What, exactly, is Mitt Romney’s approach toward Asia and toward foreign policy more generally? That’s a difficult question to answer, as former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty made clear. Pawlenty, an adviser who’s been mentioned as a possible Secretary of State should Romney win, was asked which school of thought Romney follows in foreign affairs. Will he tilt toward the traditional, realist Republican model? Will he follow the neoconservative school? Pawlenty, showing off his diplomatic skills, answered with a tautology: “I would put him in the Mitt Romney school,” he said. But that’s hardly an answer, and questions continue to swirl around Romney’s worldview.
It’s a question that Romney himself might not be able to answer, just yet. Widely panned after a three-nation swing through Britain, Israel, and Poland in August, criticized for an earlier comment that Russia is America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” many would argue Romney often seems out of sorts when it comes to global affairs.
Among his gaffes was an unfortunate comment to a fundraising dinner that Japan has been in decline for “a century.” Said Romney, “We are not Japan. We are not going to be a nation that suffers in decline and distress for a decade or a century.”
Such unforced errors on Romney’s part could mean that it’s way too early to wonder whether the former Massachusetts governor will, say, vigorously confront China on human rights issues and its currency and exports policy, as some in Romney’s camp favor, or instead give Beijing a pass, in keeping with the views of many of his big corporate backers who do business in China. To analyze Romney’s emerging foreign policy ideas, one might sift through Romney’s official campaign website (including its sections on Afghanistan and Pakistan, on China and East Asia, on Iran, and on Russia), the Republican party platform, and remarks by many of his team of foreign policy advisers.
On nearly everything related to foreign policy, Romney draws a contrast between his belief in American “exceptionalism” and his readiness to act firmly and to pursue “peace through strength,” and President Obama’s alleged weakness, vacillation, and propensity to apologize to America’s enemies.
In regard to China, Romney has insisted since the start of his campaign that one of his first acts as president would be to label China a currency manipulator and to impose tariffs on the import of Chinese manufactured goods. In a new campaign commercial, Romney accuses Obama of seven times refusing to “stop China’s cheating.” And the GOP platform, adopted at the convention in Tampa, says that China’s “manipulation of its currency [calls] for a firm response from a new Republican Administration.” Yet many previous candidates, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, talked tough about economic and human rights policy in China until taking office, and many business backers of Romney believe that he would follow suit if elected. “On his first day on the job, Romney is not going to put himself on the immediate defensive with the world’s second largest economy,” one financial industry executive who supports Romney told Politico.
More broadly, however, both Romney and the GOP say that, if elected, he’ll pursue a more robust and confrontational policy toward China in the Pacific and the South China Sea. Although, aside from rhetorical flourishes, it’s difficult to ascertain many clear differences with Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and the White House’s determination to bolster America’s position in the Pacific, at least some of Romney’s rhetoric and position-taking could signal a far tougher U.S. policy in Asia. Romney’s campaign website says, “Mitt Romney will implement a strategy that makes the path of regional hegemony for China far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system.” It declares that the United States should “expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific,” and, implicitly attacking Obama for refusing to sell F-16s to Taiwan, it adds, “The Department of Defense should reconsider recent decisions not to sell top-of-the-line equipment to our closest Asian allies. We should be coordinating with Taiwan to determine its military needs and supplying them with adequate aircraft and other military platforms.”
That rhetoric was enough to provoke an angry editorial in the China Daily, accusing Romney of exhibiting “a Cold War mentality,” singling out Romney’s proposal to bolster ties with Taiwan for revealing “ignorance of the fundamentals of Sino-U.S. ties.” Said the paper: “Compared to the ‘strategic pivot’ policies U.S. President Barack Obama is implementing in the region, Romney’s recommendations are more pugnacious.”
Romney’s advisers don’t provide much guidance when it comes to deciding which way Romney might go on issues such as China, Iran, and Afghanistan. Some of them, such as Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, John Lehman, and especially Dan Senor – who, in recent weeks, has emerged as spokesman for the campaign’s foreign policy team – are drawn from the neoconservative wing of the Republican party. Among them, as one of three members of Romney’s Asia-Pacific team, is Aaron Friedberg, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. On the other hand, a passel of moderates are also part of the Romney team, such as Evan Feigenbaum and Kent Lucken, two other co-chairs of the candidate’s Asia-Pacific team. And in August Romney named Robert Zoellick, who embodies the traditional Republican-realist bloc’s views, as coordinator of his transition team. The naming of Zoellick alarmed hawks and neocons, especially because Zoellick is supposedly “soft on China.”
But former Secretary of State James Baker, the dean of the realist bloc, strongly defended Zoellick’s foreign policy views against neoconservative criticism, particularly in connection with the U.S. response to Tiananmen Square. Baker told Foreign Policy’s The Cable: “The fact of the matter is that, when Tiananmen Square broke, we ended up sanctioning China in many, many ways. We didn’t fire up the 101st Airborne, but we did put political and diplomatic and economic sanctions on China. But we kept the relationship going. Now, Bob Zoellick was a part of all that — he wasn’t the lead on it or anything, but he sure is not, as far as I can tell, soft on China.”
On Russia, his criticism of the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations is nearly set in stone. Richard Williamson, a top adviser, told The Cable that Romney isn’t backing off his much-criticized comment about Russia as a geopolitical foe. “The reset has failed,” said Williamson “They are our foe. They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that even though there are some voices in Washington that find that uncomfortable. So those who say, ‘Oh gosh, oh golly, Romney said they’re our geopolitical foe’ don’t understand human history. And those who think liberal ideas of engagement will bend actions also don’t understand history.” The GOP platform enumerates Republican charges against Russia: “[The] suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society; unprovoked invasion of the Republic of Georgia, alignment with tyrants in the Middle East; and bullying their neighbors while protecting the last Stalinist regime in Belarus.” No wonder, then, that President Vladimir Putin of Russia rebuked Romney and suggested that a missile accord with the United States is more likely if Obama wins.
And on Iran, Romney has been sharply critical of Obama’s policy of engagement while seeming to align his views more closely with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The campaign’s militant rhetoric was echoed by the GOP platform: “A continuation of [Obama’s] failed engagement policy with Iran will lead to nuclear cascade.” One key Romney adviser, Eliot Abrams, has called on President Obama to “seek a formal authorization for the use of force from Congress,” adding that if such a resolution in Congress failed “everyone would be clear that the United States was not going to act and that Israel need delay no longer so as to leave it to us.” Another, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, rejects administration efforts to restrain Israel, suggesting outright that Israel be allowed to make its own decision and act independently. So far, although he seemed confused about the difference between preventing an Iranian bomb and preventing an Iranian nuclear capability, however, despite his anti-Iran rhetoric, Romney has enunciated an Iran policy that remains very close to Obama’s: sanctions, pressure, negotiations, and military readiness.
So, in the end, it will be left to Romney to sort out these disputes, perhaps during the presidential debate with Barack Obama on foreign policy and national security. Until then, seeking to focus the campaign on domestic economic policy, Romney may downplay foreign affairs: During his convention speech, Romney famously didn’t mention Afghanistan at all.