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Romney and Ryan in Tampa. Source: LA Times

This week we were given a first glance at what a Romney presidency might mean for the rest of the world when he and his allies began to spell out what a Romney foreign policy would consist of at the Republican National Convention. The decision to focus upon attacking Obama’s foreign policy record was perhaps unwise given that this is one area  in which Obama enjoys relatively broad support and in which Romney has little experience — and given his recent debacles on the international stage,  even less credibility.

While Obama has not fully lived up to the hopes the international community had for him (demonstrating the folly of awarding peace prizes in advance), he at least still commands the respect of his international counterparts and foreign audiences. Romney, however, in his only brief foray abroad managed to offend an ally whose hospitality he was enjoying by suggesting the UK was not ready to host the Olympics, propagating the cultural inferiority of the Arab nations and proclaiming Russia as the US’s number one geopolitical enemy – a claim that might surprise a country which is allowing the US to transport arms through it in order to continue a war with Afghanistan, a country once ruled by the USSR itself.

As a result, many believed that Romney would be wise to concentrate, at least at this stage, on the economy, the area with which the electorate are most dissatisfied and where Romney is believed to hold most credibility. That Romney and his team were willing to ignore this advice is perhaps indicative of the extent to which Romney intends to diverge from the current administration’s policies and of the weight of his own ideological convictions, hitherto under-examined. This analysis is borne out by his heavy criticism of Obama’s record in the area. At the convention, meanwhile, John McCain and Condoleeza Rice condemned the President for being soft on America’s enemies (Iran, Russia) and competitors (China), neglectful of her allies (Israel) and recklessly endangering American security through defence cuts. What, then, would Romney do differently?

First, he has stated that he would rescind the defence cuts and maintain previous levels of planned Defence Department expenditure (a projected increase in real terms of 23% by 2021). In doing so he has provided himself with the resources necessary to fulfil his promise to not shy away from future military intervention should it be in US interests. Second, he openly refuted multilateralist policies, sending a clear signal that he plans to return to the unilateralist approach of pre-Obama America. To him “the United Nations is a place where nations can talk, but leadership — leadership that preserves peace and promotes freedom — must come from the United States of America.” Third, Romney has spelled out in unequivocal terms his unconditional support for Israel, “a country under existential threat”, including showing footage of himself placing a prayer in the Western Wall in Jerusalem (a city he unilaterally declared as Israel’s capital despite the US’s formal recognition of Tel Aviv and the singular importance of Jerusalem’s future status to the peace negotiations).

The signals are clear. The world breathed its sigh of relief too early when George Bush left office; American neoconservatism is not dead after all. Indeed, were Romney to win the presidency, it is likely that the White House will once again become a bastion of the ideology of American exceptionalism, believing itself possessed of a divine mandate to ‘transform’ the world according to American beliefs and interests. There is reason to believe that a return to such policies would be even more disastrous now than they were in 2001-2008. In particular, the volatility of the current Middle East and instability of the world’s largest economic area, the EU, demand a cautious and reasoned US role, not one designed to inflame.

However, even if Romney mirrors Bush ideologically, to what extent would he be able to act on these instincts if elected? There is evidence to suggest that Romney might find himself acting under greater restraints than his current rhetoric would imply he understands. The world is not the same now as it was in 2001, or indeed in 2008. Geopolitical forces are shifting: The BRIC countries, especially China, are rising rapidly. The ties that link America to the rest of the world are not as hierarchical as they once were and the US now requires the co-operation of the other great powers on a wide range of issues. As a result, America may find its words carry less gravitas and its diplomacy less leverage than in previous years.

This may mean that many of Romney’s plans, such as to “brand China a currency manipulator” on his first day in office may have unexpected and costly consequences. While it would hardly benefit from a trade war with the US, China may now view such castigation as unacceptable given its increasing world status and take this slight as a diplomatic affront and would probably feel forced to retaliate. Similarly, Russia may be less inclined to co-operate with the US on key issues such as Syria and Afghanistan when a sitting President refers to them as his “number one geopolitical foe”. Meanwhile, the countries of the Arab world, having fought for democracy in defiance of the US rather than having been inspired by it, are now able to access financial support from other sources (such as China), and may be less inclined to conform to US desires than was previously the case. A belligerent foreign policy is thus likely to harm American strategic interests abroad rather than further them, as well as provoke conflict and discord in other regions of the world.

It is also unclear to what extent there is real support for an adventurist foreign policy in the population as a whole, or even in the grass roots of the GOP. America remains embroiled in Afghanistan, a war whose popularity among voters continues to diminish, and many US citizens are still smarting from what they perceive as American failure in Iraq. Moreover, the resurgent forces of conservatism within America, upon which Romney must rely to get elected and which plan to hold him to account if he becomes president (namely the Tea Party and their ilk) do not appear to have much appetite for a renewal of American adventurism abroad. Rather, their focus upon American domestic politics, the economy, immigration and perceived cultural fragmentation mean that, if anything, they appear to be a force encouraging a return to previous US policies of isolationism, a strategy of retreat from the world in order to preserve America as they want it to be.

As a result of these factors, there are many commentators who urge liberals not to panic and suggest that Romney will, if elected, allow his more cautious and reasonable side to emerge in regard to foreign policy. He will be forced to find his “inner Nixon”, they argue. However, as many presidents have found, what you say on the campaign trail tends to haunt you when in office. Should Romney make it to the White House he may find himself regretting having spoken so boldly and having made so many foreign enemies along the way. The rest of America will regret it too.

Kate Brooks is an Oxford MPhil student in International Relations

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