A Theoretical Case for a Romney Presidency From a Foreign Policy PoV.

Over at Blinded Trials the esteemed Dr. Saunders has a post up about how W. Mitt Romney, much like John McCain before him, has managed to alienate potential voters with his mendacity and pandering to the Republican base. In response to said post Jaybird says:

There is a part of me that is vaguely troubled by the fact that the main page has only seen one “here’s why you oughtta vote for Romney!” post while it’s seen several pro-Obama posts. Surely I could rub some brain cells together and generate an argument on behalf of Romney. That’s what dispassionate philosophical analysis is for!

Of course a sentence later, Jaybird admits that he feels greasy even looking at Mr. Romney and declines the challenge.

Now among the front-pagers of our fine site, I am:

  • Reliably liberal.
  • A foreign policy writer.
  • Write often from an odd mixture of realism/constructivism/liberal institutionalism.

As a result, a good number of my posts have been critical of the Republican foreign policy architecture, particularly that which has supplied the foreign policy expertise to the Romney Campaign.

In an attempt to make amends, I’m going to try to write a post spelling out the case to be made for Mr. Romney’s foreign policy positions, starting with an overview of the theories that inform the case, then spelling out how his stated positions will work to enhance the ends advocated by the theories.

So without further ado….

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team has a number of theoretical heavy-weights, but perhaps the most significant are Eliot Cohen (professor of strategic studies at SAIS at John Hopkins) and Robert Kagan (Brookings institute fellow and author of The World America Made). Additional names of note are Eric Edelman, Dan Senor, Michael Hayden, Michael Chertoff and Dov Zakhein. Much of the focus in recent times have been their involvement in the Administration of George W. Bush, but for the most part their biggest contributions tended to be of the Bush Team during the second half of the presidency, after the departure of the likes of Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz.

The worldview of these advisers is more varied than popular accounts would suggest (particularly the rather caustic profile in Foreign Policy) but they rest on a series of fundamental assumptions about the international system. A handful of these assumptions are shared by both old school realists and this “offensive realist” school and are as follows:

  • The international system is anarchic.
  • States are rational actors that can weigh the consequences of their actions.
  • Survival is the primary goal of a state.
  • States seek to maximize their security to secure their survival.
  • States can’t trust one another.

Those like Kagan, Cohen and Senor differ from neorealists of the Kissinger stripe in what they view as the most secure world. While Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski pushed for the maintenance of a stable status quo, trusting that powerful states would feel secure in an equilibrium, the new breed of offensive realists view such balances with mistrust.

First, they argue that the concept of balance of power and balancing coalitions is inherently wrong. While states might have formed balancing coalitions in old European Balance of Power politics, this was done reluctantly and often avoided as much as possible. Instead, the belief is that states will usually resort to “buck-passing”, that is they will attempt to shift the burden of countering another state to someone else if they can. Further, while there may have been a minority of statesmen who viewed stability as desirable, they argue that history shows a propensity for states to attempt to expand their military power and influence.

Stemming from this view, their second argument is that under these circumstances, the United States and its interests are most secure when it has a preponderance of military power. In short: a unipolar world is the safest world. US foreign policy in turn should be about the maintenance of unipolarity as much as possible.

Further, because states are often uncertain of intentions, signalling through investments in military power, as well as public pronouncements from politicians are often seen as good barometers of gauging intention. A substrain of international relations theory called Strategic Conflict Avoidance (SCA) theory suggests that states carefully watch the domestic popularity of politicians, along with economic indicators to gauge their likelihood of conflict (and adjust their behavior accordingly). Under this theory the political leaning of a politician (whether hawkish or dovish) along with the domestic approval rating for the politician himself will signal how likely the country in question is to resort to diversionary uses of force.

Finally, because global hegemony is practically impossible due to geographic limitations, most states will instead seek to establish itself as the undisputed regional hegemon. Because of the buck-passing behavior of states, most regional hegemons are unlikely to face a balancing coalition once established. Consequently an important corollary is that the interest of a state with strategic interests in regions outside of its geographic location is to prevent the establishment of a hegemon.

