“Russia is America’s geopolitical Enemy No. 1,” Mitt Romney recently proclaimed. With this statement the presumptive Republican presidential candidate surprised the global public. Romney appears to feel that the nuclear crisis with Iran and the risks posed by Al-Qaeda present fewer dangers than the relationship with Moscow, which despite some tension is not altogether bad. Immediately, speculations surfaced that the former governor of Massachusetts continues to live in a Cold War world and has few, if any, insights about American foreign policy. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was quick to offer his advice. “We write the year 2012,” he lectured Romney from distant Moscow, “we are no longer in the mid-1970s.”

In the course of the current election campaign Romney has not impressed with his knowledge of foreign affairs. In an October 2011 keynote speech at the Citadel, a military academy in South Carolina, he appeared to evoke the past. Romney called for a strengthening of the military and economic situation of the U.S. America, he explained, needs to remain the “most powerful nation on earth.” He is strongly opposed to viewing the U.S. as “a power in decline,” as Obama allegedly does. In a new “American Century,” Romney proclaimed with a good deal of superiority, “America would lead the free world and the free world will lead the whole world.” It was true, he admitted, that cooperation with other nations was important, but ultimately Washington “has always reserved the right to act unilaterally to protect its vital national interests.”

This approach sounded very much like the neo-conservative principles that led George W. Bush to initiate the Iraq war in 2003. In fact, the twenty-four member senior foreign policy advisory team with which Romney has surrounded himself is comprised mostly of former members of the Bush administration. Informally led by former UN ambassador John Bolton, none of them has ever come close to admitting that the Iraq war might have been a mistake. Still, many analysts believe that Romney merely makes use of the strong remnants of Republican neo-conservatism as an “ideology of convenience” (Ari Berman) to gain the support of the right.

In the course of the battle for the Republican Party nomination , during which Romney, a devout Mormon, had to deal with right-wing conservative and religiously zealous competitors such as Rick Santorum or Rick Perry, as well as the convert to Catholicism and thrice-married Newt Gingrich, Romney’s foreign policy program was rarely in the news. The difficult economic situation and high unemployment in the United States dominated the discussion for many months. However, with gradual improvements to the economy, the cautious recovery of the real estate market and the somewhat better unemployment numbers, other topics in the election campaign have begun to attract greater attention. Moreover, Obama’s campaign strategists are busily attempting to make the foreign policy side of the President an issue. After all, Obama can point to many successes in this field.

With the help of a sophisticated, highly secretive approach and well-trained Marines, the President managed to dispatch Osama bin Laden, the author of the 9/11 attacks, in early May 2011. He has also withdrawn most U.S. soldiers from Iraq and the end of the American engagement in Afghanistan is firmly scheduled for 2014 at the very latest. The administration is supporting negotiations with the Taliban in Kabul to eventually integrate some of them in running the Afghan government, thus preventing a Taliban take-over once U.S. troops have left.

Obama has also negotiated comprehensive free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Together with France and Great Britain he succeeded in removing the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Even in the Arab Spring Obama has, on the whole, proven to be an effective and capable leader, despite his overly cautious tactical maneuvering. Obama has also managed to conduct relations with difficult dictatorships, such as North Korea and Burma, in a relatively constructive way. Two years ago, Washington and Moscow even agreed to further reductions in the huge remaining nuclear arsenals of the two countries by means of a new START treaty.

President Obama also has succeeded in mending the tense relationship with the EU and the Europeans that was greatly damaged during George W. Bush’s time in office, in particular during his first term. Regardless of the euro crisis and many bitter American criticisms about Europe’s finance and debt policies, on the whole present transatlantic relations are good and constructive.

All of this makes it difficult for Mr. Romney to effectively attack Obama’s foreign policy. So far he has limited himself to questioning Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policies with excessively simplistic and bombastic rhetoric. In particular, Romney criticizes the policies of the administration toward Israel, Iran, and Russia. While Romney believes that Obama is showing a lack of support for Israel, he accuses Obama of being too soft toward Iran and Russia. The international reputation of the United States, he insists, has been severely damaged by the current administration. Not surprisingly, Romney’s large-scale attack on Obama’s allegedly weak and inconsistent foreign policy in the spring of 2012 drew an immediate and sharp rebuke from the administration in the form of a long letter to Foreign Policy magazine. Romney’s subsequent demand that Obama should divulge the minutes of his meetings with foreign leaders exposed the Republican to ridicule and accusations of naivety.

