Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan have been officially named the Republican nominees for president and vice president. As always, the election battle will focus on economic issues, since Americans have little, if any, interest in foreign policy.
America’s influence on the world is now stronger than ever, but its dependence on other countries has also grown. Indeed, Americans’ indifference to the world around them does not correspond to global reality. This year’s Republican nominees are a perfect example of this contradiction.
Traditionally, one of the two nominees should have more foreign policy experience, or should at least have an interest in foreign affairs. This cannot be said of either Romney or Ryan.
Mitt Romney has tried several times to prove that he is no stranger to foreign policy and strategic issues. He recently addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention and visited several European countries and Israel. This has not helped him form an international profile, but rather showed that he has kept in line with the Republican views of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seeming to be a cross between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Romney has nothing new to say about foreign policy. Mostly, he has been speaking of the need to restore America’s undisputed greatness (“This century must be an American Century”) and to stop bemoaning its demise, as Republicans claim Barack Obama is doing. America has no alternative but to be the global leader, Romney claims. This is axiomatic for any American politician, and the only question is what they are ready to do to ensure that America keeps its leadership. Romney is advocating a harsh and principled approach because until relatively recently this was a successful policy, less than 25 years ago.
This image of “the desirable past” is the source of Mitt Romney’s attitude to Russia, which is out of place in 2012. He has denounced it several times, calling it the United States’ main geopolitical enemy, surprising even his supporters, because no matter how much you may dislike Russia and its authorities, the time when it was America’s enemy number one is long past. The United States now faces a different set of threats and challenges, and Russia is not at the top of that list. Romney is unwittingly advocating a return to the old bipolar world order, in which everything was simple and easy to understand. The biggest challenge in today’s world is that the strategic field is blurred and diffused, with no clearly defined frontline, where it is unclear who is friend and who is foe as they keep switching places.
Romney’s foreign policy adviser is neoconservative historian Robert Kagan. Ten years ago he wrote about the breakup of the trans-Atlantic relationship due to ideological and psychological differences between America and Europe (“Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”), which accounted for Washington’s unilateral actions on the global stage. Four years later, Kagan called for America and Europe to reunite in the face of the growing “authoritarian capitalism” represented by China and Russia. In fact, he completely overturned the old precept according to which America best stands alone.
In his new book, The World America Made, Kagan writes not about authoritarian capitalism (which has since been proved to be a totally artificial notion), but about the rising alternative centers, such as BRIC, and the need to cut short encroachments on American leadership. He is not as outspoken as 10 years ago, when he claimed that soft power is another word for weakness and that military power is always the decider. This new approach is “Bush Light,” an admission that America will not achieve its goals by hard force alone and that it should try to win over minds as well.
Kagan’s book is not Mitt Romney’s election program, but the two have one thing in common. The growing “myth of America’s decline” calls for vigorous and uncompromising actions to turn things around. In this he differs radically from Barack Obama, who believes that America must act flexibly and make compromises with alternative centers to fortify its leadership. But in any case, neither Romney nor Kagan have a clear notion of how America should act to achieve its goals in the new world. They just churn out slogans, not ways to implement them.
A case in point is the choice of Romney’s running mate. Since the 1980s, America’s vice presidents usually held a special influence and prestige in foreign affairs – George H.W. Bush, Albert Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden. Ill-wishers claim that Paul Ryan knows nothing of foreign affairs and is only interested in figures and budgets. This knowledge could be useful for domestic policy, but the only time he would be able to use it on the international stage is during financial discussions at G7 meetings. Although Romney, whose strengths lie in economics, could actually take care of this himself.
Ryan is a firm believer in spending cuts; given America’s sovereign debt problem, pledges of budget cuts could be a powerful weapon in the battle against Obama. Possible cuts in military spending are a fundamental foreign policy issue. Republicans are usually ready to approve any cuts, but to the defense budget. Romney has pledged to reverse defense cuts, and ballistic missile defense is a sacred cow to him because President Reagan thought so. Paul Ryan may make all the right statements about America’s security, but he is far from being truly interested in it and does not have significant knowledge of it.
The Romney-Ryan team election platform will be based on Robert Kagan’s views. However, a running mate who is indifferent to foreign policy is deeply symptomatic (the choice of Sarah Palin in the previous election is not indicative, because presidential candidate John McCain was a foreign policy pundit himself). Putting Paul Ryan forward for vice president shows that even the Republicans are coming to see that relying on hard force could be beyond America’s means in the 21st century.