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Atlantic: Can Mitt Romney Recover the Soul of Republican Foreign Policy?

Author: James Kitfield
August 27, 2012


The presidential candidate's party, after a long tradition of strong foreign policy, finds itself lost and divided. Can Romney reunite it, or will neoconservatism dominate by default?

Americans will enter voting booths in November fixated on a sputtering domestic economy, but they will exit having elected the single most influential player on the world stage. That reflects a paradox of American power: a generally inward-looking electorate selects a leader with only scant attention to his foreign policies or international experience, and yet that person's actions undoubtedly will shape the course of global events. And into the center of that paradox walks the enigma that is Mitt Romney.

Given his limited foreign-policy experience and counterpuncher's strategy of defining himself primarily as what his opponent is not, it's difficult to know just what Romney's worldview is. His image as a moderate former Republican governor from the Northeast with a successful background in international business suggests a likely comfort level with the liberal-internationalist or moderate realist traditions of the Republican Party.

Yet as a candidate courting his party's conservative base, Romney has issued foreign-policy pronouncements with a harder line. He says his administration would align closely with Israel, view Russia as the United States' primary geostrategic foe and label China as a currency manipulator. The population of terrorist suspects at the Guantánamo Bay military prison might double, and "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding could return to the counterterrorism toolbox. A Romney administration purportedly would increase defense spending and bolster rather than shrink the size of the U.S. military. There would be no diplomacy with Iran, which would be enjoined to abandon its nuclear-weapons ambitions or else. U.S. military forces would remain in Afghanistan until the Taliban is defeated decisively.

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