With the theoretical underpinnings out of the way, let’s look at the world around us with this knowledge.

The world today is in a state of flux. Traditional Great Powers like the United Kingdom, France and even Germany have lost relative power and are mired in a financially fragile Europe, while new states begin establishing regional bases of power.

In the Middle-East traditional US allies such as Egypt face uncertainty as their governments are replaced by unstable revolutionary governments. The traditional economic preponderance of Saudi Arabia, and the nuclear hegemony of Israel are being challenged. The growth of non-western demand for oil has helped Iran skirt the western sanctions against its oil revenues, and its acquisition of nuclear technology will allow it to challenge Israel’s nuclear hegemony. Within a few years, Iran may be capable of establishing itself as a regional power with a strong nuclear deterrent, forcing the United States to draw down its influence. Geostrategically, the current state of affairs in the Middle-East and Maghred threatens American influence in the region.

Central Asia and the Caucuses, which had seen liberalization and decentralization since the fall of the Soviet Union may face a resurgent Russia flush with oil wealth. When the United States did not intervene on behalf of Georgia in the South Ossetian War of 2008, it helped to encourage Russian designs for a sphere of influence and eroded confidence in American power regionally. Further, the growing importance of natural gas makes the likes of Kazakhstan an important energy provider for the 21st century. Allowing Russia to establish regional hegemony would have dangerous consequences for global natural gas markets in the coming few decades.

East Asia and the Pacific face the rise of China. There the influence of China and the growing size of the People Liberation Army Navy threaten to dislodge US regional hegemony that it’s maintained since the end of the Second World War. The lack of a strong US response to Chinese economic manipulations have helped embolden Chinese designs on the South China Sea and beyond. China’s defense expenditures are expected to increase from $112 billion today to over $250 billion by 2014. This is more than the rest of Asia combined. No sane defense planner would cut American expenditures at such a time.

And even in its own hemisphere, the US faces challenges to its hegemony that it’s maintained since the Monroe doctrine. The rise of Brazil, the challenges presented by the leftist governments in South America and the oil wealth of Venezuela threaten to make the US a regional has-been.

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy goals and his clear commitment to increasing military spending would be the best way to maintain the world system as we have it today. American primacy is perhaps the best way to prevent other states from establishing regional hegemonies and creating spheres of influence. Only by showing a strong commitment to deploying American hard power will potential hegemons be deterred. Cutting $50 billion/year out of the DoD budget while China, Russia and Iran increase their spending with their GDP estimates each year will only invite more overstepping and challenges.

Witness the Chinese behavior with the Senkaku Islands or the South China Sea. Denying regional access is a cornerstone of their island chain strategy.

The United States ought to be able to demonstrate its capability to project power into a wide range of regional locations. Unlike Barack Obama who has suggested an off-shore balancing approach, the Romney foreign policy team would propose a stronger US presence with American power at the forefront of its signalling. Without such signals, more states are likely to pass the buck on balancing new regional powers, and even worse hop onto the new powers as bandwagoners. Such a world would ultimately lead to less trade, more regionalism and the greater threat of conflict. In short: the world that America made after the Second World War would be under threat, and with it would challenge the opportunities for US citizens to earn money abroad.

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38 thoughts on “A Theoretical Case for a Romney Presidency From a Foreign Policy PoV.

  1. Actually, Romney will double the defense budget because defense is welfare in the United States. He has to do it. You’d be surprised at the liberal techies in Silicon Valley who say Romney has to be elected if they are going to keep their jobs. And it’s true: tech hit a wall in March.

    That’s why Romney is going to win. If you’re not an airhead, you’ve been hearing his cues that he is going to vastly increase defense spending. It’s what Reagan also said, and it’s why Reagan was elected twice.

    Why Obama doesn’t play the defense card is beyond me. But he doesn’t, and out he goes: another loser prima donna, JUST like Carter. Sick sick sick.

