Remember the lovely Hitchens-Rushdie anecdote on books that did not quite make it? The Good Gatsby, Reasonable Expectations. One can spend an entire day going through one's own book shelves, extending this little experiment (I've just come up with Anthills of some Savannah, Some Kind of Traitor, Conditional Surrender, A Tale of Two Villages). Or one can study the policy papers that did not quite have had an impact. Paper that did not quite make it of the week: Mitt Romney's foreign policy white paper, released a couple of days ago. So far, most candidates running in the GOP primaries have first and foremost commented on domestic issues and would it not be for Congressman Ron Paul, we would have hardly seen anyone with a consistent foreign policy message. But Paul's largely isolationist stance has always been his major political weakness and though he has been remarkably consistent on that, it will always lead to certain defeat at the polls. I don't agree with any of his foreign policy prescriptions, mind you, but he commands respect for being consistent. That being said, most observers would have to wonder where the current GOP's frontrunner would take U.S. foreign policy. Where would a Romney foreign policy be headed? After all, most of the traditional conservative and neoconservative foreign policy pundits have shied away from taking sides thus far and most must have harboured hopes for a Chris Christie run. But with Christie out of the race, the field is largely set and its time to take sides and shape ideas.
Mitt Romney is the first to come out with a real foreign policy blueprint. And while MSNBC's Rachel Madow is already starting to portray Romney as a come-again neoconservative Bush light, it might well be worthwhile to take a look at the actual piece and not only the names on his foreign policy advisory board. Though having said that, there are some impressive names on that particular list. Eliot Cohen, for instance, is the pre-eminent scholar in the field of civil-military relations and has written a foreword summarising from which parts of the Obama foreign policy a Romney administration would have to depart. Its certainly no coincidence that the first thing Cohen is alluding to is the phrase most conservatives now associate with the White House foreign policy stance: “leading from behind”. And indeed Romney's plan rebukes some of the less successful parts of the Obama foreign policy legacy. He summarises the shortfalls of the Obama administration rather tersely: He thinks, quite rightly, of the reset-button for U.S.-Russia relations as a gimmick that led nowhere; he treats the idea of global-zero as what it is, an utopian illusion and criticises the president, again correctly, for wavering on a number of free trade deals. What got the most traction for obvious reasons is that he attacked President Obama's arbitrary withdrawal date from Afghanistan. In similar vein, he criticises Obama's ill-fated outreach to Syria.
But the real question is: where to go from here? What Romney comes up with is a list that is sometimes murky, sometimes surprisingly specific and at other times quite revealing. Quoting Lincoln—The United States being the 'last best hope of earth'—always is a winning line for anyone who believes in American exceptionalism. But being the last best hope entails having the means available of actually doing something. One of the most noted indicators of the U.S.' declining military posture is the number of ships in the U.S. Navy. The size of the American fleet has shrunk to 284 ships in service today, the lowest number since 1916. Romney makes boosting the Navy's capabilities a key pillar of his foreign and security policy plan. But whether it is really financially feasible to increase the number of ships build annually from nine to fifteen is an entirely different story. Now, you don't need to have prophetic powers in order to realise that even a Romney administration will not push the number of naval vessels build annually up to fifteen. As this example illustrates, campaign documents are better treated with great care. Yet boosting naval capabilities ranks so prominently in the paper that some initiative on the matter might indeed be foreseeable.
But Romney's foreign policy sticks to more general terms when it comes to the pre-eminent challenge to U.S. supremacy: China. The plan does entail a more assertive stance by the United States in the face of China's military build-up. The transfer of more capable weapons systems to Taiwan and the introduction of radar and detection technologies and early warning systems for what the plan dubiously calls “disputed waters”, a not so subtle reminder of the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, is pretty bold. A more assertive stance coupled with an increased presence might indeed lead to a more nuanced approach to the conflict by Beijing. Finally, Romney is offering a sweet carrot as well, the creation of what the plan calls a “Reagan Economic Zone”, a free trade area open to all Asian nations, including the People's Republic. And I admit that I was terribly pleased to see an entire paragraph devoted to human rights in China—the Romney campaign is making defending dissidents in the People's Republic and engaging its civil society a pillar of its foreign policy approach. Surely, not all of that will survive the realities of sitting in the Oval Office, but its finally a plan worth studying. And it is true, Obama has sometimes been lukewarm in his support for human rights abroad.
