The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Least Experienced Foreign Policy Ticket — Ever?

August 14, 2012

One of the defining features of the current era of globalization is the rise in uncertainty and complexity in global politics. There are more actors, more transactions, and more challenges as a result. In the face of this, the United States continues to spend more on national security – the military, intelligence, and homeland security – than almost all other countries in the world combined. And, yet it’s clear that as the world is becoming increasingly more complex, the United States’ ability to influence outcomes – as demonstrated by the Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global economic crisis among other issues – is clearly constrained.

Despite this, the Republican Party has just put forward one of the least experienced national security tickets by a major political party in history. With the possible exception of Harding/Coolidge in 1920, it’s hard to name a ticket in history that has less knowledge, practical experience, or specific, articulated vision of national security and global affairs than this one does. The general rule has long been that if the Presidential nominee has limited experience, he has chosen a running mate to offset the deficit. Romney didn’t do that.

I’m not suggesting that this means a Romney/Ryan administration would be a failure – we’ve had plenty of disasters with highly experienced Presidents and Vice Presidents. It’s just that going in to the fall, their combined lack of experience means that there are a lot of conflicting interpretations of Romney’s (and Ryan’s) worldview. Some have suggested that Romney and Ryan are close to traditional Republican internationalists, others don’t see any real gap between Romney and Obama, while others see the team as becoming more aligned with neoconservativism. Even conservatives – in their many shapes – disagree on what Romney and Ryan stand for.

So what might all this mean?

I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Saunders Leaders At War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions and Stephen G. Walker and Akan Malici’s U.S. Presidents and Foreign Policy Mistakes. Both books revisit the extensive literature on psychology and foreign policy and remind us of the importance of leaders’ perceptions and beliefs in their foreign policy decisionmaking. Saunders argues that how presidents decide when and where to use force and how to use that force comes from their interpretations of the origin and nature of threats. If the threat is seen as internal – inherent in the regime — she finds that presidents are inclined to use force for ambitious strategies such as regime change. If a president sees threats as emanating from the international or regional security environment, force is likely to be used to advanced a more restricted vision of strategic interests, but not regime change. For her, how a president interprets threat comes from the president’s deeper causal beliefs about the nature and source of power and history – much of which she argues can be discerned from analysis of the president’s belief systems prior to coming into office.

Smith and Malici similarly focus on the role of leaders’ belief systems and argue that most foreign policy mistakes occur when leaders misperceive the “power relationship between self and others” which “leads to mistaken calculations of costs and benefits regarding alternative strategies of statecraft and thereby to policy failures.” Again, leaders often cue the decisionmaking biases and the mistakes to which they are prone through their world views and causal belief systems.

If we think about these arguments with respect to the Romney/Ryan ticket we’re left with a puzzle: With their limited combined track record, we don’t really know what they believe.

To be sure, Romney clearly has given us a lot of platitudes in his speeches: “I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country.” And, both Romney and Ryan support the general Republican fare on American exceptionalism and that the U.S. military budgets need to be stronger, Israel needs more support, and Obama is weak.

But it’s not clear what these really mean or how their various speeches, or in the case of Paul Ryan his Congressional votes are likely to translate into specific, real-world policy responses to the global challenges out there.

Romney has been running for office for seven years now. Yet, in both the 2008 and the 2012 campaign, Romney has really tacked away from foreign policy discussions – he hardly mentioned the Iraq War in 2008, today he hardly mentions the war in Afghanistan. His October 2011 policy paper and his August VFW speech emphasize American exceptionalism and the potential challenges associated with China’s rise and with Russia, but aside from the elevated rhetoric it’s not clear what would be different on Iran, Russia, or China. We haven’t heard him articulate a position on what should be done in Syria. If we consider all of his promises and speeches, it’s not clear what we really get.

His highly touted foreign trip in July was, with all due respect, astonishingly amateurish. And, his more recent gaffe on Japan suggests that both the candidate and the campaign are still struggling with basic diplomatic and rhetorical protocols.

Much of the problem is that foreign policy and national security have been an afterthought for Romney. This isn’t really a surprise – we all know that this election will turn on the economy and his experience and skill set play to his vision for changes in U.S. economic policy.

But it is striking at how he’s essentially conceded the issue — at least to date. Organizationally, his campaign staff runs the day-to-day management of foreign policy development. He does not have an established, senior foreign policy advisor traveling with him, advising him on a daily basis or talking to the press. As a result, the organization, the substance, the message, and the candidate have lacked cohesion and vision.

He isn’t helped by the intra-party feuding that continues within the Republican Party. Romney’s campaign has assembled a broad circle of advisers that includes neoconservatives and Republican internationalists. Their only reported joint meeting apparently ended in an argument about the future of Afghanistan. The campaign’s response was that Romney encourages active debate among his advisers. But, George W. Bush lost control of his national security decisionmaking process because he wasn’t able to control the feuding between the two camps.

It recent weeks it appears that when push has come to shove between these camps – which it almost always does – Romney and his campaign are turning more and more to the “Cheneyites” and the neocons. His selection of Robert Zoellick last week was seen by some as a measured response to the wavering ship – to add some foreign policy heft and traditional Republican internationalist moderation to the foreign policy team, but the announcement was met with such intense and critical push-back from the neocons that the campaign went to great lengths to portray Zoellick as simply helping with the normal pre-election transition vetting process and to re-assure the critics that there is a firewall between Zoellick and the campaign’s policy development.

So we are left with this. As we enter the fall campaign, Romney’s foreign policy views are being shaped not by a coherent, long-standing world-view or causal beliefs about the nature of power, the utility of force, or the nature and source of threats, but by political expediency. His foreign policy views appear to be emerging out of campaign strategy – with the singular goal of distancing himself from President Obama. The gist of all of this is that we really don’t know what we are likely to get. Would a Romney/Ryan administration embrace the neocons’ view of the world – with their focus on the ubiquity of existential threats, their belief in the efficacy and utility of force, and their ambitions for U.S. support for regime change in places like Iran and Syria? Or would a Romney/Ryan administration be more likely to embrace more traditional Republic internationalism relying on existing institutions and a wider range of instruments of statecraft to manage American interests?

All things considered, and in light of the foreign policy mistakes over the past decade and the challenges that lie ahead, these are pretty big questions to still be lingering this late in a campaign.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.