from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Obama and Romney on Foreign Policy: Beyond the Rhetoric, Some Genuine Differences

October 16, 2012

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Presidential campaigns should come with a disclaimer: “past promises are no guarantee of future policies.” Candidates are notorious for exaggerating modest differences with opponents, then doing precisely the same thing once elected. Remember Bill Clinton, blasting George H. W. Bush for toasting the “butchers of Beijing,” later cozying up to China. Or a junior senator from Illinois, Senator Obama, who condemned George W. Bush’s “global war on terrorism,” but adopted aggressive homeland security and counterterrorism measures of his own, from extending provisions of the Patriot Act to expanding targeted killings via drone strikes.

The lesson is that the realities of governance constrain a president’s freedom of action. Fiscal realities intrude; Congress proves obstructionist; strategic imperatives force unexpected continuity; and unanticipated events upset the best-laid plans.

To hear the campaigns tell it, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have fundamentally distinct outlooks on world affairs and will take us in different directions. In reality, the two candidates are not as nearly as far apart as they pretend. By temperament, both are pragmatic and non-ideological (though the same cannot always be said for their advisers). That said, a number of subtle differences, and a few stark divisions, do exist. Below is a list of the four main similarities and eight important differences between the candidates:

First, the similarities:

Af-Pak policy: Despite criticizing Obama’s firm timetable for U.S. withdrawal, Romney agrees all troops should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The only difference regards the pace of withdrawal (Romney wants 68,000 troops to remain through 2013, whereas Obama would end combat actions by mid-2013). Likewise both have concluded that Pakistan will never be an effective or trustworthy U.S. partner, given its government weakness and divergent interests. Regardless of who is president, we should expect disengagement.

Counterterrorism: Obama has been more vigorous than his predecessor, and significantly stepped up drone strikes outside of official war theaters. Besides killing Osama bin-Laden, this includes taking on al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb. It appears that Romney would do the same.

Human rights and democracy promotion: To judge from GOP rhetoric, a Romney presidency would mean a return to the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush. But the question remains how a Romney administration would balance democracy promotion against other U.S. interests. How would he react when elected governments take an Islamist turn or refuse to cooperate with the United States--including regarding Israel? The Internationalist predicts continued pragmatism, rather than a one size fits all policy.

The United States and China: On China, Candidate Romney’s bark may prove greater than President Romney’s bite. The Romney campaign endorses Obama’s strategic “pivot” to Asia and a U.S. strategy to reassure Asian allies about freedom of navigation, open commerce, and regional security (rather than to contain China). Of course, the governor has pledged to declare China a “currency manipulator” and to crack down on its intellectual property rights violations. But given his business experience in China, Romney is unlikely to court an all-out trade war. He knows that the value of the U.S. dollar depends on China’s willingness to hold rather than dump U.S. treasury bills.

Nevertheless, there are some important differences in outlook between President Obama and Governor Romney:

Defense Budget Policy. U.S. defense spending has doubled since 9/11 (thanks largely to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). President Obama would cut defense spending to 2.9 percent of GDP by 2017, whereas Romney would increase it to a minimum of 4 percent, implying at least $2.1 trillion more for the military over the next decade. Romney’s buildup would include increased shipbuilding, multilayered ballistic missile defense, 100,000 more soldiers, and a modernized air force. The president, meanwhile, believes a leaner, more efficient, military will not affect a new forward U.S. posture in the Western Pacific.

Nuclear Weapons. The Obama administration has focused on the threat of loose nuclear weapons or fissile material falling into the hands of nonstate actors—and therefore sponsored two Nuclear Security Summits and supported a 2013 target date for securing all existing fissile material. Candidate Romney’s rhetoric indicates a greater focus on outlier state actors acquiring weapons, notably Iran (which has of course preoccupied the Obama administration too). The most significant difference is that President Obama embraced the vision of a world without nuclear weapons while Governor Romney regards that position as utopian and foolhardy. Romney also opposed the Obama administration’s signature achievement in arms reduction--the New START treaty with Moscow. Finally, the Obama administration favors eventual U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and has pledged to build no more nuclear weapons. A Romney administration—committed to modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons force--would oppose that position. 

Foreign Aid: President Obama advocates ambitious foreign aid initiatives in global health and food security. Romney, by contrast, has criticized traditional foreign aid as a waste of taxpayer money—and increasingly irrelevant compared to charitable giving and private sector investment. Governor  Romney’s vision is to negotiate “Prosperity Pacts” with developing countries, whereby the United States would condition assistance on removing barriers to U.S. investment and trade--and target U.S. aid to promote “liberty, the rule of law, and property rights.”

The United Nations: President Obama has described the United Nations as a flawed but indispensable pillar of world order that provides legitimacy and support for U.S. actions around the world. The White House has identified numerous “dividends of U.S. leadership at the UN” after the unilateral Bush years. These include the stiffest ever UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea and Iran, the successful UN-authorized intervention in Libya that overthrew Moammar al-Qaddafi, and an improved Human Rights Council (HRC). Romney is far harsher on the global body, calling it an “extraordinary failure.” Congressional Republicans, as well as Romney advisers like John Bolton, advocate draconian cuts in UN funding and withdrawing from the HRC. The upshot: U.S. relations with the UN could get far rockier in a Romney administration.

Russia: The White House touts its “reset” with Russia as a major success, after the acrimony of Bush’s second term, which included diplomatic clashes over Georgia and missile defense. Beyond negotiating the New START treaty to verifiably reduce Russian and U.S. nuclear stockpiles, Obama has mollified Moscow by deferring plans to build missile defense stations in Eastern Europe. More recently, he supported Russian entry into the World Trade Organization and has promised to push for repeal of the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment. Governor Romney, by contrast, has called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe,” denounced New START; and accused the president of selling out the Poles. Overall, a Romney administration bodes more confrontation with Russia.

Syria is an increasing source of dispute between the two campaigns, as the country descends into bloody chaos. The Obama administration continues to reject calls to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians or arm the rebels directly (as opposed to through proxies like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, or Turkey). This reflects, in part, a fear that the arms may fall into the hands of violent extremists. Romney, meanwhile, has pledged to help organize and arm the insurgents, and some of his neoconservative advisers call for creating safe havens, which would require at least an air campaign.

Iran: There are important, subtle differences between the candidates. Obama has said that he will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, whereas Romney has pledged to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear “capability.” This suggests that while Obama would use force only if Iran actually tried to build a bomb, Romney might attack Iran if it were close to acquiring the means. The Obama administration continues to bank on “crippling” sanctions, while Romney supports these but is skeptical they will be sufficient.

Middle East Peace: Romney has accused President Obama of insufficient concern for Israeli security and of throwing “Israel under the bus.” Obama rejects this characterization, and has repeatedly affirmed that the United States and Israel share an “unshakeable” bond though his support for Israel has been measured. If reelected, Obama is likely to try again, provided he believes he has two parties willing to negotiate in good faith (a big “if”). Prospects for a two-state solution seem considerably dimmer if Romney is elected. While he has alluded to that goal, Romney lacks the credibility to be an honest broker, given his closer alignment to Israel, his overheard skepticism that Palestinians are not interested in peace, and his alienation of Palestinians on two separate occasions.

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