On Friday at The Citadel, Mitt Romney repeated his critique of administration foreign policy in a speech titled "An American Century." As usual, his attacks rang hollow. Romney's vision for America's role in the world continues to be distorted by an unwillingness to adapt to the world as it is, and it relies heavily on a nostalgic appeal to the pre-eminence that the U.S. enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century. Nothing could be more harmful to identifying and securing real American interests than an attempt to recapture lost prestige and power that are not returning.
"In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world," Romney said, assigning America with an outdated role that has no relationship to the present. "The free world" was at least a useful phrase for framing opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but now it is no more than a rhetorical relic. There are far more free countries today, and many of them chart their own courses that serve their respective national interests. If Romney insists on trying to lead the "free world," many of the rising democratic powers today are not going to follow.
Consistent with Romney's career and character, the speech had its share of shameless dishonesty.
It seems even less likely that authoritarian powers such as Russia and China are going to defer to a form of leadership that would appear to be directed against them. Romney's discussion of Russia and China was very brief and wholly antagonistic, and in true alarmist fashion he described China as a state "determined to be a world superpower." There was no indication that the U.S. should keep building constructive ties with these states, which were lumped in among the other "forces" threatening liberty and American interests. For a major policy address, the speech was woefully lacking in dealing with U.S. relations with these major powers, and there was no mention of Europe, India, Pakistan, or Brazil.
At times, Romney's speech sounded like a technocrat's brief for divinely ordained U.S. hegemony: "God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will." It seems presumptuous at best to claim knowledge of God's foreign policy preferences, but the most misleading statement here is that another state will assume the role of a global hegemon if the U.S. does not fill it. There is no one state or group of states aspiring to the international role that the U.S. currently has, and no other is capable of filling that role if it wished.
"Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties," Romney warned. That's debatable, and for most parts of the world it seems false.The proper question Americans ought to be asking him is, "Whose liberty and prosperity?" Is he saying that Americans should be expected to subsidize wealthy allies indefinitely to protect them against neighbors that pose no threat to America? If so, Romney is endorsing an untenable, unnecessary status quo.
Most of Romney's specific proposals were predictable hawkish ones: More funding for ship-building, more funding for missile defense, and an intensification of confrontational policies directed against Iran. There is no evidence that Romney believes that military spending could be reduced or even reformed, and he has no inclination to disentangle the U.S. from any of its current commitments. Romney's one nod to "soft power" was his call for the creation of a position with region-wide authority to lend assistance so that "the Arab Spring does not fade into a long winter" — which makes the key mistake of assuming that U.S. assistance is something that local opposition forces want or need.
Consistent with Romney's career and character, the speech had its share of shameless dishonesty. He promised never to apologize for America, but this is something Obama hasn't done, either. The "apology tour" lie has been central to Romney's campaign, and he showed no sign of abandoning it. Romney recycled the falsehood that Obama rejects American exceptionalism and said that he referred to it "derisively,' when the record shows that Obama endorsed the idea in almost identical terms as Romney. These are not irrelevant throwaway lines, but represent the core of Romney's indictment of current policy.
Romney predictably warned against retreating inside an "isolationist shell," which is something that no one actually proposes. George W. Bush frequently warned against the rise of "isolationism" as his administration intervened constantly overseas, and Romney would seem to offer more of the same. America endured eight years of a foreign policy that was extremely similar to what Romney proposed, and our country is still paying the price for it. The 2012 election will not be decided on foreign policy issues, but Romney has demonstrated in this speech why he should not be trusted with the office he seeks.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine
- 9 Harvard dropouts who became fabulously successful
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- What is Molly? Everything you need to know about the party drug
- How China sparked an Asian frenzy for killer submarines
- The dangers of our passionless American life
- The real reason conservatives should be outraged that police killed a white youth
- The essential techniques that every home cook should know
Subscribe to the Week