On foreign aid, Romney said, “I will make it clear to the recipients of our aid that, in return for our material support, they must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government,” including the protection of rights for women and minorities, free media, and an independent judiciary. He seems not to realize that the United States hands out aid to promote U.S. interests, not just the recipient’s needs, and that our own leverage has limits: If an allied government doesn’t want to make this deal, it can go elsewhere.
Romney’s line on Syria was very delicately phrased: “I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.” (Italics added.) First, and again, it’s unclear any of the rebels “share our values.” Second, it’s unclear whether, once the good guys among the rebels (a.k.a. the non-Islamists) get these heavy arms, they won’t share them with their Islamist brothers. Third, he left unclear where the rebels will “obtain” these heavy arms. More to the point, he didn’t say that he would provide them. So what would he do that Obama hasn’t? He didn’t say, perhaps because he doesn’t know.
On Afghanistan, Romney seemed simply muddled. First, he said, “I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.” Then he denounced Obama’s “politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country.” But Obama’s policy also calls for pursuing a transition to the Afghan forces by the end of 2014. In fact, this is official NATO policy—and a policy that Afghan President Hamid Karzai supports, even demands. So what would Romney do differently?
Then Romney restated his main theme: “There is a longing for American leadership.” Everywhere, “the question is asked: ‘Where does America stand?’ ” He especially raised concerns about Asia, where “China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region.”
Again, one wonders what world Romney is watching. In Asia, Obama has responded, even taken the initiative, renewing security arrangements with Japan, sending Marines to Australia, stepping up joint naval patrols, challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, while also seeking cooperative forums with the Chinese military. The defense analyst Robert Kaplan (no relation), one of the first to warn of Chinese ambitions, said at a panel sponsored by the New America Foundation that the Obama administration was doing pretty much all that needed to be done—both in its activities and in its shipbuilding program.
Finally, Romney proclaimed, “The 21st century can and must be an American century.” This is where he and his advisers, many of them Bush-Cheney neo-cons, share a dangerous assumption about the world. They seem to believe that the United States can wield the same force and influence it did during the Cold War, if only a strong president sat in the White House again. Yet the rise of American power after World War II was facilitated by the geopolitics of the day: a bipolar international system, a faceoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, with much of the rest of the world choosing, or falling into, one camp or the other. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded, this international system collapsed as well—and, as yet, nothing has taken its place. Power has dispersed as power-centers have weakened.
As he has on other occasions, Romney asserted that a president must “use America’s great power to shape history,” not to let events shape America. But the fact is there are no superpowers in today’s world; no country has as much power to shape history—or as little immunity to the influences of others—as America did in the Cold War era. To exercise true leadership, a president must come to grips with the limits of his or her power. This has nothing to do with notions of “American decline.” It has to do with the shattering of the Cold War world.
Romney is right that, in some cases, most notably Syria, Obama has not done as much as he might have to influence the course of events. However, there is almost nothing in Romney’s speech to suggest that he would do better—and a great deal to indicate he’d do much worse.