We do not know much about the specifics of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy. All we know is that it is going to be tough. Really tough. Tougher than Obama’s. Romney has criticised the president for being soft on Iran, not standing up for Israel, hesitating in Syria, leaving Russia unchecked, not prioritising Chavez in Venezuela, and failing to show global American leadership and strength. It is clear that for Romney, carrying a big stick is not enough if you speak softly.
Strong rhetoric is common for opposition candidates, whether Democrat or Republican, and while Romney has yet to substantiate his specific policies and goals, his hawkish statements have led to a setback abroad with criticism from various government, including his conservative colleagues in Britain. Even if his tour was mainly concerned with the election at home, Romney’s first steps on the international scene have not helped his campaign. He would do well to look to one of his party’s most popular and well-respected former presidents for guidance on how to formulate a strong foreign policy successfully.
Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency on the back of an impressive military career as a five-star general in the US army, and as supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Having spent his entire career in the army, Ike had a keen understanding of the use of force, and drivers of foreign policy. While often mistakenly being criticised for being passive while in office, Ike demonstrated excellent foreign policy skills. He stood strong on his priorities and preserved US influence, while reducing defence spending significantly. In fact, he was the last president since Bill Clinton to leave the US budget in black figures. His presidency stands as an excellent example of how an assertive and strong foreign policy can succeed without grandiose speeches and belligerent rhetoric.
If Romney wins the presidency in November, he will have to look at cuts to reduce the US deficit. The bloated defence budget, which is already facing significant reductions, will probably have to be reduced further. With the mission in Afghanistan scheduled to end during the next presidency, there will be plenty of opportunities to save money on defence. Importantly, as Ike’s presidency demonstrated, reducing the defence budget does not necessarily result in a loss of influence. After winning armistice in Korea in 1953, Ike cut defence spending from 13 per cent to 9 per cent by the end of his office term. In his final address, he famously warned against the “military industrial complex”, by which he referred to the alliance between the military, the government, and its suppliers. He understood that vested interests close to the inner circles of government depended on exaggerating threats. Despite his military background, his very modest childhood in Kansas shaped his view of budgets and deficits. “One modern heavy bomber is this”, he said, “a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric plants, each serving a town of 60,000. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals”. During the last decade we saw clearly what Ike was warning against, with increased reliance on private contractors, uncontrollable defence budgets, and a soaring deficit. He did his best to counter this influence, and take every opportunity to reduce spending without jeopardising American security.
The end of the mission in Afghanistan will provide similar opportunities for a potential new Romney administration, which could use the opportunity to cut swollen budgets in other areas of defence. Even significant cuts in defence do not necessarily signal a loss of influence or leadership. Ike’s biggest strength was his personal confidence and understanding of the importance of restraint. In the uncertain and volatile environment of the early Cold War, defence reports often recommended aggressive and offensive foreign policies. Several advisors and bureaucracies repeatedly urged Ike to “do things the hard way” by launching a nuclear attack on China, to which he replied that “the hard way is to have the courage to be patient”. While Ike used the bomb to exert influence, he steadfastly refused to use it, because he understood the absurd consequences of such an action.
Similarly, when the famous Gaither Report painted a worrying picture of Soviets catching up, and exceeding US nuclear capabilities, he refused to be dragged into unnecessary escalation. The report suggested vast defence budget increases, including a real consideration of how to fight a limited nuclear war. Adding to the pressure was the fact that the report was presented just after the Soviets had launched the Sputnik satellite, signalling a technological advantage. However, Ike rejected the conclusions of the report. It underestimated the ability of the US forces that he knew so well. Besides, he saw little point in using tactical nuclear weapons to fight a war, and even less of a point in preparing for a world afterwards. Despite facing sternly worded criticism from the military and his key advisors, time was to prove Ike right, and his restrained approach to defence spending and force deployment served the US well, as it left him with resources to stand fast on priorities like protecting Berlin, thereby bolstering American credibility.
Romney’s focus on resolve and credibility shares this priority, but his rhetoric is very different. Underlying his criticism of the Obama Administration is an assumption that should have been disproved by the last decade of conflict, namely that the US military power can shape and manage the world as it wishes. Concerning the situation in Syria, he told CNBC: “America should’ve come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go”, before noting that America must “have the kind of resolve behind our application of soft and hard power [because] the world looks for American leadership and American strength”. Ike was a firm believer in using overwhelming force in battle, but would have cringed at the tone of Romney’s address. His entire presidency was devoted to a measured approach, which relied on steering clear of grandiose promises and proclamations. He understood the dangers of hubris, and the strategic and political setback caused by overstretching even the strong US military. He was notoriously tough and uncompromising on the foreign policy goals that he saw as important, and believed firmly in aggressive containment, but refused to let offensive temptations get the better of him. He wanted to avoid war at all cost, believing that the Cold War would best be settled in times of peace rather than on the battlefield. Times has once again proven him right. America did not win the Cold War on the battlefield, but by outperforming communism in factories, shops and plants.
Romney would do well to remember these lessons. A strong and assertive foreign policy may be best served by having realistic ambitions, picking your fights, and avoiding grandiose declarations and promises. American tax-payers and families have been paying the price for extravagant foreign policy adventures the last decade, without giving any administration much to show for it. Romney can still formulate a strong and assertive foreign policy, but should build on the prudent success of the Eisenhower administration rather than the hubris of the Bush Jr. administration, which his belligerent rhetoric is bound to prompt memories of.
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