James Lindsay, CFR
Editor’s note: James Lindsay is senior vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Water’s Edge was first published here. The views expressed are his own.
The Republican National Convention that wrapped up last week made two things clear: foreign policy will be at best a secondary theme in the GOP push to unseat President Barack Obama, and when the Romney campaign does turn to foreign policy, it will be heavy on criticism and light on specifics about its preferred policies.
Foreign policy was a side note in Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech, coming late in his remarks and taking up only slightly more than one hundred words in a four-thousand-word address. He repeated his standard campaign talking points that Obama “has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat,” thrown allies like Israel and Poland “under the bus,” and been too eager to give Russian president Vladimir Putin “flexibility.” Romney was less specific about what he would do differently, saying only that he would give America’s friends “more loyalty” and Putin “a little less flexibility and more backbone.”
Just as important as the challenges that Romney cited are the ones he didn’t. He made no mention of Afghanistan (a war that has taken two thousand U.S. lives and that most Americans want out of), the rise of China (which could eclipse the American Century that Romney pledges to prolong), or the Arab Awakening (which carries the potential to remake peace and security in the world’s most volatile region).
Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan offered even less insight into what a Romney foreign policy might look like. His 35 minute speech accepting the nomination offered only a one paragraph vow that “we will act with the conviction that the United States is still the greatest force for peace and liberty that this world has ever known.” He left it up to his listeners to decide how this would differ in practice from Obama’s foreign policy, if at all.
The GOP platform offers few policy details to fill in for the ones that the Romney and Ryan speeches glossed over. The platform’s multiple provisions run long on criticisms – some fair, some not – of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, and they pledge that the GOP will stand strong on everything from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to cyberwar. (But not climate change.) The platform is largely silent, however, on what precisely Romney would do differently to keep Iran from getting the bomb, stop North Korea from peddling missile technology to the highest bidder, and halt the growing power of the Taliban. Nor does it say why his approach to these longstanding challenges would fare better than Obama’s – or George W. Bush’s for that matter.
The lack of foreign policy specifics probably won’t hurt Romney for now. Threats overseas are way down on the list of the public’s concerns. Voters are worried about jobs and the economy, not Syria and the South China Sea. Unless Obama can make an issue of Romney’s vagueness in the upcoming debates, voters may not even notice that the former Massachusetts governor has said far more about what he hopes to accomplish overseas than about how exactly how he will do it.
Staying away from the how to’s of foreign policy offers at least one blessing for Romney: he would not be hemmed in as commander in chief by campaign promises should he win in November. Bill Clinton came to regret, and eventually repudiate, his campaign pledge to oppose permanent normal trading relations with China. Obama ran smack into a host of political, legal, and diplomatic roadblocks with his vow to close down Guantanamo, managing to alienate both his opponents and his supporters in the process.
But leaving the foreign policy details to later means that Romney is losing the opportunity to build public understanding of the foreign policy challenges the United States faces – and that he might one day have to confront. That could make it far harder for a President Romney to govern. For now, however, that’s a cost that candidate Romney looks to be willing to bear.