Commentators and political counselors remind us daily that this election is not about foreign affairs. But the two candidates have sharply differing frameworks for viewing the world, despite Governor Romney’s support for many of President Obama’s policies during last week's so-called foreign policy debate. Wherein lies the difference?
As usual, realism versus idealism.
The realist lens sees both an American superpower with unequalled military might and technology, but also multiple other powers who are globally important economically, and regionally important politically and militarily. This leads some to see the emergence of a new balance of power system where even the overwhelming American military's superiority requires the political and economic collaboration of others.
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The idealist lens sees the American “city on a hill” as a shining example of the entire world’s aspirations, where American might can and should be applied, even unilaterally, to promote liberty and democracy as represented by the American way of life. (This departs from Governor Winthrop’s 1630 metaphor that set the American experiment outside the rest of the world, and President Washington’s view that “the great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is … to have with them as little political connection as possible.”)
Governor Romney is this year’s idealist candidate. The Romney foreign policy slogan is: “An American Century.”
As he said in the debate:
“This nation is the hope of the earth. We've been blessed by having a nation that's free and prosperous thanks to the contributions of the greatest generation. They've held a torch for the world to see -- the torch of freedom and hope and opportunity. Now, it's our turn to take that torch.… to make sure that we all together remain America as the hope of the earth.”
His core argument is: “A weak America, an America in decline, an America that retreats from its responsibilities, would usher in an era of uncertainty and danger, first for the United States but also for all those everywhere who believe in the cause of freedom.”
President Obama has a clearly realist view and has pursued realist policies, although sometimes cloaked in idealist rhetoric. His calculations require a clear American interest. He has not hesitated to use force -- unilaterally as with drones to kill terrorists and al-Qaeda leadership, or multilaterally as in Libya, when there is international consensus on a responsibility to protect civilians. In the case of Syria, there is no such international consensus.
The main difference in approach is that Obama clearly believes that America must be strong at home and not over-extended abroad if it is to be able to continue to play a leadership role. And that Romney’s policies will once again result in over-reliance on military action.
All this is, of course, arguable.
The lesson of the last 50 years, however, is that events drive policies; policies do not drive events. This may be the ultimate realist notion.
How presidents choose to respond to events determines their success or failure, and the long-term effects on the country.
President Eisenhower resisted the pressure to engage in Vietnam because he knew the consequences of a guerrilla war in Asia. President Kennedy created a face-saving way out for Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis by swapping American Jupiter missiles in Turkey for withdrawal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. President Nixon turned his back on his anti-communist past to find common ground with China. President Reagan worked effectively with Gorbachev to limit strategic and nuclear weapons, helping to hasten the Soviet collapse, which the first President Bush then orchestrated to reunify Europe. Bush also created a broad military and financial coalition to pay for and win a limited war with limited aims when Saddam Hussein crossed what Margaret Thatcher called “the line in the sand” by attacking Kuwait.
President Clinton tried to meld idealist and realist threads in his response to the Balkan collapse and the initial terrorist attacks. And the second President Bush, coached by ideologically rigid neoconservative advisers, overreached, confusing limited objectives to root out al-Qaeda and the Taliban extremists who sheltered them with broader, fuzzier and unrealistic objectives of promoting Middle Eastern, Arab and Islamic democracy by attacking Iraq -- with no clear exit plan and no way of paying for things once Saddam was defeated.
Campaigns make it seem as if the American president can do almost anything from creating jobs to ensuring peace.
All need to remember that is not the case, and that, once in office, the world’s swirling events tend to guide most American presidents toward the realist path.
Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a US multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University's School of International Service; these views are their own.