Call it the “friend-enemy” distinction.
Mitt Romney has assembled a foreign-policy platform rooted in the belief that adversaries such as Russia must be confronted for backsliding on democracy and that Israel must be supported in the face of common threats such as a nuclear-armed Iran.
Advisers to the former Massachusetts governor contrast that approach and a belief in “American exceptionalism” with those of President Obama, whose foreign policy they characterize as putting its energy into trying to bargain with enemies while taking friends for granted.
“Obama believes that no, you start with your enemies, you see where you can cut deals and negotiate,” said Mr. Cohen, who heads the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “Under the Obama approach, your friends are kind of an afterthought, and in some cases, if its useful to rough up your friends a little bit, you do that, too.”
As an example of the latter, Mr. Cohen cited Mr. Obama’s awkward relations with Israel. He also said the administration’s foundering “reset” with Russia, its initial overtures to Iran and its 2010 appointment of an ambassador to Syria all showed how fruitless it is to try to cut deals with adversaries.
If Mr. Romney wins the presidential election in November, his foreign policy will be anchored to what one adviser describes as a “Reaganesque” philosophy that a robust U.S. military conveys as much meaning to those watching from abroad as to the men and women of the armed services at home.
“My experience with Mitt Romney is that he believes strongly in peace through strength,” said Richard S. Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign who held key positions under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
“I had the privilege of working on Reagan’s senior White House staff, and so I had a pretty good sense of the man,” said Mr. Williamson. “I find Romney very similar in his approach. I would say Romney’s view is very Reaganesque.”
The former Massachusetts governor “believes strongly in American exceptionalism, that America is a great country and the world is a better place if America leads,” Mr. Williamson said. “This is a huge contrast with Barack Obama. I don’t think anyone would argue that Mr. Obama believes in American exceptionalism. He believes that you should ‘lead from behind,’ whatever the heck that means.”
But while Mr. Romney has compiled a star-studded roster of nearly two dozen foreign policy advisers, the vast majority are known more for their alignment with post-9/11 foreign policy of George W. Bush than the Cold War-era Reagan administration. Mr. Williamson is one of only a few whose resumes reach back to that time.
Others, including former counterterrorism chief Cofer Black, former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, are more known for service under George W. Bush — leaving open the possibility that Mr. Romney is as inclined to embrace a Bush-style “with us or against us” foreign policy as anything else.
Such assertions offer a broad-stroke outline of how the Romney camp thinks U.S. foreign policy should be adjusted but sheds little light on what, precisely, Mr. Romney would do differently.
More neutral analysts, not tied to the Romney campaign, say this is his weak point.
“Rather than taking clear positions, there’s a lot of political positioning critical of Obama, but not really offering any clarity about what he would do differently on key foreign policy issues like Iran, Afghanistan and Israel,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
“My analysis on this is that the Romney camp, and Republicans more generally, are struggling to deal with sharp divisions within their own party on foreign policy,” Mr. Katulis said. “One key camp is small-government proponents like the tea party and tax-cut advocates calling for a much smaller military, and the other is the defense hawks and neocons who are calling for even an expansion in defense spending.”
As a result, Mr. Romney has developed a penchant for embracing rhetoric over substance when it comes to foreign policy, Mr. Katulis said, going on to accuse Mr. Romney and his advisers of exaggerating Mr. Obama’s dovishness.
“The most recent, clearest example was Romney’s statement in mid-June when asked what he would do on Israel. He said he would do the exact opposite of what Obama has done,” Mr. Katulis said. “If Romney really wanted to do the opposite of what Obama has done on Israel that would mean he would vote in favor of supporting the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.”
Romney staffers flatly dismiss such claims.
“Barack Obama’s policy toward Israel in the last four years — from repeatedly offering up to Congress budget cuts for missile-defense cooperation with Israel to saying that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have to start with the indefensible 1967 borders — has resulted in chilled relations between the United States and our closest alley,” said Alex Wong, the campaign’s foreign policy director.
“What Mr. Romney meant is that, should he become president, he will wholeheartedly support Israel,” Mr. Wong said. “His first trip as president will be to Israel to send a message to the world that our relationship is rock solid, and he will basically reverse the policy of putting down our ally, which has been the basis of Barack Obama’s policy.”
Mr. Wong stressed other areas where Mr. Romney’s foreign policy differs clearly, and specifically, from Mr. Obama’s.
“In Afghanistan, while Mr. Romney agrees with 2014 as a realistic time frame for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, he simply would not have announced the withdrawal date ahead of time the way that Mr. Obama did,” Mr. Wong said.
“In Iran, Mr. Romney would have stood up for Iranian dissidents who demonstrated against their government during the 2009 Green Movement,” he said. “Obama said he wasn’t about to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs for fear of endangering his ‘no preconditions’ engagement policy. That policy ultimately failed.”
Mr. Romney also would “send a message to the ayatollahs that we are serious about the military option in order to stop their nuclear arms program,” said Mr. Wong. “To make that clear, we would establish a permanent presence of U.S. aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region.”
The presumptive Republican nominee has also has promised to reverse Obama-era defense budget cuts with the goal of setting core defense spending at a floor of 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Critics contend some of the Romney camp’s positions are more bluster than backbone, particularly since the Obama administration’s proposed defense spending cuts put the defense budget at 4.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product by 2015.
While the U.S.-Israel relationship has faced rhetorical strain under Mr. Obama, the administration has increased security-related assistance to Israel. It also has maintained the presence of aircraft carriers, albeit not “permanent,” in the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf.
But Mr. Romney has been verifiably more aggressive than the Obama administration on Syria. While it’s unclear whether he would back a U.S. or NATO-led military intervention in Syria, he asserted recently that the United States “should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves” — a strategy the administration has repeatedly said that it does not support.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Romney has raised the eyebrows of critics and supporters alike with variety of other aggressive foreign policy assertions.
He has vowed to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, asserted that the U.S. should not negotiate with the Taliban but “go anywhere they are and kill them,” and described Russia as America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Mr. Romney also came out strongly against the signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.
“What Mr. Romney is doing is trying to indicate that he’s accepting all the positions in the Republican Party and casting as wide a net as possible to gather as much support as he can in the primaries,” said Joseph Nye, who served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration.
“The question is, where is he really?” said Mr. Nye, now a Harvard University professor credited with coining the phrase “soft power” to describe the importance of nonmilitary foreign policy initiatives.
“My hunch, having watched Romney as governor of Massachusetts, is that he would probably come out somewhere in the middle,” said Mr. Nye, whose 2004 book “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics,” has no doubt been on Mr. Romney’s reading list.
As the nonpartisan Global Leadership Coalition points out on its website, Mr. Romney’s own book, “No Apology,” asserted in 2010 that “America must act decisively to build and exercise greater soft power.”
Recent months have seen Mr. Romney’s advisers embrace a slightly firmer posture. His campaign “white paper” on foreign policy asserted that “the tools of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power must work together to be effective. They are compliments not substitutes for one another.
“I think Romney would be willing to be confrontational when necessary, but I think the basic inclination of a Romney policy would be first consolidate your alliance relationships, whoever it is, whether it be the Australians, the British, the Japanese or the Israelis, and let them know that you’re in their corner and that you’re standing beside them,” said Mr. Cohen.
But, he added, Mr. Romney is “an American’s American.”
“He does not come in with a defensive view of the United States, or of the United States being in decline and having to manage that decline.”