The Duck of Minerva

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Romney’s Russia Card

July 31, 2012

You may have heard that Romney referred to Russia as America’s “number-one geopolitical foe” and plans to double down on this rhetoric during his big speech in Poland.

The speech on the “values of liberty” at Warsaw University on Tuesday is expected to seek to rekindle the flames of US cold war righteousness by featuring a strong attack on Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s rollback of democratic gains, while also criticising the US president, Barack Obama, for allegedly sacrificing the interests and security of central European democracy in favour of realpolitik with the Kremlin. 

Romney has previously described Russia as America’s “No 1 geopolitical foe”, in contrast with Obama, who has sought to press “the reset button” in relations with Moscow.

I’ve seen a lot of speculation to the effect of “WTF” “what is this all about?” Here are some possible (non-exclusive) answers:

  • Romney’s foreign-policy advisors think that strong anti-Russia rhetoric will resonate well among NATO’s east-most members and thus burnish his plausibility as a future Commander-in-Chief. This isn’t completely wrongheaded, but I think they overestimate the lasting damage caused by the Obama Administration’s botched announcement of PHAAD — and consequent termination of the Polish BMD site — as well as the centrality of Russia policy to Polish views of Obama. Regardless, most foreign-policy rhetoric during political campaigns is about US domestic politics.
  • Romney is increasingly steeped in the foreign-policy worldview of the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party. Believe it or not, the conservative commentariat–and the “informed base”–is convinced that Obama is intent on selling out US national-security interests to Moscow. They see Obama’s hot-mike comment to Medvedev about “political flexibility”after the election as both a big deal and extremely sinister. Indeed, the Russia “reset” runs directly counter to what I’ve called neoconservatism 3.0 — a recasting of the great ideological struggle away from Islamism to the ‘axis of authoritarianism’, of which Russia is a major hub. A number of Romney’s foreign-policy advisors subscribe to this worldview.
  • Russia is a politically savvy “enemy” for Romney. Treating Moscow as America’s greatest rival fits with the anti-Obama contrarianism of the current Republican party — the “if Obama is for it then we are against it” impulse that has led countless party officials to renounce policies they supported as recently as 2008 and 2009 — and it doesn’t alienate any major domestic constituency. It provides a clear line of contrast for Romney, as well as attack. After all, even if the “Reset” achieved many of its objectives it has so far failed in its ultimate goal of weaning Moscow from its traditional realpolitik approach to its “near abroad” and otherwise dialing back its revisionist impulses toward aspects of the current world order. And, at the end of the day, it isn’t as if many older American don’t have a reflexive view of Russia as a rival.
  • It reflects the discomforting proposition that Romney suffers from financialsectoritis when it comes to foreign policy, i.e., the conflation of his own experiences in the business world with fundamental truths about the human condition… including geopolitics. You know the drill: some people who are (1) very good at working with economic assets and (2) spend most of their formative adult years working with economic assets (3) become convinced that everything comes down to economic assets. As Dan Drezner quoted from the New York Times: “Some advisers close to Mr. Romney, who declined to be quoted or identified by name, say Russia is a good illustration of his belief that national security threats are closely tied to economic power — in this case stemming from Russia’s oil and gas reserves, which it has used to muscle European countries dependent on energy imports.”
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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.