The Foreign Policy Divide: Romney

Commentary | August 30, 2012

Domestic economic considerations have dominated and will continue to dominate much of the rhetoric in the presidential campaign, but President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are taking pains to draw sharp distinctions between their positions on foreign policy as well.  And with U.S. and NATO soldiers still under fire in Afghanistan, an escalating civil war in Syria, and lingering concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions, there is no shortage of serious issues that the candidates need to address.

Romney won the Republican nomination without strong foreign policy credentials, but this did not hamper the campaigns of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, who took office with a similar paucity of international experience. Romney’s forays into foreign policy issues thus far have already led to a few stumbles, with the candidate facing criticism for overblown rhetoric—such as labeling Russia the United States’ primary geopolitical foe. Romney also faces tensions within the Republican Party between Tea Party acolytes with isolationist propensities and those who propound “American exceptionalism,” arguing for a greater U.S. push for human rights and democracy across the globe.

Will Romney opt for a more active and aggressive foreign policy in defense of human rights and democracy promotion, which could further undermine relations with China and Russia, or will concerns over budget cuts and overreach force a retrenchment of U.S. power, as his running mate Paul Ryan has advocated? And then there is this to consider: regardless of what Romney says on the campaign trail, geopolitical realities will necessarily temper what a Romney administration would be able to do once in office, as they did when Barack Obama assumed office.

By reviewing speeches, interviews and public documents, we offer below a summary of the positions the Romney campaign has staked on some of the major foreign policy issues that EWI follows closely. In most instances, the Romney campaign has yet to articulate a clear alternative to the Obama administration’s foreign policy positions, preferring instead to criticize current policies and a perceived lack of leadership. Condoleezza Rice and John McCain’s speeches in Tampa followed this pattern—lambasting the Obama administration for “leading from behind,” for failing to prioritize human rights, and for sowing confusion among America’s allies and partners as to what are the U.S.’s core interests.

This overview can offer a glimpse into the prevailing thinking in the Romney campaign, but it is not necessarily a foreign policy blueprint for a Romney administration. Overall, though, the Romney campaign appears to be staking out a more assertive foreign policy that, if implemented, would bring the United States into sharper confrontation with China, Russia, Syria, and Iran. 

Next week during the Democratic convention, we will offer a similar examination of the Obama administration’s foreign policy positions.



The Romney campaign labels China as a state (along with Russia) with “rising ambitions.” From trade to human rights to Taiwan to the South China Sea, the Romney campaign promises a more forceful U.S. policy to counter Chinese efforts at regional hegemony. It also promises to pressure China to become a “responsible partner in the international system.” This push would include labeling China a currency manipulator, increasing arms sales to Taiwan, and building up the U.S. military presence in the region in part to guarantee open trade routes and prevent the South China Sea from becoming a “Chinese lake.” On human rights, Romney’s platform seeks to encourage China to become more politically open and democratic—but offers few specifics on how it would do this beyond offering to “support and engage civil society groups within China that are promoting democratic reform, anti-corruption efforts, religious freedom, and women’s and minority rights.”

An editorial in the China Daily warned that Romney’s stance on China “will only lead to head-on confrontation between the two countries.” The editorial shows a good understanding of U.S. domestic politics when it notes that “politicians tend to go back on their words after being elected, and it has become usual for U.S. politicians to play the China card in an election year.” President Obama was similarly critical of China in his 2008 campaign, promising to “use all diplomatic means at his disposal to achieve change in China's manipulation of the value of its currency.” Political realities tempered Obama’s desire to push China hard on the currency issue and it is reasonable to expect that, in practice, a Romney administration would be similarly constrained. While noting the gap between campaign rhetoric and actual policies, the editorial noted: “Romney's stance on China is still worrying, as it could poison the friendly atmosphere necessary to develop Sino-US relations.”



Romney and his surrogates continue to view Russia as a threat to the United States. And instead of backing away from his statement in which he labeled Russia as the U.S.’s main geopolitical foe, the campaign seems to have decided to double-down on Russia as a threat. Recent events in Russia may have played into this decision, as the administration of President Vladimir Putin continues to stonewall U.N. action in Syria and pursues its domestic opponents with zeal. Romney advisor Richard Williamson addressed Romney’s views on Russia, saying "They are our foe. They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that…”

A Romney administration, then, would seek to reset the “reset.” This would include a review of the New START treaty, which Romney labeled in 2010 as Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake. The United States could withdraw from the treaty by invoking the “supreme national interest” clause. Such a move, however, would have serious consequences beyond the U.S.-Russia relationship as the global non-proliferation and arms control movements would be inevitably weakened.

