An odd thing happened Tuesday: Both presidential candidates gave major speeches on foreign policy, a rarity in an election dominated almost entirely by domestic issues.
This much was revealed by the competing addresses: Barack Obama’s, to the U.N. General Assembly, was a speech worthy of a president; Mitt Romney’s, at the Clinton Global Initiative, was the pep talk of a provincial banker who’s perplexed that the rest of the world just doesn’t get with the program.
Romney’s premise was that, for all “our passion for charity,” foreign aid doesn’t work: The money often gets funneled to corrupt governments, and even when it doesn’t, the poor countries stay poor. Better, he said, to focus on boosting private investment and promoting free enterprise.
In one sense, the point is obvious, so much so that I can’t think of a single senior Obama official who would disagree. Romney implicitly acknowledged this when he noted that “82 percent of the resources that flow to developing nations come from the private sector, not the government sector,” up from 30 percent several decades ago.
The major flaw in Romney’s speech is that it presents foreign aid and private investment as either/or propositions, when in fact they serve two distinct functions.
Even Romney acknowledged that foreign aid has two “quite legitimate” objectives: humanitarian assistance and the promotion of U.S. security interests. Though Romney didn’t say so, the former often abets the latter. For instance, in 2004, international polls showed that Muslims’ support for Osama Bin Laden sharply declined after the United States helped victims of the tsunami in Indonesia, whose population is mostly Muslim.
It is true that, over the long haul, foreign aid can go only so far. The major obstacles in many countries, especially in the Middle East, are the lack of jobs for young men and the absence of institutions to lure and sustain private investment.
Romney’s proposal is to link foreign aid and private investment, but it’s not at all clear how this would work. Here is how he described his plan in the Clinton Global Initiative speech:
To foster work and enterprise in the Middle East and other developing countries, I will initiate something I’ll call Prosperity Pacts. Working with the private sector, the program will identify the barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurship and entrepreneurialism in developing countries. And in exchange for removing those barriers and opening markets to U.S. investment and trade, developing nations will receive U.S. assistance packages focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law and property rights.
Here’s the mystery: Why does Romney think the leaders of such countries want our advice on liberty, law, and property rights, much less that they would view this advice as the reward for opening up their markets to U.S. companies? The proposition is especially doubtful, given that other powers, for instance China, are willing to invest without regard to a country’s commitment to political pluralism or the rule of law.
Romney’s underlying point has some validity: that as a country opens itself up to the world, it not only imports goods and services; it also, over time, tends to absorb (though often fitfully and unevenly) the values and ideas from these other parts of the world as well. But he doesn’t seem to recognize that this subtler transaction cannot be imposed as part of the deal; it takes time to emerge, and does so, if at all, with local twists and flavors that can’t be anticipated and might not be to our advantage.
The unstated premise of Romney’s plan is that the leaders and people in these countries want to be like us, to the point where they’d even drop their trade barriers in exchange for America’s instruction.
George W. Bush based his “freedom agenda,” in early 2004, on a similar assumption: that democracy is the natural state of mankind and that it blossoms spontaneously once a dictatorship is toppled. Bush saw elections as freedom’s vehicle, while Romney sees capitalism as the agent. Either way, the two share the notion that the transference is direct and immediate, like a lightning bolt.
President Obama’s U.N. speech harbors no such illusions. At first glance, Obama may seem to share Bush’s premise, declaring that “freedom and self-determination” are “not simply American values or Western values” but “universal values” and that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.”
But Obama also realizes that this road is often laced with “turmoil”; that “transitions to a new political order” produce “convulsions”; that “true democracy, real democracy is hard work.” The road doesn’t “end with the casting of a ballot.” Rulers will be tempted, in crises, to crack down on dissidents or to “rally the people around perceived enemies” rather than focus “on the painstaking work of reform.”
Speaking of the anti-Muslim video that sparked violence in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere, Obama said he recognizes that not all countries share the American concept of freedom of speech. But, he added, in the era of cell phones and the Internet, “the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.”
Besides, he noted to spirited applause, “There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents … no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.”
The real conflict going on in the world, especially in the Middle East, he said, is between those who want to angle onto the road to democracy and those who want to blow it up—“a choice,” Obama put it, “between the promise of the future or the prisons of the past.”
This was no “apology” for American values; it was a realistic assertion of their power and appeal. It was in fact an invitation—a demand—for the world’s leaders, especially those facing militant challenges within their own borders, to step up and choose sides, to set a course.
“No government or company, no school or NGO will be confident working in a country where its people are endangered,” Obama said. “For partnerships to be effective, our citizens must be secure and our efforts must be welcome.”
This is a simple fact, not a threat, and it’s a far more potent incentive than the dangled carrots of Romney’s Prosperity Pacts. Obama added, “America stands ready to work with all who are willing to embrace a better future.” He said nothing about what other countries had to do to earn our largesse. He certainly said nothing about teaching them how to run their economies. There is no such agenda because Obama seems to know that there can’t be, that disparate countries—with disparate societies and political systems—can find common ground in common battles.
Romney’s speech, at its best moments, was a sidebar to a broader statement about the nature, scope, and prospects of today’s global crises. Obama’s speech was that statement.