Romney’s Citadel Speech
October 8, 2011
So, if you didn’t notice the massive blitz of Mitt Romney related foreign policy declarations, the former governor of my home state has decided that this election’s theme is a serious foreign policy, or something like that. Granted, this makes sense as a line for Romney to take in a certain way, since anyone who’s serious about politics in Massachusetts is not going to go far without making decisions on economic and social policy that perturb the average voter in a GOP primary. But defense and foreign policy has no embarrassing record to undermine it.
There’s a lot not to like here, such as the fact that Romney’s foreign policy team includes, inter alia, a former member of the Lebanese Forces and associate of the founder of the Guardians of the Cedar. I’ll stick to Romney’s speech at the Citadel, which, while perhaps more impressive than the rest of the pack has come up with, ranges from tired cliché to bewildering incomprehensibility.
Let’s start with Romney’s doom scenario for the United States:
Will Iran be a fully activated nuclear weapons state, threatening its neighbors, dominating the world’s oil supply with a stranglehold on the Strait of Hormuz? In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.
Actually, Iran already can “blackmail the world” by closing the Strait of Hormuz, which is why antagonizing it with fruitless visions of regime change might not be a particularly good idea, or why the consequences of trying to launch a military strike to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability might be similarly unacceptable. There is simply no evidence that Iran’s entire leadership is “suicidal,” even if they are willing to cynically exploit more fanatical members of Iranian society for their own military ends. Mao, who openly spoke of the plausibility of losing hundreds of millions of Chinese and who prepared to actually survive and win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union by building underground grain stores, had similarly “suicidal” impulses, and yet he too was subject to deterrence.
In Afghanistan, after the United States and NATO have withdrawn all forces, will the Taliban find a path back to power? After over a decade of American sacrifice in treasure and blood, will the country sink back into the medieval terrors of fundamentalist rule and the mullahs again open a sanctuary for terrorists?
Well, aside from believing that sacrificing more US blood and treasure is the only way to honor the fallen which preceded it, and would override the national interest and strategic realities on the ground, Romney might note that terrorists already have plenty of open sanctuaries, the vast majority of which will be totally unaffected by even the most herculean efforts to secure Afghanistan. Romney’s next point is about the need to prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state, but there appears to be no acknowledgement about the massively destabilizing effects US policy in Afghanistan has had on the country.
China has made it clear that it intends to be a military and economic superpower. Will her rulers lead their people to a new era of freedom and prosperity or will they go down a darker path, intimidating their neighbors, brushing aside an inferior American Navy in the Pacific, and building a global alliance of authoritarian states?
In short: no. Just because China is an authoritarian state does not mean it harbors desires to take over the world. While China’s growing power is certainly something to be reckoned with, the fantasy scenario Romney paints here of China brushing aside an inferior American Navy is totally absurd. China’s power projection capability consists of port stops in the Indian Ocean to fight Somali pirates and a refurbished, non-nuclear ex-Soviet carrier which does not even have a meaningful battle group. The United States, even in the most dire scenarios, will probably maintain around 8 carrier battle groups. China may, if its two nuclear CVNs beginning construction go off as planned, have three eventually.
There’s the usual line about Russia seeking to rebuild the Soviet Union, despite the fact that Russia’s military modernization process has made the limits of its power quite clear. But Romney fails to realize that Russian influence in Central Asia, at least, is at odds with China’s. Unfortunately, thanks to his Manichean vision of the balance of power in which all the authoritarian states gang up on the democratic ones, there’s no understanding of the ways in which these supposed “global allies” will actually oppose each others interests at various turns, which the US could exploit if it was willing to recognize that trying to oppose all of these regimes everywhere was a fruitless squandering of American power.
I’m barely going to touch the lunatic idea about Venezuela and Cuba posing a serious threat to the Western Hemisphere, which I guess makes sense if you liked Red Dawn for the IR theory. Why didn’t Romney also mention Humala’s threat to revive the Peru-Bolivian Confederation? Appeaser.
Well, on to the solution to Romney’s dystopian EPCOT center of hypothetical threats.
But I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Well, wanting America to have the world’s strongest military isn’t an entirely unreasonable goal, although having the world’s largest economy will be somewhat difficult given the vast size of China.
