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Romney Foreign Policy Still a Mystery

Mitt Romney is going abroad this week for the first time as the Republican nominee on the obligatory world tour required of all presidential contenders. The trip will provide a much-needed opportunity for Romney to define his foreign policy. We’ve noted before that one of Romney’s greatest weaknesses has been his inability to define himself or his policy positions in any concrete way, positive or negative. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy.

A piece on Romney’s foreign policy in the Wall Street Journal does little to reverse this problem. Although it notes that Romney has called for 100,000 extra active duty troops, and employs a sharp friend-enemy distinction, it has little else to point to in terms of actual policy positions. Instead, the Journal focuses on his list of foreign policy advisers. While looking at the people a candidate keeps close can give some insight into their thinking, this particular list is far from illuminating, including as it does a tasteful mix of hawkish neoconservatives and moderates running the gamut of acceptable Republican foreign policy:

Mr. Romney’s campaign rhetoric suggests he isn’t shying away from some of the tough policies advocated by his party’s neoconservatives. He has issued sharp warnings about steps he would take to keep Iran from securing a nuclear weapon, dubbed Russia the nation’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” and has promised severe sanctions against China.

But his decision to tap several high-profile moderate advisers says that a President Romney might not adopt policies quite as tough as some of his campaign talk on issues such as Iran and China suggests.

If this wasn’t vague enough, however, team Romney is doing everything it can to frustrate efforts to discern Romney’s foreign policy from his choice of advisers.

The campaign “is good at making sure that there is a range of views that are presented,” he said. “There are times I don’t agree with some of my colleagues among the advisers. But I’ve been married 39 years and I don’t always agree with my wife.”

In an election dominated by economics, Romney’s reticence to plunge into the waters of foreign policy is understandable. But the candidate needs to define himself; voters need to have some idea of where he stands on both domestic and foreign policy before they cast their votes. Until he does, Romney will remain the man that nobody knows. Let’s hope some of this gets cleared up this week.

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  • Felipe Pait

    Oh no, not another learning-on-the job president. Worse, one that doesn’t seem very interested in learning. Better stick to the one that at least has 4 years of experience perhaps?

  • Jim.

    So Professor, anyone reading your “God and Gold” (well worth reading, by the way) might get the idea that establishing a “good/evil” dichotomy in the world was part of the strategy of the West’s success. Most people who want to maintain Reagan’s legacy would agree.

    Is this simply false? Mere propaganda, with “realpolitik” going on behind the scenes? Dumb luck, that it’s worked out for those tricksy hobbitses so often?

    Is there a more major player than Russia that Romney should be using as his big bad? (China? Japan? Russia’s economy is about the size of New Jersey’s. If you think of it that way, the Dark Lord of New Jersey doesn’t really have adequate oomph…)

  • Susan

    Since I know for a fact that President Obama’s foreign policy is the Samantha Power’s approach(ie arm the wolves to kill the lambs) then my only choice is the candidate Not Obama.

    Be it foreign or economic policy the choice this November is really quite simple and clear-ABO; why complicate the obvious.

  • john haskell

    @ Jim – NJ GDP approximately $500 billion. Russia 1.89 trillion. California 1.93 trillion. So you need to replace “about the size of New Jersey” with “about the size of California.” Russia is also the world’s largest producer of crude oil. Do you use crude oil or oil products in your daily life?

  • thibaud

    “voters need to have some idea of where he stands on both domestic and foreign policy before they cast their votes.”

    Before that can happen, the candidate himself needs to have some idea of where he stands.

    All the evidence we have is that Romney either

    a) doesn’t know, or

    b) knows that he doesn’t stand for anything at all.

    As a governor, he pushed for and got the Republicans’ wished-for individual mandate – and now he says it’s an evil and tyrannical imposition.

    He castigates Keynesian stimulus – and then states explicitly (“of course!”) to an interviewer that if the economy remains tough, he will NOT slash spending ie will continue to spend heavily in best Keynesian fashion.

