European Council on Foreign Relations

Romney and Obama on foreign policy

With the US presidential election now five months away and Mitt Romney now confirmed as the Republican candidate, the rest of the world is beginning to ask what it might mean for them. Yesterday morning, Australian foreign-policy analyst Michael Fullilove came in to ECFR to give us his take on “Obama and Romney: the foreign policy choice”. He made a persuasive case that, although Obama and Romney appear to be different in every possible way, there won’t be a huge difference in the foreign policy they will pursue in office. As he put it, choosing between Obama II and Romney I is like choosing between Betamax and VHS. (Aaron David Miller recently went so far as to claim they are “basically the same man”.)

There have been several assessments recently of Obama’s foreign policy in the three and a half years he’s been office. Almost inevitably, there has been a gap between the soaring rhetoric of his campaign and the reality in office: as Mario Cuomo famously put it, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. To supporters such as Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, Obama’s foreign policy has been “sensible and serious but not pathbreaking”. To critics such as Gideon Rachman, on the other hand, he “overestimated and under-delivered”.

Romney is obviously more of an unknown quantity. The “Romney doctrine”, in so far as there already is such a thing, seems to be a series of neat aspirations: reverse American decline; get tough with China; defeat the Taliban; prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon; and reset the reset with Russia. But there is little detail on how any of this is to be achieved. In any case, a lot of people predict that, like Obama, he will be forced to be much more pragmatic in office than his campaign rhetoric currently suggests. (Daniel Drezner recently examined what might happen if Romney actually sticks to his campaign commitments – beginning with his promise to designate China a “currency manipulator” on Day 1.)

Fullilove, the director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, argued that although Obama sounds like a left-wing dove and Romney like a right-wing hawk, they’re both basically “post-ideological realists” in their foreign-policy orientation. For example, Obama has been comfortable using military force (though in a different way than his predecessor: he has targeted individuals, for instance by using drones, rather than waging a generalised “war on terror”). Conversely, he said, we shouldn’t believe Romney’s hype: even if John Bolton becomes secretary of state, “the system won’t allow another Iraq”.

To listen to the audio podcast of the discussion, click here


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