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  2. When the United States did not intervene on behalf of Georgia in the South Ossetian War of 2008, it helped to encourage Russian designs for a sphere of influence and eroded confidence in American power regionally. Further, the growing importance of natural gas makes the likes of Kazakhstan an important energy provider for the 21st century. Allowing Russia to establish regional hegemony would have dangerous consequences for global natural gas markets in the coming few decades.

    Hmm.

    When the United States did not intervene on behalf of Georgia in the South Ossetian War of 2008, it helped to encourage Russian designs for a sphere of influence avoided opening up a then-third simultaneous theater of major military operations in a readily-escalatable conflict directly against a yet powerful, ICBM-armed, and wealthy opponent with a significant logistics advantage against US/NATO forces that would have been deployed there and eroded confidence in American power regionally. Further, the growing importance of natural gas makes the likes of Kazakhstan an important energy provider for the 21st century in the event that natural gas becomes, once again, as profitable as petroleum. Allowing Russia to establish regional hegemony would have dangerous consequences for global natural gas markets in the coming few decades but is an unfortunate inevitability we can only hope to mitigate.

    There. That feels more right. Not happier, but more correct.

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    • At some point (probably after the election?) I’ll see what I can pull together in terms of a region by region overview.

      Contrary to what I’m saying in the post above, I don’t actually agree with a lot of the assumptions, and I’d be happy to explain why elsewhere. But for now, I’m trying to do my best impression of Max Boot or really Walter Russell Mead.

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      • If I were trying to channel Max Boot, I’d explain how a carrier group in the Black Sea, describing each weapons system thereon with Tom Clancy-like milpornographic detail, would have provided first a protective shield under which a Western-friendly government and culture would have efflouresced Georgia into a full NATO member state, and how the establishment of semi-permanent US military deployment would have not only fostered democracy, wealth, and infrastructre in Georgia and placed strategic checks against the dreadful prospect of of both Soviet Russian and Iranian expansionism.

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      • “States are rational actors that can weigh the consequences of their actions.”

        That’s the one that I disagree with. ;-)
        And it’s not because of Iran. (I could make a good argument with Bibi, but I think his country is going to poach him on a Stick, so… maybe I shouldn’t?)

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  3. Very nice analysis, Nob. I would add that the “messaging” is to be one of clarity and confidence ala Reagan more than the policy details. When America’s leadership in the world is fudgy, bad things slip in to fill the void.

    To the thesis, I agree and think it’s good to realize that the world has changed since 1956, since 1989. And the one lesson learned from neoconservatism-Dubyaism, its central failure, is of its core premise–that all men yearn to breathe free. It’s just not so. Some want economic security, some want political stability, some want sharia, all want pride and power.

    My friends on the lefter side of things are cynical about American exceptionalism, but if Machiavelli is right [and he usually is], we as a people still must feel we’re on the side of the angels in everything we do as a nation. This is how we see ourselves—as Colin Powell said in 2002:

    [F]ar from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people.

    And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, “Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us”? No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.

    Bullshit, some say. But sometimes bullshit is all you’ve got, I guess. Without a vision, the people perish.

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    • we as a people still must feel we’re on the side of the angels in everything we do as a nation. … sometimes bullshit is all you’ve got, I guess. Without a vision, the people perish.

      Interesting argument. Very … Straussian.

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  4. It’s worth pointing out, though, that if the President had taken a strongly (or even vaguely) pro-Israel position in the past few years, Israel would have almost certainly bombed Iran’s nuclear-research sites the way they did Osirak.

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    • I have to disagree. In 1981, the Reagan administration was seen as being much less pro-Israel than the Carter administration had been. Reagan approved the sale of F-15s and AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in spite of strong protests from Israel and the American Jewish community.

      At the time, America was taking Iraq’s side in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war (Israel was covertly supporting Iran), and Israel’s bombing of Osirak was not seen as particularly helpful by the United States.

