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Assessing Obama’s and Romney’s foreign-policy views

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
In the case of Obama, we can be reasonably sure we know about his approach to foreign policy. In the case of Romney, the answer is more elusive.

The following commentary is adapted from a speech by Eric P. Schwartz, dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, delivered Tuesday at a meeting of the Rotary Club of St. Paul.

Eric P. Schwartz
Eric P. Schwartz

National security is not traditionally a major factor in our presidential campaigns. When, in the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton’s team coined the expression, “it’s the economy, stupid,” it was a reminder to themselves to focus directly on pocketbook issues of concern to Americans. And they were vindicated in that view: Although President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings were so very high just after the first Gulf War and before that 1992 election, he was not able to translate those ratings into electoral success.

Despite the attention on national-security issues resulting from the tragic killing of Chris Stevens, our ambassador in Libya, and despite the media attention after the foreign-policy presidential debate earlier this month, foreign policy is not likely to be a decisive factor in the election next week.

But it is unfortunate that we have not had a broad and serious public discussion of America’s role in the world during this campaign, as there is no question that the national-security stakes in the coming election are huge – and that the next president’s decisions on national security issues will have profound impacts on the quality of our lives, right here in the United States, for decades.

As my Humphrey School colleague, Larry Jacobs, and I noted in a recent commentary in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the United States now confronts major and dramatic shifts in world power and resources. Emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, not to mention Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey, are often growing at higher rates than the United States – and at higher rates than Europe or Japan.  Brazil, Russia, India and China, known collectively as the BRICs, comprise some 40 percent of the world’s population and produce a quarter of global gross domestic product. 

And of course, with greater economic clout comes a greater desire on the part of governments of emerging economies to have a say in the international institutions that play a role in the governance of international economic relations.     

A transfer of wealth from West to East

A 2008 report from the National Intelligence Council puts this phenomenon in very plain terms, and, with respect to shifts in resources, it states, “[the] historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East … is without precedent in modern history,” and notes that it puts “China in particular on track to have “more impact on the world over the next twenty years than any other country” and to make the United States “less dominant.”

And while the United States continues to be responsible for more than 40 percent of world military spending, even here we see change. China, Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa and Turkey are all becoming – or have become – regional powers. According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research institute, all six are engaged in significant military modernization programs, and, with the exception of Turkey, have been increasing their expenditures – often at a rapid pace.

We need not view the rise of China and other new powers as a zero-sum game, in which the gains of others come at our expense. But even as we recognize the enormous strength and resilience of our own economy, our society and our military, none of this changes a simple existential fact:

That while the United States will, for the foreseeable future, remain the world’s dominant power, our margin for error is far less than it has been in recent memory. Geopolitical mistakes will be more costly; they will have far greater impact on our domestic economic circumstances; and – conversely – what we do at home on tax policy, monetary policy and spending will have a direct and profound impact on our capacity to influence the rest of the world and to sustain and enhance the quality of life for citizens of our country. In a nutshell, foreign policy matters, perhaps more so than any time in recent memory.

Four national-security models

So just how do we assess the presidential candidates’ views, and how best can we understand the frames through which they view the world and our place within it? In the broadest terms, we might identify four models that have tended to inform the making of U.S. national security policy over the past two decades:

Traditional realists start from the premise that states pursue their national interests in an international system characterized by a continuous competition for state power and influence. I put into this category the administration of George H.W. Bush (that is, the elder George Bush) and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. I’d also include former Secretary of State Colin Powell. While these individuals have often been skeptical of some international institutions, they have respect for balance of power theory and have been prepared to work with the United Nations, negotiate with adversaries and, at times, reach accommodation – détente – with those adversaries.  This group is also characterized by what its members do not advance: They are traditionally reluctant to elevate values or morality in foreign policy, such as the idea that the United States has a deep obligation to promote human rights and democracy overseas. 

Liberal internationalists do not ignore the traditional concept and role of power in international affairs, but emphasize what they believe is a critical U.S. interest in a rules-based international system with strong multilateral organizations and strong U.S. support for key allies. They also would argue that U.S. credibility and effectiveness in international relations is directly related to the values we espouse as a nation, and that a world of governments that respect democracy and human rights is one that will be more congenial to U.S. interests, however defined. Liberal internationalists in President Barack Obama’s administration led the charge for U.S. intervention in Libya to save lives, while accepting the importance of obtaining Security Council approval for the intervention. 