While I’m extremely curious to hear more about Romney’s interlocution with the Creator on matters of IR theory, I will submit that Romney does not understand what multipolarity actually means in the modern international system. The sentence “America must lead the world, or someone else will,” is quite simply false. In fact, the historical norm is that nobody leads the world. For the vast majority of its history, several loosely-affiliated balance of power systems existed in parallel, with the strongest power in each never maintaining global sway. Even with the advent of naval exploration and imperialism, no single power ever lead the whole world. Britain may have always been the preeminent colonial empire, but it never held that kind of sway within the European continent itself. The United States really was the first truly global hegemon to experience a period of leadership without serious peer competition.
While there will be other great powers, simply because the US can no longer dominate all of them simultaneously does not imply any country or combination of countries could step up to take the mantle that the US has. To say “someone else will” do what America does now implies, at a basic material level, there are countries that really can independently project power against foreign states on the other side of the globe. Name one, Romney. China will not have carrier battle groups able to guarantee the independence of Hawaii or linger in the Caribbean to challenge US claims on Puerto Rico. Russia will not be able to maintain large contingents of troops in Central America.
There are some foreign policy issues on which reasonable people can disagree – the degree of instability that might result from a non-hegemonic US grand strategy, as Romney alludes to, is one of them. The prospects for powers or combinations of powers seeking to “lead the world” as America has for the past 20 years is not. The historical record is that any country or group of countries strong enough to make a gambit for world supremacy, as the Axis powers did in WWII, will long provoke an on-shore military conflict in Eurasia before the US even needs to intervene.
This is hardly a notion uncontroversial to the American founding fathers. Hamilton and others noted that America’s unique geographic circumstances, far from the war-prone great powers of Europe (and now Eurasia too), would allow it to build an ordered, peaceful commercial republic. America’s advantage was that it would not need a standing army (though it would need a navy), and build its liberty and prosperity through its fortunate distance from the fear of conquest and war living within a balance of power system imposed. This strategy does not mean isolationism, but it does mean understanding the balance of power and multipolarity’s implications – and advantages – for American foreign policy.
Most American politicians, including Romney, don’t like to admit it, but American leadership over the European great powers was made possible primarily by America taking advantage of their massive bloodletting during the First and Second World Wars. The decline of the British maritime empire, the destruction of the German continental empire, and the delaying of the USSR’s ascent through its truly titanic struggle on the Eastern Front left a world in which the US was the last power standing. It sufficed for the US to defeat Japan and contribute just enough military, logistical, and diplomatic support in Western Europe to save it from fascism and communism without restoring it as an independent pole of geopolitical influence and power.
In effect, the opportunity for American leadership was built out of the enormous violence, chaos, and misery of the first half of the 20th century. America did not become the sole Western superpower because it was destined to by its virtue – it actually had to compromise many of them by allying with the contemptible Stalin, limiting de-Nazification, and encouraging the dismemberment of its allies’ empires (the last of which shows that sometimes America’s ideals mean being tough on its friends, something modern candidates would do well to acknowledge).
That’s not a misconception unique to Romney, though, but it’s one any statesman with grand designs for American power ought to dispel.
Let’s go to his prescriptions. They include essentially zero serious defense cuts, advocating the simultaneous increase of the annual shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 along with adding 100,000 men to the US military, despite exhortations in the speech to avoid the need to police the world through proactive diplomacy.
Romney, despite believing that Iran is full of suicidal fanatics who can’t be deterred if they get a nuclear weapon, and fearful of Chinese naval power, thinks that demanding a carrier presence in the Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean is an appropriate use of US resources. This is, quite simply, not a good use of the US Navy. While the decision to deploy a carrier in the Gulf makes some sort of sense, the presence of a carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean is not commensurate with our day-to-day interests and threats to them in the region. It would, in fact, reduce the ability of the USN to allocate resources against more serious challenges to US power.
Shockingly, somebody being advised by the guy who wrote Supreme Command still managed to put this howler in his speech:
The force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully is a decision I will make free from politics.
So, while Romney may have a more coherent foreign policy than a candidate whose claim to fame is selling pizza, it is not a good reflection on the state of US politics that this is the state of “serious” foreign policy thinking in the United States. Maybe the white paper – which Cohen presumably had a greater hand in writing – will be more satisfying. Drezner analogizes this to the classic “faster than you” joke about the bear and notes Romney is an Olympic Sprinter compared to Herman Cain and Rick Perry.
Well, I’d do the athletic analogy this way – in a field of candidates seeing how far they can get with as little foreign policy knowledge as possible, Romney is about as impressive as a guy who decides to jump over a low limbo stick rather than see if he can slide under it. It’s out of character with the rest of the party, maybe, and it keeps him from embarrassing himself by falling down, but it doesn’t mean you’d expect him to be any good at the high jump.