    Willful Willard demands that his would-be running mate release years and years of detailed tax records – and then refuses to release his records for that most exciting and curious period of all, the years during and immediately following the financial collapse when smart financial engineers and tax-gamers were able to take extraordinary profits off the table.

    How much would you bet that Romney’s evasions are covering up some very sharp practices during and right after the financial crisis?

    We know for example that Mr and Mrs John Kerry were trading furiously in their personal account during mid-2008, immediately after Sen. Kerry received confidential information about the impending collapse from Treasury Sec’y Paulson.

    What were Mitt’s trades during the crisis?

    Which offshore vehicles did he use along the way?

    It’s almost certain that Romney has been using very aggressive, but legal, tax-avoidance strategies that will, as Josh Barro puts it, be difficult _politically_ for him to defend.

    After all, the average voter doesn’t understand the fine legal distinction, well known to financial operators and their accountants, between what the law calls tax “avoidance” and tax “evasion.” The former’s legal; the latter can land you in prison.

    Romney is in far deeper trouble than Obama is or will be. The tax returns will not land him in prison, but they will probably be used by Team Obama to land him in jail with the swing voters who are only know beginning to learn about Caymans blocker accounts, the carried interest scam, etc.

    Romney will be Swiss-boated in due course. It’s going to be very painful for the GOP to watch.

    Here’s Barro:

  • thibaud

    The tax returns issue brings up a very important point: Romney’s not a businessman the way Steve Jobs or Henry Ford or George Romney were businessmen.

    He’s a financial engineer who specializes in gaming the tax code’s treatment of debt and “carried interest”, as well as the peculiarly one-sided fund payout structure that favors PE/hedgefunders at the expense of the nation’s sad-sack public pension fund investors.

    The nation’s going to get an education in yet another financial industry scam, thanks to this issue that will not die between now and November.

    The goo-goo crowd’s wrong: Negative campaigning serves a great public interest after all.

  • Corlyss


    So all those companies and jobs saved were the product of clever and legal manipulation of the tax code?

    How many of the companies and their employees do you suppose really give a rip?

  • Corlyss

    Romney’s first foray into international policy makes a bold enough statement: it underscores Obama’s contempt for our allies and his relentless pursuit of props for disarming us before our enemies. I’m okay with that.

  • Jim.

    @john haskell-

    No thanks! We already have a Dark Lord here in California, who thinks that our economy can run on moonbeams.

    Please forgive me, I was apparently using data from a point when financial as doing very well compared to petroleum, rather than the other way around.

    Please excuse the gaps in my research… I haven’t figured out the trick of maintaining a high tax bracket while having enough free time to do extensive research. Maybe if I did a little bit of research, then repeated it on every thread no matter how tangential it was to the original point, that would work.


    Anyway, good catch.

  • thibaud

    Corlyss – I think it would help you to learn a bit about the workings of highly leveraged transactions used in private equity deals. The short explanation is that the PE guy is making huge, speculative bets with other people’s money. When the bet doesn’t work out, the loss to the PE guy is minuscule.

    Note that “huge” refers to what’s known as the leverage ratio, ie the amount of other people’s money compared to the PE or hedgefunder’s own (actually, his investors’) money.

    On the very rare occasions (usually less than 1 out of 10) that the bet works out, the PE guy reaps a windfall because of the power of leveraged investments, combined with our tax code’s preferential treatment of interest payments on debt.

    And then there’s one more angle that juices up the returns for the PE and hedgefunder crowd: the carried interest scam. Fees for performance are, inexplicably, treated by our tax code as income, hence taxed nearly two-thirds less than they otherwise would be.

    Add to that a very high 2% “management fee” that’s paid out regardless of the PE or hedgefunder’s performance, rain or shine, and you have a system that prints money for the PE and hedgefunders while making, over time, relatively little money for their investors, still less (if any) for their portfolio companies, and next to no benefit for the communities served by those companies and for the nation generally.

    Even Wharton’s business school performers, looking at the issue dispassionately, concluded that the US private equity industry produced next to no net benefits for the US economy or US society overall.

