The Romney Foreign-Policy Agenda

Imagine for a moment: It is two weeks after Election Day and President-elect Mitt Romney holds a press conference to announce his foreign-policy team, the officials who will guide his administration’s relations with the rest of the world. “Team of rivals!” proclaims Romney. He says he has decided to fill the top jobs in foreign policy with his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. For secretary of state: Rick Santorum. For secretary of defense: Newt Gingrich. For CIA director: Rick Perry. For national security adviser: Michele Bachmann …

OK, that was just a scary joke. It’s not going to happen. But it does serve as a reminder that, after 30-plus Republican primaries and an unprecedented number of debates, voters have little idea of how Mitt Romney would deal with the world outside America’s borders, what his philosophy is, or whom he would name to high-level positions in his administration. The greatest uncertainty, though, is one that reaches beyond Romney: Where would the next Republican administration go after the disaster of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq? Toward other military interventions, or an effort to preserve the status quo, or some degree of retrenchment? 

Romney’s views on foreign policy are a matter of no small consequence. Whoever occupies the White House from 2013 to 2017 will preside over American policy at a critical time. He may have to decide whether to launch military action against Iran’s nuclear program—or if war has broken out with Iran, how to manage its consequences. The next president will also have to chart the future course of American policy toward China. He will have to determine how much to press for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. He will have to negotiate the size of the defense budget with Congress. 

Above all, he will have to figure out America’s role in the world in an era of financial constraints. Like Obama, Romney has argued repeatedly that the United States is not a declining power in the way that many in China and elsewhere around the world now perceive. He will have to tailor his policies to show that these claims are not just American bravado. 


The primaries settled one foreign--policy issue of consequence for the direction of the Republican Party: Voters overwhelmingly rejected the libertarian isolationism of Ron Paul. This was not as much of a given as it may seem in retrospect. Paul, who questioned American involvements overseas and advocated dramatic reductions in the defense budget, had polled well at the annual gatherings of the Conservative Political Action Conference and, indeed, in the Iowa primary in January. His views on foreign policy seemed to be compatible with those of some other conservatives—the columnist George Will, for example—who questioned the sort of assertiveness that led the Bush administration into the Iraq War. But Paul eventually faded, his message marginalized. At the grass roots, American conservatives are still fundamentally hawkish. 

Other than Paul and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, all the Republican candidates fell back mostly on the standard clichés. There was, especially, the boilerplate accusation that the Democrats are weak on defense. This is a Republican refrain that dates back to the 1950s but one that had little resonance in the 2008 campaign, after Bush had established how a show of national strength could go awry. During the primaries, “weak on defense” made a comeback. The conservative columnist Peggy Noonan parodied the Republican debates: “We should bomb Iran Thursday. No, stupid, we should bomb Iran on Wednesday.” Romney and most of the other Republican candidates accused Obama of failing to believe in “American exceptionalism,” though none could explain what, in practical terms, this means for foreign policy. 

Finally, along with other Republicans, Romney accused Obama of making “apologies” abroad—the suggestion being that a president should not acknowledge that the United States has ever erred (or that it is even capable of erring). “I will not and I will never apologize for America. I don’t apologize for America, because I believe in America,” said Romney, who chose to title his campaign book No Apology. Never mind that, as Glenn Kessler pointed out in The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column, Obama hasn’t used the word “apology” and that the quotations cited by the Republicans have been trimmed and taken out of context. Never mind that Ronald Reagan apologized to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II or that George W. Bush voiced regrets to Jordan’s King Abdullah for American treatment of Iraqi prisoners after Abu Ghraib, to the Chinese for a plane collision near Hainan Island, and, while on a trip to Senegal, for American slavery. 

In short, from Romney’s campaign we are to suppose that on Day One of his presidency he might sign an order declaring a doctrine of American exceptionalism and another one requiring the world to recognize that the United States was never wrong and would never apologize. Then, on Day Two, he would go about the business of trying to obtain the support of other governments, who presumably would be thrilled to cooperate with a superpower that had just declared itself infallible.

Of course, presidential candidates do not often lay out the specifics of what they’ll do overseas in the early stages of a campaign. Most candidates don’t even know what they’ll face. Those who do make promises sometimes find themselves either reversing course (George W. Bush on nation-building, Bill Clinton on trade and human rights in China) or deciding to perpetuate the course that they had once criticized (Barack Obama on counterterrorism and Guantánamo). 

What distinguishes Romney is that he has not even hinted at the direction he hopes to steer the country. At least on domestic policy, one has an idea of Romney’s approach and self-image: the business executive, the manager. True, Romney has done all the obligatory things expected of a presidential candidate. He has released a formal white paper setting forth (with exquisite vagueness) his positions on various foreign--policy issues. He has assembled and released his own list of foreign-policy advisers. He has written op-eds and given addresses on foreign policy. Yet for all of this, we have no inkling of his vision.