Both the third and fourth models I will describe are associated with the more hawkish wing of the Republican Party, and they are sometimes grouped together, but they are distinct.

Neo-conservatives are informed by a deep commitment to American exceptionalism – that we are a unique and possibly even a chosen people, with values and capabilities that demand we be world leaders – and, in particular, leaders who promote democracy and freedom around the world.  This perspective is informed by President Ronald Reagan’s articulation of America as a “shining city,” “a beacon … a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.” Neo-conservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz in the George W. Bush administration, like Elliott Abrams, also in that administration, are quite comfortable with the assertion of unilateral American power, including military force, to promote not only economic and security interests, but also the ideal of American democracy.

Hobbesians are not so concerned about spreading American values. This group would argue that the primary focus of U.S. national-security policy must be on anticipating and responding to security threats in a brutish international arena characterized by a “war of all against all,” as Thomas Hobbes put it in “Leviathan.” This fourth group is different from the first I mentioned, the traditional realists, as they have less regard for balance of power theory, are deeply and profoundly skeptical about the role of international institutions – which they regard as unnecessary constraints on U.S. power – and therefore are more comfortable with the unilateral application of U.S. power – that is, the need for us to be the big dog in the international system.

So where in these paradigms do the candidates fit, and why does it matter? 

Obama fits into liberal internationalist camp

I believe President Obama’s statements, his policies and his advisers all put him most comfortably into the liberal internationalist camp. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he was advised by Anthony Lake, the former Clinton national security adviser who once characterized that administration as neo-Wilsonian; and Obama counts among his White House advisers Samantha Power.  As you may recall, she authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, “A Problem From Hell,” and was harshly critical of the Clinton administration’s failure to act to stop the Rwandan genocide.

To be sure, Obama’s advisers also include foreign-policy specialists who have been skeptical about what they might term morally based efforts to promote our ideals and our values – advisers who lean more in the traditional realist direction that characterized the administration of George H.W. Bush. And you can see that some of those perspectives have informed the actions of the president, for example, when he argues that the United States does not regard itself as responsible for the repair of failed states wherever they exist, and declares that “it’s time to do some nation-building at home.” In addition, and much to the consternation of some human-rights activists from both the Democratic and Republican parties, he has been skeptical about ambitious moral objectives for U.S. foreign policy, such as exporting democracy.

This tilt toward a traditional foreign-policy realism that defines security interests more narrowly is also evident in Obama’s willingness to part with some members of his party and use drones to target Al-Qaida leaders, even if they are U.S. citizens.

Notwithstanding those tilts, it is still fair to say that the president’s foreign policy approach fits comfortably within the frame of liberal internationalism, and it gives us a sense of how he’d respond to any number of current and future challenges. For example, on Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, he would be unlikely to attack Iranian facilities and go to war without strong multilateral support, and he would continue to exercise pressure on Israel not to act unilaterally. Even in the event of an international armed conflict with Iran, the president would be very reluctant to pursue the ambitious regime change and nation-building effort that characterized U.S. engagement in Iraq.

So where in the models I’ve described can one put candidate Mitt Romney?

With Romney, we just don’t know

In short, the jury is very much out. We just don’t know. And it’s hard to argue that Romney’s debate statements have brought clarity to this question.  

On Iran, for example, he emphasized earlier in the campaign the importance of a United States readiness to use military force, while in the recent debate with Obama he spoke only of tightening sanctions, which he seemed to acknowledge had a crippling impact on Iran. Similarly, on Afghanistan, Romney has, until recently, condemned Obama’s articulation of a date certain for withdrawal of U.S. troops, but he failed to repeat that condemnation in the debate – in fact, he appeared to accept the withdrawal date and even endorse it. On these and other issues of strategic importance, such as Iraq and China, his perspectives have varied over time.

In fact, over the course of his long career in public life, and during the current campaign, Romney has expressed views that might fall into one of three camps – realist, neo-conservative and Hobbesian. Moreover, a look at his roster of reported advisers reveal individuals from all three camps.

Some, although not a large number, are from the traditional realist camp of the Republican Party. This past summer, it was fascinating to note the appointment of former World Bank President Robert Zoellick to lead national-security transition planning for Romney. Zoellick, who also served as an adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is an expert in the tradition of George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. According to various media reports, his appointment resulted in great consternation among Romney advisers from both the neo-conservative and the Hobbesian camps. 