The recently uncovered Iranian state-sponsored terror plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States on U.S. soil makes a look at Romney's proposed Iran-policy all the more interesting. The first step envisaged by Romney would be an increased military presence of aircraft carriers groups in both the Eastern Med and the Persian Gulf, coupled with a new round of major sanctions. But Romney shies away from discussing the ultima ratio, military action. His plan looks a little like he's contemplating a containment and deterrence strategy vis-à-vis Iran. Accelerating the building of ballistic missile defence hints in the same direction. This leaves me wondering whether that really is a practical approach, though its certainly one of the more revealing parts of the document.
I am not going to comment at length on the Israel part—but one quote is noteworthy: “The key to negotiating a lasting peace is an Israel that knows it will be secure.” He is certainly right on that. Israel's security environment today looks less like the environment established following the Oslo accords, but rather resembles the tense situation of 1973. But Romney's plan is remarkably murky when it comes to the real challenge. How to foster a situation in which Israel regards a lasting settlement as beneficial to its own security perceptions? It is here that the white paper is a real disappointment.
I'll comment on Afghanistan in a different context, but two other ideas are noteworthy as well. For quite some time, State Department officials joked that “you can do anything in Latin America, except think about it.” Well, Romney's foreign policy advisory board devoted some of its energy towards Central and Latin America and came up with the idea of a Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America (it already has an acronym [CEOLA], which indicates that they are somewhat serious about it), to offer a credible alternative to Hugo Chavez' regional hegemonic policies. With regard to the drug war in Mexico, Romney advocates reciprocating the strategies that worked in Colombia, which does not exactly stand out as too imaginative. The basic conundrum being that there is hardly enough time for these strategies to work.
Rather surprisingly, the Romney advisory board decided to go with some tough language on Russia. The white paper states in clear terms: “Russia is a destabilising force.” Disillusioned with Russia, the paper calls for a full review of the implementation of the New Start treaty, which is interesting since the cooperation between NATO and Russia already suffers severe setbacks. Moscow stopped to inform NATO on troop movements as called for in the Conventional Forces Europe Treaty (CFE) a couple of years ago, NATO is going to suspend its notifications at the end of this year (which is quite a bombshell in itself). The Romney campaign instead moves to a far more assertive stance toward Russia, announcing support for the Nabucco pipeline that circumvents Russia's transport monopole on natural gas to Europe, while at the same time staying remarkably quiet on what the next steps would be with regard to the Ukraine and Georgia. Nonetheless, the campaign outlines the development of a new soft power approach vis-à-vis Russia, calling for more civil society support and expanded exchange programmes. That might make for a good start, it does not, however, make for a real strategy.
Establishing a regional directorate to coordinate democracy promotion and stabilisation programmes for Egypt, Libya and Tunisia is a lovely idea and could have come as easily from a democrat. I am guessing that his ideas on reforming the foreign policy apparatus will be far more controversial. Restructuring the State Department along regional directorates similar to the Pentagon's combatant commands won't go over easy with the State Department. But he is certainly right that the Congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force needs to be revisited to clarify against what groups force can and should be used. As in other cases, its also interesting to note what the 44-pages white paper does not touch upon: Notably absent from the Romney foreign policy blueprint:
Also missing are thoughts on restructuring the Pentagon. He is certainly right that State needs reform, but its hard to imagine anyone seriously arguing that the need for Pentagon reform is actually smaller than the need for reform at Foggy Bottom. There is certainly some work left to be done. But so far, I am reasonably impressed.