His rhetoric so far has conveyed only a sense of nostalgia. In the world Romney evokes, other countries are willing to follow America’s lead and to defer to American strength every bit as much as they were in the unipolar 1990s. The rising powers of China, India, Brazil, and Turkey require no new thinking or new approaches, just the ideas and methods of the past. America faces no painful choices or trade-offs; it is prosperous enough that it can maintain the defense budgets of the past without reductions in social programs or entitlements. It can devote new attention and resources to Asia without cutting back its presence or commitments in Europe and the Middle East. The United States, it seems, can preserve its old role without difficulty.


On foreign policy, the Republicans today stand in roughly the same position as the Democrats did after the Vietnam War. Back then, an entire generation of Democratic mandarins was cast out into the cold because of their close association with Vietnam. Those from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who might have otherwise been in position for the next Democratic administration, such as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and former National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, were in disgrace. 

So too, the Republican foreign-policy elite today. Certainly some of the senior figures in the Bush administration would not be returning to office no matter what happened in Iraq: Dick Cheney for reasons of health and Donald Rumsfeld because of his age. But other prominent members of Bush’s foreign-policy team might well have been in line for top jobs in the next Republican administration were they not associated with the Iraq War or the controversies surrounding it. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, was a leading proponent of the war. His longtime protégé, Scooter Libby, was convicted of perjury in connection with leaking the name of a covert intelligence official. Colin Powell’s deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, also became ensnared in that controversy when he admitted he had revealed the agent’s identity. It seems unlikely that Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, both of whom served in the top ranks of the Bush administration, would be brought back into comparable positions in a Romney administration. Both are too closely identified with the former president.

In general, then, Romney probably will not do what George W. Bush did—fill out his national-security team with the central figures and the next-in-lines from the previous Republican administration. There are just a couple of senior Republicans who held prominent positions under Bush who are also possible candidates for top jobs under Romney. One is Robert Zoellick, who recently stepped down as president of the World Bank. He also served as U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state. Another is Richard Haass, now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was in charge of policy planning at the State Department in 2001–2003. Neither Zoellick nor Haass has been identified as part of the Romney team, and it’s not clear how well either gets along with the candidate. Even if Zoellick were to win a top job, it may not be in foreign policy; he seems more likely to end up as secretary of the treasury, a job he is thought to covet.

 Romney does have an inner circle of foreign-policy advisers, a close-knit group of people who have been working for him, in most cases, since the earliest stages of his unsuccessful campaign in 2008. Besides being prosperous and having ties to the Boston financial community or Wall Street, their common attributes are a long-standing connection to Romney and distance from the Bush War Cabinet.

 One of Romney’s foreign-policy coordinators this year is Kerry Healey, who served as the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts while Romney was governor. A Harvard graduate, she’s married to Sean Healey, the chairman and CEO of an investment firm. The team also includes Christopher Burnham, the vice chairman of Deutsche Bank Asset Management, who previously served as the State Department’s undersecretary for management and as undersecretary general for management at the United Nations. Among Romney’s three top Asia advisers is Kent Lucken, a former State Department Foreign Service officer who is the managing director of Citigroup Private Bank in Boston. 

The team includes two former Republican senators: Jim Talent, from Missouri, who lost his seat in 2006, and Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, whom Al Franken sent into retirement after a close election in 2008. Rounding out the group are a couple of fairly well-known foreign--policy hands. One is Mitchell Reiss, now the president of Washington College, who headed the State Department’s policy planning bureau under Powell. The other is Dan Senor, who was the spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Senor is also a money guy; he worked for the Carlyle Group before Iraq and as founding partner for Rosemont Capital, another asset-management firm. For intellectual clout, the Romney campaign has Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies; Cohen contributed the foreword to Romney’s foreign-policy white paper, “An American Century.” 



The Romney campaign last fall released a list of people who constitute the candidate’s “Foreign Policy and National Security Advisory Team.” Not all are working closely with the campaign; they are listed because they are identifiable names that might lend credibility. Two served in high positions in the Bush administration: Michael Hayden, the last of Bush’s three CIA directors, and Michael Chertoff, Bush’s secretary of homeland security. There is no reason to think that either would wind up returning to top posts under Romney.

The advisory team, though, contains a few individuals who served in second- or third-tier positions under Bush and might take senior positions in a new administration. A strong candidate is Eric Edelman, a widely respected Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Turkey who worked as undersecretary of defense for policy in the late Bush years. Edelman enjoys the rare distinction of having worked both for Cheney’s vice-presidential staff and for Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state. 

 Finally, there is John McCain, the one heavyweight Republican who would fit under the “team of rivals” rubric, even though he didn’t run for president this year. He’d be an obvious choice for defense secretary. But whether McCain would even want the job, much less whether Romney would be willing to appoint him after the tensions of the 2008 campaign, is an open question.


Where would such people take us? The official list of advisers does not reveal much more about the direction of a Romney administration than does Romney’s sloganeering in the primaries. Romney’s team runs the ideological spectrum of the Republican Party. It includes individuals from the Brent Scowcroft/Bob Gates/Colin Powell wing of the party and defense hawks from the Dick Cheney wing. The inner circle contains Mitchell Reiss, a moderate who worked for Powell and who once wrote a book called Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists, and it includes Senor, who was among the founders of the Foreign Policy Initiative, now the main neoconservative organization. A strong supporter of Israel, Senor co-wrote Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.