The Romney campaign further highlights European dependence on Russian energy, Russia’s ambitions to its south, and its authoritarian practices as particular areas of concern. But it has offered little by way of concrete proposals on how it would confront these issues differently than the Obama administration.



The degree to which Afghanistan is not a significant campaign issue is surprising. U.S. troops (and their NATO partners) are still engaged in the longest war that the United States has fought. Romney has criticized Obama for announcing his deadline for bringing most of U.S. troops home, but not the idea of bringing them home. The purpose of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, according to the Romney website, is to “eliminate al Qaeda from the region and degrade the Taliban and other insurgent groups to the point where they are not existential threats to the Afghan government and do not destabilize Pakistan.”

Romney advisor Robert O'Brien and Romney himself have criticized Obama for not appearing regularly before the American people to explain “why we’re in Afghanistan, why it’s important to us, what our strategy is, and rallying support for our young men and women in uniform who are fighting there.” Defending Romney’s Afghanistan policy, which has undergone some significant revision, O’Brien explained “So I think the first thing Governor Romney will do is convey to folks, the American people, as president, what his vision is for Afghanistan.” Given that Obama has a tremendous advantage over Romney in who is seen as better able to handle Afghanistan (43 to 27 percent according to a July NBC-WSJ poll), it would be a useful exercise if this was done before the election.



The United States, regardless of which administration is in power, will continue to be deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Romney has tried to draw the starkest differences between his position and Obama’s on this issue. “Look, one thing you can know, and that is if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” he declared. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.” And at his recent speech in Indiana to the American Legion, Romney stated that Iran “is drawing close to nuclear weapons capability,” even though that is in dispute.

The Romney campaign’s objectives vis-à-vis Iran are to “end Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, eliminate the threat of Iranian nuclear terrorism against the United States and our allies, and prevent nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.” The differences between Romney and Obama here are nonexistent.

Romney and his surrogates have also criticized the president for missing, in Senator John McCain’s words, an historic opportunity to support an Iranian revolution that would overthrow the current regime. Romney advisor Williamson has maintained that Romney would implement “crushing, strong sanctions” (without necessarily seeking U.N. Security Council support, given China and Russia’s recalcitrance on Iran sanctions) and would seek a total suspension of enrichment.

Obama has preferred to exhaust diplomatic means to address the concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions while the Romney campaign has offered much tougher rhetoric. As a result Obama has felt compelled to toughen his position by publicly stating that the military option remains on the table for dealing with Iran, a sentiment that the Romney campaign certainly echoes.



The Republicans are split on how to respond to Bashar Al Assad’s brutal military action. Romney has rejected the call of John McCain and others to intervene militarily in the conflict by instituting a no-fly zone, but he has called for arming the Syrian opposition. Overall, there does not appear to be significant daylight between Romney and Obama on Syria. The Romney campaign calls for pursuing a “strategy of isolating and pressuring the regime to increase [the] likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions. … And we should make clear that the United States and our allies will support the Syrian opposition when the time comes for them to forge a post-Assad government.”


Defense Spending

Romney has signaled a major difference with Obama on the automatic across-the-board defense cuts that are scheduled to take effect on January 1 as part of the 2012 Budget Control Act. Despite having voted in support of the measure, Paul Ryan now criticizes sequestration and has suggested that a Romney administration could undo sequestration “retroactively.” Ryan has joined other Romney surrogates in arguing that sequestration would do irreparable harm to the military and “impair our ability to meet and deter threats.”



The fear of U.S. vulnerability—military and civilian—to cyber attacks is shared by both candidates and Romney’s campaign does not offer significant contrasts to the Obama administration. As Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently noted: “We all recognize the problem. That’s not the issue here.” A Romney administration would, in its first 100 days, “order a full interagency initiative to formulate a unified national strategy to deter and defend against the growing threats of militarized cyber-attacks, cyber-terrorism, cyber-espionage, and private-sector intellectual property theft. U.S. defense and intelligence resources must be fully engaged in this critical aspect of national defense.”

It is not clear that a Romney administration would have greater success than an Obama administration in getting key cyber legislation passed. The efforts to improve information sharing between the public and private sectors and set minimum cyber infrastructure requirements foundered recently when the Senate failed to pass the 2012 Cybersecurity Act.

Jacqueline McLaren Miller is a Senior Associate in EWI's Strategic Trust-Building Initiative, where she runs the U.S. program. Thomas Cuffe provided research for this report.