By C. Raja Mohan
The contrast between the international images of the US president, Barack Obama, and his presumptive Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has become starker in the last few days.
When presidential candidate Barack Obama travelled to Europe in 2008, he wowed the world with his sweeping rhetoric and uplifting ideas. Four years later, Romney has repeatedly fumbled in his recently concluded tour of Britain, Israel and Poland.
If Obama invited adulation, Romney drew much media derision.
Romney irritated his British hosts by expressing doubts about the success of the London Olympics and was snubbed by Britain’s Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, who should have been naturally empathetic to the Republicans.
He also angered the Palestinians and Arabs by talking about the cultural superiority of the Jewish people and declaring that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
While he attracted many by being simply un-Bush, Obama’s candidacy had a larger importance of its own: the first possible African American president of the United States. Romney, however, appears to be harking back to the failed policies of the past in his effort to project a muscular American engagement with the world. Romney is prosaic in comparison to Obama, with neither the president’s knack for an imaginative phrase nor a historic persona. His plodding campaign for the Republican nomination was about wearing down his opponents with superior financial power rather than inspiring the core constituencies of the party.
There was little expectation, even from his strongest supporters, that Romney would set the world alight in his mandatory trip abroad as a presidential candidate. The purpose of Romney’s visit was quite simple – to look presidential and sound ready to lead the world. His gaffes have messed up that script somewhat. But his supporters are confident that Romney’s stumbles will be forgotten quickly as summer turns into autumn, when the intensive final phase of the presidential campaign begins.
Strategists from both parties agree that this year’s presidential election is not going to be won or lost on foreign policy issues. Popular perception of Obama’s handling of the economy, which is yet to recover from the financial crisis that enveloped the United States in 2007-08, is most likely to be the decisive factor in the election.
While foreign policy may not animate the American voter this time, the worldview of Romney, who has a reasonable shot at winning the election, is of considerable interest to non-Americans. Notwithstanding the controversies he stirred, Romney’s trip was not devoid of some gains for the candidate. His unabashed embrace of Israel should not only play well with the Jewish vote in the United States but also the much larger group of evangelical Christians.
While Romney was careful not to attack Obama from foreign soil, the itinerary and content of his trip were designed to differentiate his worldview from that of Obama. Romney had been criticising Obama for abandoning America’s traditional friends and reaching out to America’s adversaries, such as Iran. He has attacked Obama for neglecting the traditional special relationship with Britain, distancing America from Israel and sacrificing Poland in pursuit of friendship with Russia.
Romney has accused Obama of trashing the notion of “American exceptionalism” and for continually apologising for Washington’s past foreign policies. If Obama is presiding over America’s decline, Romney says he will restore American primacy. In a major speech on foreign policy before he embarked on his foreign tour, Romney declared that he “will not surrender America’s leadership in the world”. “If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth”, Romney told his nation, “I am not your president. You have that president today”.
For all his attacks on Obama and the tall talk on “peace through strength”, Romney might find it hard to change Obama’s foreign policy in fundamental ways. Obama has occupied the centrist space in foreign policy, making it difficult for Romney to credibly mount the traditional Republican attack that Democratic presidents are weak on national security and foreign policy.
While Obama has disappointed many liberal constituencies by not fulfilling the initial promise to radically recast America’s foreign policy, he has shown the political will for the selective use of military force and secure his right flank at home. Do note the US president’s enthusiasm for drone warfare, the bold move to raid and execute Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan and the relentless effort to tighten international sanctions against Iran.
There is no denying that Obama’s foreign policy has been a responsible adaptation to the difficult circumstances that America has found itself in – a major economic crisis at home, exhaustion from costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unfolding shift in the global distribution of power and the growing constraints against American unilateralism.
If he is elected to power, Romney too will have no choice but to cope with the imperatives of strategic and fiscal austerity that are likely to limit US options for quite some time to come. Despite his tough initial posturing, Romney has already signalled some flexibility.
He has not repeated his earlier surprising remark that Russia is America’s principal “geopolitical foe”. Nor has he renewed his threat to declare China as a “currency manipulator” on his very first day in the White House.
Romney has not affirmed that American troops must continue to fight in Afghanistan beyond 2014. While he has sounded more hostile than Obama towards Iran, realities on the ground are likely to act as a dampener. Romney and his foreign policy advisers can’t be unaware that the old verities of “democracy promotion” have less credibility now as the Middle East endures an extraordinary political convulsion.
Delhi, which saw Obama build on Bush’s strategic initiative towards India, has no dog in the presumed fight on foreign policy between the Democrats and Republicans in this election. There is no argument between the two candidates on the US relationship with India. Delhi has become comfortable doing business with Obama and should have little difficulty in working with Romney.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi for which this paper was written)