US & Canada

Viewpoint: Romney's foreign policy dilemma

Mitt Romney
Image caption Romney's foreign policy goals are similar to President Obama's, with a few crucial differences

US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is campaigning on promises to balance the budget and strengthen the military. But how he will pay for those promises?

Last March, as the United States embarked on a military operation to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in Libya, Congress came perilously close to shutting down the US government.

It was a reflection of the deep American political divide over the role of government and the resources needed to fulfil its responsibilities.

These two questions - what do the American people want their federal government to do? What are they willing to pay for? - are at heart of the 2012 presidential campaign.

While the political debate in the United States centres on domestic issues like how to create jobs and preserve the social safety net, these questions impact national security policy as well.

As the presidential campaign kicks into high gear, the dilemma for the Republican party is how to square its competing governing philosophies of global responsibilities and smaller government.

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Media captionJohn McCain lambasted the president's foreign policy at the Republican convention

Put another way, how to be a superpower on a budget.

Vexing challenges

The answer for former President George W Bush (and Dick Cheney) was famously: "Deficits don't matter." Taxes were lowered and two wars were put on the credit card.

Trying to lead a party that includes neo-conservatives who want to save the world and Tea Partiers determined to limit the federal government, Mr Romney has skilfully positioned himself as someone who believes in American leadership, exceptionalism and a strong military. But he has avoided committing himself to costly interventions.

The election of 2012 may not be primarily about national security, but a list of vexing challenges will await the next president come January:

  • Iran's nuclear ambitions
  • The violence in Syria and fragile transitions from the Arab awakening
  • Complex and difficult relations with China and Russia
  • The end of the conflict in Afghanistan as it is currently being waged
  • Pakistan and the violent extremists within its borders
  • Stabilisation of the eurozone and the global economy.

Given these issues, what would a President Romney do? Last year, he pledged to take eight actions within his first 100 days in presidential office.

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Media captionCondoleezza Rice: Romney and Ryan know how to balance well-being at home and leadership abroad

He would:

  • Re-assure traditional allies that America will fulfil its global commitments
  • Move more military forces to the Gulf to send a message to Iran
  • Appoint a Middle East czar to oversee US support for the evolving Arab transitions
  • Review the Obama administration's plan in Afghanistan and its global missile defence strategy
  • Increase the government's focus on cybersecurity
  • Increase the rate of US Navy shipbuilding
  • Launch an economic opportunity initiative in Latin America.

The prospective policies that Mr Romney has outlined are pragmatic and sober. Political hype aside, there is considerable overlap with Mr Obama's existing approaches to key issues. There are several reasons for this.

Obama authority

Presidential elections seldom hinge on national security policy. The dramatic backdrop of 9/11 and Iraq during the 2004 and 2008 elections were exceptions, not the rule. While there are profound differences between candidates and parties, there is also broad continuity in foreign policy from one administration to the next.

Image caption Romney visited Poland and shook hands with their troops as part of a foreign policy tour this summer

Mitt Romney wants to keep the focus on the economy, which is the key to his election chances. Unlike more recent campaigns, where Republicans have enjoyed a national security advantage, after four years in office and with real accomplishments like the elimination of Osama bin Laden, Mr Obama is itching to compete in this space.

Notwithstanding the criticism of Mr Obama's record - which is about style more than substance - Mr Romney recognises, as the president does, that there is little political support at the moment for another costly military intervention.

In his speech tonight and during the next two months, Mr Romney will deride the timing of the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but will not reverse Mr Obama's decision to end the war, given its annual $110bn (£69bn) price tag.

He will criticise what he considers Mr Obama's failed engagement with Iran and Syria, but has pledged to work through the United Nations to increase sanctions on Tehran and push Syria's Bashar al-Assad from power, while leaving the military options on the table for as long as possible

Running from Reagan

The clearest policy disagreement between the two candidates concerns reductions in military spending.

Taking a page from Ronald Reagan's campaign playbook, Mr Romney has raised the spectre of a "hollow force", a charge that was fair 35 years ago but not today. The US military today is stressed by a decade at war, but is highly capable and battle-hardened.

Nonetheless, Mr Romney if elected would reverse at least some of President Obama's planned $487bn reduction in defence spending over several years. He would keep ground forces at current levels, 100,000 more than the Obama plan, at a cost of $25bn per year, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

He would expand the US Navy fleet, an idea worth considering given increased international territorial disputes, piracy and threats to close vital international sea lanes including the Gulf.

Image caption The next president will have several foreign policy challenges, including violence in Syria

A President Romney would set future defence spending at a minimum of 4% of GDP, which effectively means military spending would generally go up and rarely go down. But if defence spending is exempted from budget cuts, the only way to balance the budget is to raise taxes.

Reagan attempted this same trifecta during his first term - and failed. He raised taxes and cut the defence budget in his second term, but never came close to a balanced budget.

Governor Romney's biggest challenge is not only to explain how he will lead an "American Century," but also how he will pay for it. To be credible, he will need to show not how he is like Ronald Reagan, but how he is different.

PJ Crowley is a former US assistant secretary of state and now a professor of practice and fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at The George Washington University.

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