Until Friday, as I noted last month, foreign policy played a mostly indirect role in the 2012 election campaign. In a way, that is no surprise: U.S. elections are rarely won or lost on foreign policy. But considered another way, it is a surprise. There is less daylight than one might think between conservatives on domestic issues: no creditable Republican candidate campaigns for bigger government, more regulation, and higher taxes. Foreign policy offers all the candidates an opportunity to stake out distinctive ground in an area that belongs particularly to the Oval Office.
Moreover, while President Obama’s domestic policies have come in for intense criticism, he has at least passed major legislation. His volume of overseas accomplishments is less impressive, fundamentally because the administration came into office with a belief in “leading from behind.” But for conservatives, the virtues of speaking out on foreign policy are balanced by the fact that it is the open wound. John McCain lost in 2008 partly because of the financial crisis, but more fundamentally because the Iraq War had made the Republican Party vulnerable, even in a country with a plurality of self-described conservatives. Any Republican running in 2012 has to face the peril of raising the specter of Iraq, but also the promise of advancing views on foreign policy that reject Obama’s approach.
The first candidate to take up this challenge was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who gave a major speech on foreign policy on Friday. Of particular interest to British readers was Romney’s defense of the Special Relationship between America and Britain, and his broader support for America’s alliances, as opposed to Obama’s policy of trying to cozy up to places like Russia and Argentina at the expense of America’s friends.
More broadly, Romney emphasized his belief in American exceptionalism – the reality that America, unlike other nations, was founded on a particular set of ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence and secured by the Constitution – and its connection to American prosperity, strength, and values. There was more than a hint in Romney’s speech of what Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey recently described as “earned” exceptionalism: the correct belief that mentioning Ronald Reagan is not the same thing as actually having policies that work because they are based on America’s founding principles. The more firmly any Republican candidate can creditably define himself as the one who has both principles and a plan, the better off he will be.
One part of Romney’s speech that has drawn less attention is particularly significant. The Achilles heel of foreign policy for conservatives has been the question of nation-building. No conservative wants to accept an unlimited liability to assist foreign peoples, but condemnations of nation-building rarely explain what the U.S. is supposed to do after it acts militarily against a threat: the implicit idea that the U.S. can base its policy on a series of punitive raids is simply not creditable. In discussing Afghanistan, Romney stated that his goal was to “secure that nation’s sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban.” Romney will need to explain how securing sovereignty – a tried and true concept on which the U.S. was founded – differs from nation-building if he is to answer the core foreign policy question that has dogged conservatives since 2003.
The latest candidate to speak up was former Utah Governor, and former U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, who on Monday gave a foreign policy address in New Hampshire. Whereas Romney emphasized America’s partnerships with its traditional allies, like Britain, Huntsman gave greater weight to Latin America, to India, and to developing “a better and more effective approach to the China relationship.”
Huntsman, like Romney, emphasized his belief in American exceptionalism, a theme that has become common coin among American conservatives since President Obama issued his well-publicized dismissal of it in 2009. British readers may not understand why this belief has so much traction in the 2012 race. The answer is fundamentally that many American conservatives believe the country is at a turning point, and that it faces a choice between adhering to the American tradition of limited government or adopting the European welfare model. Exceptionalism has many implications for foreign policy, but it is fundamentally about domestic principles.
This certainly seems to be Huntsman’s view, for his emphasis is on domestic economic reform and trade liberalization as a way to “ensure we have the strength, the resources and the wherewithal to compete.” There is much to be said for this emphasis on the importance of getting America’s economy growing, and putting its budget in order, to American leadership. Without reform, America’s entitlement spending on health and retirement will steadily consume an ever-larger share of the federal budget, placing an irresistible squeeze on all discretionary spending, defense included. The challenge for Huntsman is to differentiate his emphasis on domestic reform and better relations with key rising powers from the approach of President Obama, who has emphasized similar themes. Indeed, in arguing that “on [the] 10th anniversary of war in Afghanistan, we shouldn’t be nation-building there when we have nation-building to do here at home,” he borrowed a theme from Obama’s June 2011 speech on Afghanistan.
The challenges facing U.S. foreign policy are broad, ranging from our need to understand and defend the value of sovereignty, to our need to preserve the economic, financial, and budgetary base for American leadership. But it reveals a lot about the centrality of the problem of ‘nation-building’ to the 2012 race that these broader challenges tend to be addressed in ways that implicitly go back to Iraq, 2003. That may not be the best way to understand the actual challenges. But it does appear that candidates have decided that it is the most effective way to make their case on foreign policy.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.