    “The broader question is whether there is any need to use tax policy to encourage the private equity industry. Would society suffer if PE were smaller or did not exist at all?

    PE firms do make it easier for pension funds, endowments and wealthy individuals to invest in collections of privately held companies, just as mutual funds allow small investors to hold diversified baskets of stocks. But there are many other ways for investors to acquire privately held companies. Wealthy individuals and groups can buy firms, corporations can acquire them, and small companies can merge on their own.

    Whatever contribution PE is making, it is not irreplaceable, Guay concludes: “If there are inefficient businesses out there, capital will be drawn to them, whether it’s in the form of private equity or in the form of something else.”

  • Frank Parriott

    Saying that Romney is a total cipher regarding foreign policy is an uncharacteristically broad assertion for Via Media.
    I’m not so certain that specific policy declarations are useful or desirable. Certainly they feed the appetites of the more wonkish among us to chew over the finer points Grand Strategy but more often than not serve to constrain an administration in an ever changing world.
    My recollection (subject to correction) of Reagan’s campaign is that it contained few specific foreign policy (as distinguished from defense policy) declarations other than opposition to SALT II specifically and detente generally. Yet, there was little doubt about where he stood and what he believed in.
    Having just watched Romney’s address to the VFW, I’m satisfied that he understands America’s role in the world and the best way to promote it. I wouldn’t object to him taking a page from Reagan’s play book by committing to a 300+ ship Navy, a robust deployment of existing anti-ballistic missile defense systems and restarting the F-22 assembly line. These are analogs of Reagan’s 600 ship Navy (Oh those were the days, were they not?), MX missile development/deployment and resurrection of the B-1. But sadly such minimal commitments may simply be impossible in today’s fiscal and economic environment.
    Bottom line is I think there is plenty of evidence that Romney ‘gets it’ and shouldn’t be prematurely prodded into policy boxes that may prove difficult to get out of.

  • thibaud

    Correction to above: “fees for performance are treated as _capital gains_”, not income. This not-so-little scam costs the taxpayers many tens of billions each year.

    No wonder Romney doesn’t want the public to get smart about how he and his confreres actually guide so much money into their pockets.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I pray that unlike Obama, President Romney will reward our friends, like the UK, Canada, and Israel, and punish out enemies, like Iran, NoKo, and Venezuela. In and of itself that would be tremendous progress.

  • Walter Sobchak

    is there any reason why thibaud can’t get his own blog?

  • thibaud

    I reach more Republican thought leaders this way, Sob. With any luck, some of the more rational ones will start turning against the Tea Party berserkers after Romney crashes and burns this Nov.

  • Felipe Pait

    Sobchak #14 wants a blog where everybody agrees with him. There are some countries like that in the world.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I don’t think Romney needs to do much more than contrast his support for our allies, against Obama’s snubs for our allies and kowtowing to our enemies. Romney has +24 points more support with veterans, simply telling the military that he won’t cut their throats with time limits like an idiot will make them happy.

  • Jim.


    Wow. Turning away from your enthusiastic base if a tepid middle-of-the-road candidate can’t close the deal?

    If Romney loses, it will be because he couldn’t turn out the vote of TEA Partiers who are surging into state legislatures across the nation, and getting even the Bluest of politicians to dance to their tune.

    OK, it helps that basic math (financially speaking) is on the side of the TEA Party. But again, why is that a reason to turn away from them?

    You’re hoping that Republicans will… become Democrats.

    Unlikely. George W was the closest you’re going to get, in that respect.

  • Kris

    Hear that @15, Walter? You and me, we Republican Thought Leaders! 🙂

  • thibaud

    I’m hoping for a return of the Republican Party of the pre-bandit era, the party of John Danforth, Dick Lugar, Howard Baker, et al.

    Then maybe we can finally move toward what GOP Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman praised as “national solutions to national problems.”

    As opposed to outlandish starve-the-state proposals and obstructionism.

  • thibaud

    Re. #14, looks like Romney’s whiny behavior is spreading.

    GOP = Party of Whiners

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