For Romney, as for many politicians of both parties in decades past, the United States is not just a big and powerful country. Rather, it is the only country in the world that deserves superpower status. What’s unfortunate for Mitt and his all-star, Bush-heavy foreign policy team is that, these days, that line of thinking is more nostalgic than realistic. (By the way, though Romney was almost bombastic at times, calling Iran’s leaders “suicidal fanatics,” his actual policies are unlikely to reflect or adopt that tone -- at least not with his foreign policy team as constituted now.) The idea of the U.S. as the leader of the free world is at a post-WWII nadir. However, that’s not because some other country, like China, has risen to fill the vacuum. No, the fault is wholly our own.
In fact, right now there’s a global debate about whether the U.S. really deserves its superpower mantle, given the political and economic issues of recent years that have unquestionably eroded its leadership position. It’s helpful to compare the two camps:
The exceptionalist camp believes that America’s pole position comes from more than its economic and political power-- that it comes from our set of values and worldviews, which no other global power possesses. These types of thinkers believe that no matter how powerful, for example, China, becomes, it can never truly take up the role of global leader, because its policies are fundamentally incompatible with the Western world’s.
Those of us who traveled in the Soviet Union prior to its collapse or in Eastern Europe soon afterwards, saw that dissidents and newly liberated peoples there thought about the U.S. in a different way, because America stood for a set of ideas that represented the gold standard of what free people could aspire to achieve. The non-exceptionalist camp believes less in the U.S. as the most influential country in the world, seeing that influence as having seriously eroded of late. Specifically, the events of the 2000 election, in which the Supreme Court took a vote divided among party lines to place George W. Bush into office, is seen by many as the beginning of the end of the era of U.S. infallibility abroad.
In trying to channel Reagan, Romney is also trying to link Obama to an era of economic and political malaise, to paint him as a modern-day Carter. But Romney is missing the very real toll on U.S global prestige in the last decade and its serious implications for foreign policy. It started with the 2000 election and the erosion of the U.S. as a political gold standard, but with the problems of Enron and Worldcom in the middle of the decade, and then the financial crisis’s roots in the U.S. financial system, America’s reputation as the gold standard of finance also began to crumble. In other words, global leaders aren’t paying as much mind to the Obama administration not because of Obama, but because Obama represents a diminished United States, one that can’t be trusted. This is ubiquitous — and currently playing out between the US and EU, where Timothy Geithner was recently rebuffed by Europe’s finance ministers when he tried to tell them what to do at a meeting in Poland. The world seems a little sick of the idea that America knows best, precisely because recently, it very visibly demonstrated that it does not.
President Obama has left himself vulnerable in the coming election due to his seeming inability to espouse and defend America’s values at home and abroad — his inability, in other words, to symbolically begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild American prestige. He has lost sight of the power of American values and become hyper-pragmatic in his approach to foreign policy. His foreign policy may be an effective one, but, drone-strikes aside, it’s missing the grand gestures that Americans look to in order to reaffirm their place in the world. And even drone strikes are often, by design, intended as a case-specific alternative to more grandiose — and controversial — measures that could go further to tie military strategy to an overarching ideology.
Yet Romney’s foreign policy seems designed to be nothing more than a Reagan redux — to paper over the faults of the last decade in a way that will be implausible on the world stage. That could come back to hurt him. Romney has identified and gone after President Obama’s weaknesses, and he has struck an early blow in the GOP field as the first candidate to even bother with a foreign policy speech at this stage. That counts for a lot.
The logical result of Romney’s foreign policy, as enumerated in his speech, is the same as the logical result of George W. Bush’s — a unilateralism that could leave the U.S. standing largely alone, diplomatically and militarily. At a time when military spending almost certainly must be cut to fix America’s budget problems, that’s a pose any president can ill-afford to strike.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) holds up a statue of former US President Ronald Reagan presented to him by California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R) during an Orange County “Change Begins With Us” tour stop at Bassett Furniture in Fountain Valley, California, January 31, 2008. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok