Foreign policy is often an afterthought during U.S. elections. Romney has not tried to change that.
Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
Canadians might be disappointed but not surprised that Canada received no attention during Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC). After all, Canadians are often upset to see their country be an afterthought in American debates. Yet Canada is hardly alone in this: Romney spent only a few minutes on foreign policy in his speech. Most of the world was omitted, not just one of the U.S.’s best allies and trading partners but also Afghanistan where Americans are still fighting and dying. So, the real question is not why Canada was omitted but why the world beyond the U.S. was largely ignored.
First, as any politician or scholar will acknowledge, voters in the U.S. (and elsewhere) do not think much about foreign policy when they go to the polls. Elections turn mostly on the economy now and actually even before Bill Clinton’s mantra, “The economy, stupid” became widely known. So, perhaps it made sense to pay more attention to domestic politics than foreign affairs. However, while foreign policy issues may not turn the minds of most voters, being competent on foreign policy is usually seen as a necessary quality in any U.S. President. One would think that the acceptance speech would have been an opportunity to make it clearer that Romney would be at least competent on national security.
Second, the past twelve years have flipped the usual script in American politics. It used to be the case that the Republicans were the party of national security, and the Democrats had to try to prove that they had decent defence credentials. This is why we had that funny/pathetic image from the 1988 campaign when Michael Dukakis wore the big helmet as he took a ride in an armored vehicle. The George W. Bush Administration helped to change that—not just launching the Iraq war but mishandling it so badly that it damaged the Republican reputation in these areas. Obama, despite the Nobel Peace Prize, has not shied away from using force, starting early by giving the go ahead to U.S. SEALs to shoot Somali pirates to rescue an American captain, to the surge in Afghanistan, to the escalation in the drone campaign. As the Obama campaign will remind us this week, the incumbent President and not his predecessors made a risky decision to take out Osama Bin Laden. Not only has Obama been forceful in foreign policy, but he has also been largely successful. Obama has had fewer missteps in four years than Romney did during his trip this summer to Great Britain, Israel and Poland. The polls around the world make it abundantly clear that Obama did help to undo much of the damage that the most recent Republican president did to America’s global reputation. So, Romney knows that he cannot really run on foreign policy since that is one of Obama’s strengths and a recent Republican weakness.
Third, Romney might find it very hard to write foreign policy speeches because his advisers are divided. People forget that the second half of the Bush Administration, especially the last two years, was distinct from the first four or six years. The neoconservatives – who never met a Mideast country they didn’t want to invade – declined in influence, and the more pragmatic people came to the fore. Condi Rice, who gave one of the better (more reasonable) speeches at the RNC, may have been among the worst national security advisers in U.S. history for failing to do the job during Bush’s first four years, but transformed into a reality-based secretary of state in Bush’s second term. Donald Rumsfeld was sent to the sidelines and replaced by a most realistic Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. The challenge for Romney is that his foreign policy advisers are a mix of these two schools, so writing a coherent speech based on the conflicting advice is going to be mighty hard.
Fourth, Romney may not have wanted to talk much about the Republican platform on foreign policy. While the anti-Cuba portions are red meat for the key Cuban-American voters in Florida and also elsewhere, much of the rest of the platform plays poorly outside of the extreme wing of the party. Calling for significant increases in defence spending at this time of deficits and tough fiscal choices is not going to sell extremely well. The platform calls for reunification of Korea, about which South Koreans tend to be a bit less certain. Being the party of yet more war may be something that the neocons prefer, but most Americans are tired of a decade of multiple wars. The Republican platform also criticizes the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, which is widely supported among American voters. Indeed, many observers noted that Afghanistan was entirely omitted from the speech. This was most surprising as Americans are still dying in Afghanistan, often at the hands of those they are mentoring or partnering – the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. But again, Romney did not want to direct attention to the stance of those in his party and most likely in his administration – to stay in Afghanistan in significant numbers and in combat beyond 2014.
Thus, we can understand why Romney gave foreign policy so little attention at the convention. But he will have a hard timing ducking it over the next couple of months, especially at the debates. Again, Americans do not swing on foreign policy issues that much, and it may be the case that this election is less about swing voters anyway and more about the turnout of each party’s base. Still, Americans across the board will want to vote for a person who is likely to be competent when it comes to national security. Thus far, Romney has not really passed that sniff test, and his performance at the convention did nothing to change that.
 I will be taking some shots at Obama’s foreign policy next week in the aftermath of the Democrat’s convention.
Photo courtesy of Reuters