This sort of ideological diversity seems to run through the regional specialists, too. Take, for example, China policy. Romney’s advisory group for Asia lists as one co-chair Evan Feigenbaum, who worked on promoting closer ties with China under Zoellick at the State Department. At the same time, the team also named Aaron Friedberg, who reflects a warier outlook on China, as a second co-chair. Friedberg is a Princeton scholar and former Cheney aide; his views are summed up by the title of his recent book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.

Certainly Romney’s advisers tilt heavily toward financial and corporate interests. If a Romney administration were to push China hard, one guesses, it would be on issues such as opening up its financial markets to American companies and not on issues such as human rights or support for independent trade unions. One of Romney’s only strong and distinctive stands in his campaign has been a pledge to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. During their 2008 campaigns, Obama and Hillary Clinton made similar promises, but the Obama administration has held off from doing so out of concern for roiling Sino-American relations. Even here, signals are mixed. It is difficult to imagine Zoellick, were he secretary of treasury or state, carrying out Romney’s pledge. Of all senior U.S. officials in the past two decades, Zoellick has been among the most sympathetic to the Chinese regime. 

As Romney staked out his own hawkish positions in the primaries, there were hints of policy disagreements within his team. One area of contention seems to have been Afghanistan. Some advisers are said to have favored keeping American troops there for an extended period of time; others were said to have warned that Romney should not box himself into such hawkish positions, particularly when public support for the war is slipping. Romney himself has tried to attack Obama from both flanks. Early on, Romney sounded vaguely dovish, asserting at one point last year that it was “time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can.” More recently, he’s taken to attacking the president for withdrawing too quickly. When pressed, Romney falls back on the time-honored evasion: He’ll rely on the advice of his military commanders in the field.

Ultimately, a Romney foreign policy would depend far more on the would-be president than on his team of advisers or the positions he lays out this year. What, then, are Romney’s own instincts? It seems likely that he believes in at least one part of his campaign message: that he would bring to the presidency the business-oriented approach he learned in the private sector. What that might mean for American foreign policy, however, is far from clear. Countries do not behave according to efficient-market theory; many of the underlying forces at play overseas—nationalism and religious fundamentalism, for example—are not amenable to the sort of corporate approaches Romney brought to the Salt Lake City Olympics or the state of Massachusetts.

The one foreign-policy issue on which Romney has staked out a fairly strong stand is the Middle East. He has said he would not be willing to countenance an Iran with nuclear weapons, but since Obama has said the same thing, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in their positions. Unlike Obama, though, Romney has been unwaveringly supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, even cooperating with a recent New York Times story that said the two men have been friends since they worked together at Boston Consulting Group in 1976. “We can almost speak in shorthand,” Romney told the paper. 

One is left to wonder whether Romney might offer some surprises in foreign policy. Is there an overseas version of Romneycare, an initiative that shows a willingness to defy the Republican Party’s right-wing base? Perhaps there are a few issues—say, climate change—in which one can imagine him challenging conservative orthodoxies. Romney, though, shows not the slightest sign of being a risk-taker or even a person fond of drama. His approach to the world would probably be as cautious as his presidential campaign. In one respect, that would be to the good. George Bush was a risk-taker, and America wound up paying the price. 

Overall, however, there are few grounds for optimism. In general, Romney seems to be wedded to tired old formulations. He is not even managing to come up with a vocabulary to prepare the country for change, much less the ideas and policies to sustain that change. This is “the American century,” he proclaims, borrowing Henry Luce’s phrase to describe the 20th century. “This is America’s moment,” he tells audiences, as though it were a new idea. Lost among these platitudes is the reality of America’s shrinking resources for foreign policy and national security. Even in the unlikely event that Romney were to restore all the cuts in the defense budget he now inveighs against, the Pentagon would have less money to throw around than in the past—the Defense Department already has been trimming the budget as a way to forestall much larger slashes. 

The “Vulcans” foreign-policy team of the last Republican administration had a vision for a post–Cold War world dominated by American power. The United States would be able to defeat any country that emerged as a possible competitor in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East; it would do so largely by building up its military strength and by taking preemptive action against potential threats. This approach foundered after September 11, when the Bush administration discovered to its surprise that the most immediate threats America faced came not from countries but from non-state actors like al-Qaeda, and when it realized, en route to the Iraq War, that other countries weren’t willing to follow American leadership.

Under Obama, America’s national-security agencies, notably the Pentagon and CIA, have made considerable headway against the non-state actors that plagued the last administration. The question now is how to define America’s post–Cold War role in a way that matches its current circumstances. In the campaign, Romney seems to rely on an almost religious approach. “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” Romney said in a foreign-policy speech at The Citadel last fall. “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will.” What such words might mean for a Romney policy toward China or Egypt, Iran or North Korea, Pakistan or Syria, so far only God and, maybe, Mitt Romney know. He isn’t telling the rest of us.

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