Still, the superpowers did tend to view the politics of “strategic regions” in that broader framework, and the leaders within those regions often acceded to the interests of one superpower, in order to stave off the other, or tried to play the two off each other.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the demise of the Cold War system, this wedge of entry is no longer open. This is not to say that the United States is a “declining power.” By every traditional measure of national power, the United States still dominates the rest of the world. But because the world has changed, those measures no longer translate so directly into influence. Or, to put it another way, the rules of the game, the dimensions of the playing field, have changed. The tokens of strength in the old game don’t have the same potency in the new one.
Obama seems to understand this (though, for obvious political reasons, he can’t say so directly); Romney and his people seem not to. In April, one of Romney’s top surrogates, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, told reporters that Obama was “withdrawing in leading the free world,” leaving us open to “huge new vulnerabilities.” Asked to cite an example, Lehman said, “We are seeing the Soviets pushing into the Arctic with no response from us.”
In one sense, the “mis-speak” (“Soviets” instead of “Russians”) can be forgiven; those of us who came of age during the Cold War have lingering attachments to its vocabulary. (In recent years, I have blithely referred to “West Germany” a few times in conversation, once in print.) But in this case, the anachronism reflects a mentality. Lehman and those of his ilk continue to view not just Russia but world politics as if the Soviet Union still existed. (What is he talking about, for instance, with this business of Russians or Soviets “pushing into the Arctic with no response from us”—how are they “pushing,” and what “response” is warranted?) World politics is no longer bipolar; the game of moves and countermoves is no longer zero-sum. Abrogating a particular playing field doesn’t necessarily mean a defeat for us or a victory for … whomever the “other” might be.
Which leads to Romney’s final complaint: that Obama’s foreign policies “have not communicated American strength and resolve.” It’s not clear what Romney means by this; he cites no examples. The one case in which he had to concede Obama did well—ordering the killing of Bin Laden—certainly communicates more strength and resolve than anything Bush did on that front. To the extent America’s image has been tarnished under Obama’s presidency, the main reason has to do with what some see as an excess of “strength and resolve”—the quintupling of drone attacks launched against targets in Pakistan, Sudan, and Somalia under Bush.
Which leads to some questions: What is Romney’s position on drone strikes? What’s his position on Afghanistan? During the Republican debates, he once said that his position was not to negotiate with the Taliban but to defeat them. What does that mean? Does he want to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops there after NATO’s 2014 deadline? To what end? Doing what? He also once said that military spending should consume at least 4 percent of gross domestic product. Obama’s most recent military budget ($525 billion, not counting the cost of the war in Afghanistan) amounts to 3 percent. So Romney intends to raise the budget by one-third, or by about $175 billion a year—by more than $1 trillion in the next six years. Where is he going to get the money? What’s he going to spend it on? No details. None.
Is Romney an extremist? Or, in keeping with the GOP approach to politics in general these days, has he simply calculated that it’s best not to agree with Obama on anything? Either way, one thing is clear: He is not a serious man.