8 August 2012
The Canberra Times
Itinerary gives an insight into the likely foreign policy of a Republican White House, Luke Freedman writes
It wasn't until 1906 that a US President travelled abroad, but today a trip overseas has become commonplace even for the candidates. In 2008, when Barack Obama wanted to demonstrate his foreign policy chops he took a highly publicised tour through Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan. This past week it was the Romney campaign's turn to go global; by Wednesday the former Governor of Massachusetts will have completed a seven-day tour of Britain, Israel and Poland.
Mitt Romney's advisors stressed the trip was to listen to other voices, not a platform for policy proposals and as such he was careful not to harshly criticise the President while overseas. Nevertheless, actions speak louder than words and Romney's choice of destinations offers important insight into the foreign policy distinctions he seeks to draw between himself and President Obama.
Romney's statements on foreign affairs have not strayed far from Republican orthodoxy. It's a doctrine steeped in Cold War era imagery, emphasising American exceptionalism and distrust of broad coalitions while maintaining an unflinching loyalty to close allies. And in defining his own views Romney has made President Obama a symbol for the perceived failures of US diplomacy.
In his 2010 book, No Apologies: The case for American Greatness, Romney writes that the current president is more interested in being ''the world's great bridge builder and synthesizer'' than in defending American values around the world. These attacks play well to the Republican base but may prove less effective in the general election given Obama's high approval ratings on foreign policy. Still, Romney is not backing down and his trip abroad was a chance to emphasize areas where he believes the President has been weak or ineffective.
The visit to Israel was an obvious choice especially given the spectre of a nuclear Iran. Romney has been a vocal critic of Obama's handling of the issue, claiming the President hasn't done enough to ensure Israel's security. ''If Barack Obama is re-elected,'' Romney said in March, ''Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change if that's the case''.
Still, it's unclear just how much the US approach would shift with Romney in the White House. Firm sanctions on Iran are already in place and President Obama has repeatedly emphasised that no options are off the table. Perhaps President Romney would approach the situation differently than Obama has but any divide may be more rhetorical than substantive.
A more revealing aspect of Romney's trip is his stop in Poland. A quick visit to Israel is hardly surprising and a journey to London coinciding with the Olympic Opening Ceremonies makes perfect sense. But Eastern Europe isn't the most likely destination for a presidential nominee on a tight schedule. So why Warsaw?
First, President Obama has had a few diplomatic incidents with the Poles, most notably a slightly testy relationship with former president and anti-communist hero Lech Walesa. More broadly though, it fits well with Romney's backward-looking foreign policy narrative that presents global issues in stark terms of good versus evil.
The presumptive Republican nominee has taken a hardline stance on Russia, referring to the country as ''our number one geopolitical foe'' and warning that ''by mid-century, our grandchildren may well view Russia with the same concern that we and our parents once did''. These statements accent concrete policy differences between the candidates. Romney voiced vocal opposition to the US-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty ''New Start'', which was ratified under Obama's watch.
It's hardly coincidental that the Romney tour chose to stop in the first Eastern bloc country to rebel against the USSR and that is so closely identified with the downfall of communism. Romney has faced some criticism for his opinions on Russia, but if the trip to Poland is any indication he seems unlikely to moderate his position before the general election.
Finally, if Romney's destinations are revealing the omissions are suggestive as well. The most notable absence on the itinerary: Afghanistan. Romney has not endorsed Obama's NATO approved plan for full troop withdrawal by the end of 2014, saying that he will base his own timetable on feedback from commanders on the ground. So far, his campaign has been reluctant to offer more specifics. A trip to the site of the war would put the issue back in the national spotlight drawing attention to the vagueness of Romney's plan. It's always easier to hearken back to America's role in past triumphs like the fall of communism than to provide definite answers to tough questions concerning the country's future.