Above all, Romney rarely offers specific proposals for an alternative U.S. foreign policy. He largely confines himself to denouncing the current administration and making polemic statements. Romney, for instance, has come out strongly in opposition to negotiations with the Taliban. He was also opposed to the ratification of the new START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia in December 2010. While this has all been well received in the Republican camp, most foreign policy experts are horrified. A more detailed analysis of Romney’s foreign policy declarations makes it clear, however, that the foreign relations of a President Romney would resemble Obama’s pragmatic foreign policy style. Such an analysis suggests a somewhat greater ideological and missionary orientation, one reminiscent of the Bush administration. Still, on the whole, Romney turns out not to be a dangerous and reckless politician willing to lead the U.S. into the next war – as often proclaimed by his Democratic opponents. But a President Romney can be expected to greatly emphasize the still overwhelming military power, international prestige, and perceived credibility of the sole remaining superpower.

Romney, for instance, strongly advocates a higher defense budget − he greatly criticizes Obama’s envisaged deep cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. Instead, Romney favors to spend at least 4 percent of U.S. GDP on the military; a 38 percent increase on Obama’s budget plans according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Initially, Romney also rejected the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, because of the increasing war-weariness in the United States, an end to the wars in the Middle East is a very popular decision. Romney therefore had little choice but to ultimately agree with Obama’s strategy. He also emphasizes time and again that, unlike Obama, he would have been guided by the opinion of America’s military leaders. This, however, would have led to a continuing commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Romney is particularly critical of Obama’s dealings with Iran and Israel. He has repeatedly pointed out that he would not cooperate at all with a regime hostile to Israel. In contrast to Obama, Romney does not see the Iranian regime as a “rational actor” with whom meaningful negotiations may be possible. Romney appears to be much more willing than Obama to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb with military power. He wants to achieve this with harsh sanctions and perhaps by means of a limited bombing campaign, but he does not wish to commit the use of American ground troops. In a televised debate, Romney did not rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Yet, this does not mean that a President Romney would immediately resort to military means to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Romney is especially critical of American policy toward Israel. He accuses Obama of having thrown Israel “under the bus” with the Peace Plan of 2011. This plan envisions the restoration of the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations. Romney is very supportive of the hard-line policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including the settlement policy of this deeply conservative Israeli government. He finds it unacceptable that Obama allegedly musters an increasing understanding of the position of the Palestinians. Romney has frequently declared that a return to the 1967 borders is absolutely out of the question. According to Mr. Romney, Israel must be strengthened, not weakened.

Romney’s position on how to deal with China is similarly firm. He has come out in favor of more arms deals with Taiwan, while also threatening trade sanctions to prevent China from continuing the manipulation of its currency. It is unlikely, however, that any president could pursue such a policy toward a country that plays an increasingly important global role. This is especially true for China, whose cooperation is necessary for American policy toward Afghanistan and North Korea, to name but a few countries, and, not least, for the stability of the U.S. economy.

With regard to the civil war in Syria, Romney has called for the arming of the opposition groups against the Assad regime. This, according to Romney, would best be done in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. However, just like the Obama administration, Romney  also rejects a military intervention by the United States, such as in Libya, or the imposition of no-fly zones.

Concerning Europe, Romney has had little good to say. In fact, so far he has expressed himself largely in a derogatory way toward the old continent. With regard to the euro crisis, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate has only used words such as “lazy” and “spoiled” when referring to the southern European states − Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy − that have severe problems in coming to terms with their mountains of debt. Again and again he has pointed out that a President Romney would not take over the “socialist” ideas of Europe, such as the continent’s much respected, and in times of need essential, health and social welfare systems. In fact, Europe has almost become a dirty word in the course of Romney’s election campaign. This is all the more paradoxical since the fiscally conservative ideas of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameron promote a balanced budget, strong reductions in government spending, and a large expansion of the private sector. These are all positions which are enthusiastically embraced by U.S. Republicans, including the party’s hard-line Tea Party wing.

It can be expected, on the whole, that the foreign policy of a President Romney would have a stronger ideological and missionary zeal than the Obama administration has displayed. Romney’s rhetoric as president would presumably also be more unilateral and ‘cowboy’ like. There is no cause for worry, however, that Romney would all too easily engage in military and foreign policy adventures. The often escalating rhetoric of an election year must not be confused with serious political intentions. This also applies to the foreign policy that a President Romney could be expected to follow.

Dr. Larres is grateful for the support of Karsten Peppel for this article.

Klaus Larres is the Richard M. Krasno Distinguished Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC.  At present he also is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

  • K Bledowski

    The article’s last two sentences neatly summarize the issue: Romney as president would be walking the walk rather than talking the talk on foreign affairs. I remember the ’’92 election campaigns in which Bill Clinton was constantly accused of being a bumpkin from Arkansas who knew nothing of the world … In fact, Bush Sr. lost on the economy with foreign affairs mattering little in the end.

    The first Obama and the second Bush terms were almost indistinguishable in form and content of foreign affairs. This will make the Romney campaign difficult: how to distinguish himself from both? Little wonder that he’s trying to sound just plainly different from the current administration on most of the issues. But once (if) elected president, he’ll dance to the much more refined tunes.

  • ddennis

    @K. Bledowski:

    What, in recent history, leads you to such a conclusion?