      If Israel really wanted to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, I believe they would have by now. I think Israel has calculated that a one-off raid like Osirak would not work.

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  5. Now among the front-pagers of our fine site, I am:

    Reliably liberal.
    A foreign policy writer.
    Write often from an odd mixture of realism/constructivism/liberal institutionalism.

    Ineligible to vote.

    Just to emphasize the irony of who it is that finally steps up to make the argument.

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    • Iraq, yeah? Boom! We eliminated an enemy and midwived the birth of democracy in the Middle East, bro. Simultaneous. And the Muslim world loves us for it.

      And we blunted – to the point of nonexistence! – China’s long-hoped-for military takeover of ME oil reserves. Double boom.

      You just got to look at the facts thru a colored prism, or piece of rock candy.

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      • Stillwater, I am convinced by your confident, forceful tone and aggressive posture. Please spend a few more HP on wonkiness and “being a numbers guy” and you’ll have my vote.

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              • That’s surprising. For some reason. What part of the USSR? I’m sure there’s a very interesting story to be told about how you ended up here. Not that I’m asking or anything …

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                • Heh, you could probably guess the story. Born in Ukraine and came over here pretty young in one of those waves of Jewish engineers right around the collapse (watched Yeltsin on the tank in our Moscow communal before we left). We all lived on welfare/food-stamps for a while until the adults could re-train to computer programming and then shoot up the income ladder with the tech boom. Relatives were all Clinton Democrats, half of whom shifted hard for Israel after 9/11; which makes family get-togethers really exciting. Pretty typical post-Soviet story I would imagine, and it somehow all felt very typically American growing up. It’s weird now running into people who lived in their home-town their whole life and realizing that’s common.

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  6. One more points, Nob, if you’ll indulge me in your role as Theoretical Romney Supporter. One of the major criticisms of offensive realism is that it ignores non-security interests such as human rights, democracy promotion, etc. This is fine as far as it goes, but it does demand a leader who is crystal clear in his priorities. We saw what happened in Iraq when offensive realists couldn’t decide if they wanted democracy or hegemony over there. And yet Romney/Ryan are clear as mud in their priorities: they are critical of Obama for intervening in Libya to protect human rights / they are critical of Obama for not intervening in Syria to protect human rights; they are critical of Obama for working with the Russians to put together sanctions against Iran / they are critical of Obama for not acquiescing entirely to the Israelis in their military quest against Iran; and their stance on Afghanistan seems entirely divorced from any security concern whatsoever. The way I see it, Romney’s policy should be offensive (*rimshot*) even to the offensive realists because it abandons one of their primary axioms for political expediency.

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    • I’ll start with the ignoring non-security interests part.

      The distinction between democracy promotion interventionists (the neoconservatives essentially) and the offensive realists is that there is in fact an emphasis on Straussian national myth promotion on the neoconservative side. This is I think where some of the calculations break down between some of them.

      Romney’s current policy arguments are somewhat tinged by opportunistic attacks on the Obama Administration as much as it is based on a worldview argument. As far as I can gather what they actually want vis Afghanistan and want in Iraq (or wanted) is a robust US security presence in order to maintain forward deployment ability. Afghanistan’s location in Central Asia actually makes it a relatively strategically important locale geostrategically speaking. It’s just also very hard to lock down. I think they’d be fine with carving a consular area similar to a GITMO around Baghram, but this is getting into assumptions.

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  7. Well, since we’ve already seen an Obama foreign policy, the best counterpoint to this piece might be a conservative’s look at a Joe Biden foreign policy. Unfortunately I can’t quite fully conceive of what that would look like, but here’s a quick stab.

    As you look at Europe, you see lots of Europeans. They look just like us but many of them talk different. The only ones that really stand out are the pizza/pasta/breadstick country and the one that makes Mercedes and BMW’s. In Central Asia you have the 7-11 slurpy countries, while in East Asia, which is actually west of Nanci Pelosi’s district, you find the people who make all the toys in the check-out aisle at Walmart.