In a blog in the Washington Post, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that, “for foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema.”  She went on to write, “as the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A. Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as “soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state.”  

Zoellick’s realism offset by others’ more hawkish views

In short, Zoellick is a realist, and his appointment was followed by reports from the campaign that other advisers – who are not enamored with Zoellick, to put in mildly – will also play an important role in the foreign-policy transition. Indeed, many of those who have been frequently identified as foreign-policy advisers to the campaign – John Bolton, Elliot Cohen, Cofer Black, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman – are former administration officials who were strong proponents of a much more hawkish foreign policy – either from the neo-conservative or the Hobbesian perspectives I’ve just described. 

So why does all this matter?

To answer that question in a compelling way, one need only go back to the 2000 election of George W. Bush. At that time, if traditional realists in the administration had been ascendant, if the views of Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, had held sway, it’s hard to imagine that the United States would have invaded Iraq. Instead, the neoconservatives and the Hobbesians within the administration prevailed and we went to war. 

Whatever your view about whether that war has served our national interests, the decision has had enormous and historical consequences. 

So it’s probably worth knowing just how inclined a Romney administration would be to go to war with Iran, whether a President Romney would be likely to do so even without international support, and whether – should he choose to do so – his goals would be limited to addressing the nuclear threat or whether he’d also seek to pursue democratization and regime change. 

In the case of Obama, we can be reasonably sure we know the answer. In the case of Romney, the answer is more elusive.

Romney likely would be more willing to use force

But it is not unreasonable to suggest there will be a greater willingness on the part of a President Romney than a President Obama to use force, to do so unilaterally, and, in doing so, to be prepared to pursue ambitious nation-building objectives. The reason for this conclusion is simple and straightforward: On Iran, on Russia, on Iraq and elsewhere, Romney and his campaign have over time communicated considerable sympathy toward the policy perspectives and predilections of the neoconservative and Hobbesian advisers who made the case for the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003.  The candidate’s foreign-policy website, entitled “An American Century,” reflects many of these perspectives. 

For Romney’s strongest supporters in the national-security community, this approach would help to correct for what they contend is a weak foreign policy from Obama that has adversely impacted U.S. ability to shape world events. However, for those who support Obama on national security, the approach I’ve described overestimates the capacity of the United States to act unilaterally without great cost, and will result in a misallocation of commitments and monies at a time when our capacity to marshal resources for our domestic economy is critical to our continued strength and resiliency.

While this dispute will not factor prominently in the decisions that millions of Americans will make on Tuesday, it deserves to become a much more important part of our national discussion and debate after the election. 

The stakes for us, for our children, and for our children’s children, are very high, and demand no less.

Eric P. Schwartz became dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in October 2011, after a 25-year career in senior public service positions in government, at the United Nations and in the philanthropic and non-governmental communities.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Gary Stark on 11/01/2012 - 09:25 am.

    another foreign policy view

    I have an idea. How about a foreign policy guided by the principle of democracy? We as Americans claim to believe in democracy, yet we see no contradiction in checking our democratic principles at the door to the UN. If we believe in democracy, we need a drastic overhaul of the United Nations.


  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/01/2012 - 10:13 am.


    Neo-conservative and Hobbesian are really just varying degrees of Warmonger. In the past, war has been a temporary boost on a weak economy. This time around, it was different. In 2001, our economy slowed down, and shortly after 9/11, our economy started to tank. Starting the Iraqi war may have slowed the drop, but in the end, gravity finally took our economy over the edge. There may have been other factors at play (weak economies in other countries, for example), but the 2008 recession/depression was not unforseen–while maybe delayed, many economic analysts saw the Iraqi war as causing a global recession.

  3. Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/01/2012 - 11:38 am.

    Team Romney

    For me the answer is in the people Gov. Romney has chosen for his foreign policy team. Other than Cheney and Rumsfeld it’s everyone from the George II Administration. If you thought U.S. foreign policy from 2000 to 2008 was the model for the future, then your choice is clear. And vice versa.

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 11/01/2012 - 12:53 pm.


    The predominant view within the national security arena is that China will be a super power match of the US in around 10 years, something Americans do not want to hear.
    Regardless of who is president another preemptive war is out of the question for the US military. The US military is stretched thin both emotionally and physically. Professor Schwartz is an expert on foreign affairs but evidently not on the military. The US military has aging and worn out equipment and another war would push the US military over the cliff.

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