. Vladimir Putin shows no sign of moderating his policies in Syria because of newfound expressions of American friendliness. Likewise, the dirty secret underlying the unfolding drama of the Arab Spring is simply this: in the near term the more democratic Arab regimes are, the more likely they are to be anti-Western and anti-American. In linchpin Egypt, it is hard to say that the democratically-elected Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi is more pro-American than the tyrant he replaced, Hosni Mubarak.
If courting enemies has led to predictable failure, the effort of doing so – in Republican eyes – has estranged the few real friends America has left in the world. Romney’s choice of places to visit during his ill-fated recent foreign trip was not picked at random: the UK, Israel and Poland. For many Republicans these usual suspects have been ignored while the White House naively tried to win over former American enemies. It was this narrative (in which the Benghazi fiasco is merely icing on the cake) that Ryan was referring to in his all-encompassing dismissal of the Obama foreign policy record.
Does this critique – so satisfying on the surface – actually hold water? It is certainly true that the Obama administration has run a cautious foreign policy; there is no bold Nixon to China masterstroke to highlight its record. For all its drama, the killing of a much-diminished Osama bin Laden was primarily about justice, rather than a game-changing diplomatic gambit.
Nor has the White House strategically remade the world, as the Truman administration so brilliantly did by propounding the doctrine of containment to guide America foreign policy through the long Cold War. While the pivot to Asia notion holds some intellectual promise, it remains more a long-term aspiration than a practical narrative to guide America in the new age of multipolarity.
Rather, as I have said before, the Obama team has run foreign policy like a bad bank, winding down the neoconservative excesses of the Bush administration. No new long-term conflicts in the Arab world, no more costly and futile efforts at nation building, and follow-through in winding down the dreary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is unglamorous, to be sure. But following the frightening roller-coaster ride the country was on under George W. Bush, a cautious, careful, tactical foreign policy certainly has not sounded that awful to most.
Rather, the crucial and obvious debate question remains: What would Romney actually put in place of Obama’s foreign policy record? While the specifics of this remain vague, the outlines of a very different approach seem increasingly clear; Romney is running as the kinder, gentler, neocon.
Three Romney talking points make this particularly disastrous. First, acting as if a renewed romance with old allies is what is primarily needed to set the world aright is to fundamentally miss the forest for the trees. There is little doubt that there is a genuine need to smooth over bad feelings with London, Tel Aviv and Warsaw. But foreign policy is not and never has been an either/or proposition; this can be accomplished while still reaching out to the wider world, including some states that are traditional American rivals.
In the new multipolar world, rising local powers such as Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and India, are increasingly the indispensable partners America will have to work with to get much of anything done in their regions; barring Ankara none are historic allies, but they will have to be engaged nonetheless. Even if Poland, Israel and the UK act in perfect pitch across the full spectrum of American interests (knowing all of them well I find this beyond unlikely) they simply don’t carry enough geopolitical heft to get all that much accomplished. Others have risen since the easier Cold War days, when all America had to do was preach to the choir.
Second, in a multipolar world the terms ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’ don’t mean what they used to. The President recently made this point, when asked if President Morsi of Egypt was America’s friend. It wasn’t pique that led him to describe Morsi as neither an ally nor an enemy; it was an honest statement of geopolitical fact. In a multipolar world, alliances by definition will be more fluid, more issue-centered and less ideological. In such a confusing place to achieve its goals America will have to work with countries on a case-by-case basis. Thinking in terms of ally and enemy just doesn’t fit this new reality. A President Romney, following such a bipolar approach in a multipolar world, simply wouldn’t get much done.
Which leads me to the last point. Using the word ‘leadership’ as a panacea – a magical way around the more complicated world we now find ourselves in – does not pass the laugh test. People have not supported America because we have stepped forward and confidently told them what to do. Instead they followed our lead because we were far and away the dominant power on the globe in terms of political, economic and military wherewithal. It’s not that our arguments were always so superior to everyone else’s, but rather that we had the power to uniquely back them up.
While by any standard America remains the chairman of the global board, there are an increasing number of others at the great power table – and they are gaining on us. America is the most important country in the world, but is also a place where one-third of working age people have no private retirement savings of any kind, one-quarter of mortgages are underwater, and one-fifth of all wealth has been wiped out in the post-Lehman crash. George W. Bush failed precisely because his freedom agenda had no limit, and American power did. Four years on, this is even more the case. Mitt Romney’s foreign policy is malarkey because its goals are those of a nation leading a unipolar world, while we find ourselves in a multipolar one.
This is not a small mistake.