    Then you have the Middle East, which is full of friends and enemies in no particular order, such as Iraq or Iran where we’ve had troops stationed. Going south you hit Africa, where for some reason the blacks don’t all vote as a block and fight like crips and bloods, a situation that Oprah is trying to eliminate.

    What’s important is that on the big points that matter, we put points on the board, and militarily, that we follow the advice that we told the generals to give us, even if it affects sandwich prices at delis run by ethnics of various ethnicities.

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    • Yeah, and I totally forgot latin America which surely is a rich source of Bidenisms, probably observations about waiters and then veering into the complexity of burritos, that free salsa is a basic right, and something unrepeatable about Univsion’s weather girls.

      Every day Dan Quayle wakes up and give thanks for Joe Biden, because misspelling potato isn’t as bad as launching into an old Irish joke at a Boston fundraiser.

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  8. As a foreigner, the main question I have is why Americans have so little faith in anything other than military action. Vaclav Havel, who went from political prisoner to president of the Czech Republic in less than a year and knew something about standing up to tyranny, was a devoted listener to and supporter of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Yet I have seen RFE denigrated on many sites as ineffectual and just the kind of thing that America shouldn’t waste money on. It’s mystifying to non-Americans, just like the rabid frothing over “American exceptionalism”. A country that genuinely believed it was exceptional and was confident about it would not talk about it so much.

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  9. I think there needs to be an argument about whether or not our foreign policy should be any form of interventionism. Notice that no candidate is even challenging THAT assumption. Why not, say 100% neutral. That would have the benefit of, at least, zero hypocrisy. “The concerns of others are of no concern to us”. But we’ll happily trade with them.

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  10. It appears to me that the end of the US ability to project conventional force willy-nilly across the globe is in sight. The US military machine runs on diesel and JP-8, a bit under a million barrels per day in total during peace. Global net exports of petroleum* peaked in 2005 and continue to decline. At some point — I assert that it’s probably still 25 years out — the US civilian population will simply no longer tolerate that level of liquid hydrocarbon use by the military. Once that point is reached, the Navy won’t be able to operate its 11 carrier strike groups; the Air Force won’t operate 5500 aircraft; and the Army won’t be able to keep the mechanized support for a half-million soldiers running.

    The most recent Joint Operating Environment document specifically points out that $100/barrel oil requires the military to shift spending from people and equipment to fuel. All three branches have their own research programs looking for affordable non-petroleum sources of liquid fuels, or ways to generate electricity that don’t require liquid fuels (so the fuel can go into tanks and planes and ships that can’t be electrified). Even if the programs are somewhat successful, it seems quite unlikely to me that the civilian population will tolerate the military continuing to use a million barrels per day if the civilian sector is having to get by on much less. Despite the neo-cons best efforts, the civilian population is not going to place ongoing interventions in the same category as WWII, the last time that the public was willing to sacrifice its use of fuel to the military.

    This reality will force a rather dramatic change in US foreign policy.

    *GNE is the amount of oil exported by countries that produce more petroleum than they consume (eg Russia, Saudi Arabia, Canada). For oil-importing countries like the US or China, GNE matters more than total global production: you can’t import oil unless someone is willing to export it.

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  11. Pingback: Dreams of a Comforting Future | Smoke & Stir

    • I remember reading a paper outlining the US approach to world affairs given the rise of China as a potential rival to US dominance. The idea was that the Chinese are gaining an increasingly large sphere of influence by engaging in positive sum exchanges of goods, services, money, etc, often way above “market price”. The thesis was that the US cannot compete with this type of expansionism because we don’t have the money, so in order to maintain our dominance we must use military power.

      I thought the thesis was interesting, not because it expresses the prevailing view of US elites think that US power is the best method to ensure and maintain our status as the world’s sole superpower (I think that’s been the view since WWII), but because of the implied admission that the US isn’t interested and in fact cannot extend and maintain its power via win-win economic agreements with other countries.

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