Monday, October 17, 2011

Huntsman's "America First" v. Romney's "American Century"

My previous post took Mitt Romney to task for his foreign policy address. The crux of my objection was not policy, it was politics: Romney cast doubt on the president's patriotism.

Romney said:
This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President.

You have that President today.
Contrast Romney's language with this line from Jon Huntsman's foreign policy address this past week:
President Obama’s policies have weakened America, and thus diminished America’s presence on the global stage.
Both are critical of the president. But Huntsman was careful to talk about policy, not intention. He talked about results of policies. This is the difference between a statesman and a demagogue.

I think Huntsman is wrong on the substance. But I respect the fact that, unlike Romney, he did not pander to those Chris Christie called "the crazies."

On policy grounds, Huntsman's speech is interesting for the way it tries to negotiate two different strains within the Republican party: cold war era internationalism and pre-World War II "America First" isolationism. Ultimately, I think he comes down more on the side of the latter.

Hunstman offers "five planks which will comprise my administration’s foreign policy." It is more than a little note-worthy that he starts with this statement: "First and foremost, we must rebuild America’s core."

Hunstman does not equivocate here: domestic strength comes first. Not only that, he also uses a phrase few Republicans (beside Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan) have recently uttered: "fixing America first … that will be my most urgent priority."

"America First." I think Huntsman is too smart to have done this inadvertently. He seems to be consciously evoking the group led by Charles Lindbergh in 1940-1941, which opposed active American participation in the war in Europe.

Then, however, Huntsman seems to evokes the rhetoric of the neo-conservatives of recent years: "Today, we need a foreign policy based on expansion." That resemblance, however, strikes me as fleeting only, because Huntsman goes on to explain that this particular "expansion" means "the expansion of America’s competitiveness and engagement in the world through partnerships and trade agreements."

In short, it is rather like the attitude of the early Republic: that American engagement with the world should be primarily economic, not political and military.

When Huntsman goes on to argue that Americans "must right-size our current foreign entanglements," and that "it is time to bring our brave troops home," it is clear that he is for effectively abandoning the neo-conservative democracy-building project of the George W. Bush years:
Only Pakistan can save Pakistan.
Only Afghanistan can save Afghanistan.
And right now we should focus on America saving America.
Finally, much like many midwestern Republicans did the in pre-World War II and early cold war eras, Huntsman focuses on Asia. This is hardly surprising, given that he is fluent in Mandarin and was the American ambassador to China during the first two years of the Obama administration:
I have come to believe that we are embarking on a Pacific Century … in which America must and will play a dominant role. By almost any objective measure – population, economic power, military might, energy use – the center of gravity of global human activity is moving toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Huntsman is undoubtedly right here. Huntsman seems to grasp the larger picture: that we are entering a new era in world history.

By contrast, Romney's vision seems limited to little more than the potential Chinese military threat:
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 this instance, I see a major clear-cut difference between Hunstman and Romney. The former sees challenges in the world, while the latter sees mostly threats. Romney's address is a list of potential dangers (whose main purpose seems to be to create a sense of alarm), the answer to which is disappointingly simplistic: a "strategy of American strength."

Strength is not a strategy. Strength is a means, not an end. And what is Romney's end? Another "American Century."

This is remarkably superficial for someone who wants to be president. While Huntsman correctly notes that Americans already "spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined," Romney talks about a larger navy--without offering any strategic doctrine that explains the need and utility of that larger navy.

Romney gives lip service to the idea that the world has changed since the end of the cold war, but shows no sign that he's thought much about what that means practically. Huntsman sees a need for change:
We still have remnants of a top-heavy, post-Cold War infrastructure. It needs to be transformed to reflect the 21st Century world, and the growing asymmetric threats we face.
Finally, the shallowness of thought in Romney's speech is perhaps best exemplified by this statement: "Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable." Again, this is not a strategy. How would Romney prevent it? He does not say. He simply declares it "unacceptable." Evidently the mere existence of a bigger American navy will take care of that automatically.

By contrast, Huntsman said in his address: "I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would consider the use of American force, it would be that." While I have grave doubts about the utility of force in solving this particular dilemma, at least Huntsman faces the logical consequence of declaring a situation "unacceptable."

This comparison of these speeches by Huntsman and Romney is dispiriting for those of us who believe foreign policy should have a central place in a presidential campaign. The more substantive speech comes from the candidate who can't seem to gain any traction in the polls, while the supposed front-runner's address is a crude mix of demagoguery, pandering, and jingoism. The more thoughtful candidate also seems to want to return to an earlier era in which the United States did not have to pledge to "bear any burden" internationally. The shallow candidate seems to want the United States to play a leading role in the world, but seems incapable of imagining a way for it to do so that entails anything other than more spending on weapons.

If this is the best the GOP can do, President Obama looks better all the time.

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