The Campaign and Foreign Policy: The Balance between Obama and Romney (Part I)

The time is ripe to start assessing the balance of qualities, experience, judgment, and specific policies of President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. 

This can’t be the last judgment since the election is still some 6 weeks away and much can happen in that time. But we have, frankly, seen enough to do a general appraisal of the two on foreign affairs and national security issues based on their statements and party platforms.  More analysis will follow. 

I have decided to list here some of the key issues and the fundamental question of judgment and experience: 

Perceptions of the World and America’s Role:

Romney’s main point has been a rhetorical attack that President Obama has been weak abroad and has diminished American leadership and prestige abroad. The problem with this kind of attack is that it falls to pieces in the face of reality and public opinion polls around the world and the views of leaders abroad.

Go to Pew global polling data and in most countries abroad Obama and America’s standing has (with a few exceptions) been enhanced over the former Republican president George W. Bush. Indeed, the option polls in Europe, the key region of our NATO allies, show a huge imbalance between favorables for Obama versus Romney. It is no contest.

 Romney has yet to articulate specific differences and actions he would take that significantly differ from Obama’s in most areas and issues.  His attacks are filled with negatives, but not real specifics of his own. 

In general summary, Romney and the GOP platform mimic a neo-con belligerent anti-Islam perspective and far right (even sometimes ignorant) global perspective where America acts like a super-imperialistic power and others are told to follow blindly; where cooperation with key powers like China and Russia are reduced to slogans and antagonisms which highlight differences or engender fears instead of seeking areas of cooperation, mutual advantage, security, and long term engagement. It ignores or is dismissive of global problems like climate change, poverty, water and food issues; emerging areas of conflict and not dealing with difficult issues like North Korea and Iran. This perspective is found in many of the issue areas below.  His approach seems long on simplistic slogans and short on real insight, vision, and specifics. It does not seem to see the costs of its own policy pronouncements or policies.

Obama, in a strange way, is both more bold and at the same time more careful and judicious in his foreign and national security policy and statements. This is exemplified in both his initial hesitancy in Libya and finding an effective and “low profile” intervention strategy that put NATO allies at the forefront.  The same can be said about Syria, where restraint seems both careful and perhaps a bit too hesitant.  

Yet his “global view” is not of an America in decline or even an America disengaged from world affairs and threats.  His “grand vision” can be seen in his Prague speech on security in Europe and beyond, his pronouncements on approaching the Islamic world, and in the national posture statements and State of the Union speeches.

He has in fact made major accomplishments to overcome the weaknesses and costs of past decisions (like withdrawal from Iraq as promised), tried in the most difficult global environment to ameliorate dangers and threats, and acting early to rising conflicts and dangers.  

Not all have been successful but many of these problem areas are beyond the power of the U.S. to determine. Some are likely better for us to not have “boots on the ground” and efforts to “own” a country or conflict. In other places we have acted boldly but with “low profile” and in clandestine ways with some successes as exemplified in the taking of Bin Laden and drone attacks. Both the success and failures will be noted below. 

My overall judgment has been that Obama has been a successful keeper of the effective leadership role of America and is also more careful and thoughtful than his predecessor and of what looks to be a Romney promise of more of the Bush years: mindless aggression, proclivity, and a certain blindness to the cost to America.      

Indeed, on the substance, Obama has achieved major international gains in the face of a very difficult landscape that he inherited. 

Non-proliferation and Arms Control and Nuclear Weapons Policy:

Romney and his neo-con and “Cold War warriors” advisers seem bent on dismembering or weakening our treaties on arms control and non-proliferation.  They are more bent on increasing our already overwhelming nuclear weapons than on joint reductions with Russia and others. They oppose the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which the United States has signed long ago and Congress with the Republican opposition has not ratified.  Romney would have opposed the New START treaty that the U.S. military supported.

The Republicans are also pushing for much higher expenditures on nuclear weapons modernization than needed as well as increases in the Defense budget including systems that the military does not want or need.  Romney has never seen a defense boondoggle that he does not like. Yet he opposed saving the U.S. auto industry which has strengthened our manufacturing base and contributed greatly to our industrial infrastructure. One has to wonder who has bought who?    

Obama has successfully negotiated the New START treaty with the Russians that reduced nuclear weapons on both sides and ensured mutual inspection and verification of these reductions and key stockpiles as he gained the almost impossible task of getting it passed in the Senate after much effort. He is now seeking further agreements on mutual arms reduction and strengthening efforts at confidence building measures and reduction of tactical nuclear weapons.  

Relations with Europe:

Here, the differences are as great as can be imagined. Romney talks a lot of support for our allies and weakness of Obama in dealing with our allies. Yet the reality is that, overwhelmingly, both the leaders of Europe and its citizens both admire Obama, respect him, and are for him over Romney – even the conservative leaders in the EU know that Romney and his blind belligerence and nationalistic bombast is not good for them.  He showed his ignorance and tin ear in his trip to Europe which only underlined his inaptitude.  

Dealing with Russia:

Romney’s statement making Russia, in advance of the election and a possible presidency, a “geopolitical foe,” rather than a nation we must and should deal with for mutual advantage, indicates a misperception of the complexity of our relations with Russia and our long-term interests.  He seems to think that antagonizing major powers is somehow in our interests or perhaps he thinks it is simply in his own interest with his base and thinks nothing of its impact on American interests overall.  As noted, he is against the New START treaty and seems negative towards further reduction in nuclear weapons and the NTP treaty.

Obama has in fact achieved major gains in dealing with the often picky Russian duo of Putin/Medvedev. He got the New START treaty, obtained an entry point for our supplies into Afghanistan via Russia, and had the Russians support the Libya intervention in the Security Council. He recognizes the limits and constraints of the Putin era but recognizes that constructive engagement is more likely to achieve results than simple hostility. We do not need to make Russia an enemy.  We need clearly to try long-term to have the Russians see the benefits of cooperation with the West. That is Obama’s goal and does not seem to be that of Romney.  

Our next blog will look at more areas including:

“Rise of China” and Asian Policy

Middle East and Israeli-Palestine Peace

Defense Spending and National Security Posture

Climate Change, Energy Policy, Environmental Issues

Trade and Global Economic Policy

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