Mitt Romney’s “win” over President Obama in Wednesday’s presidential debate has lifted GOP hopes of victory on Election Day. A critical part of Governor Romney’s strategy to make that happen looks to be hammering Obama on foreign policy—he had a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week lambasting Obama’s Middle East policy, and he plans to give a major foreign policy address on Monday. So now is a good time to ask a question: How different would Romney’s foreign policy likely be from Obama’s?
Probably not much.
Yes, that answer runs contrary to the sturm und drang coming from the campaign trail. Both parties insist that a wide gulf separates the two men in world affairs. Romney says that his approach will vanquish the challenges that have stumped Obama. Democrats, for their part, repeatedly point to the many neoconservatives staffing the Romney campaign, implicitly suggesting that a Romney presidency means a return to George W. Bush circa 2002. And it’s not just the partisans arguing that Obama and Romney represent wildly different foreign policy visions. Journalists like to talk about “a stark divide on foreign policy” and Romney and Paul Ryan “having parroted the views of their neocon advisers.”
But here are three reasons why Romney’s foreign policy would likely end up looking a lot like Obama’s no matter how much hand waving and table thumping you witness over the next month:
First, foreign policy is hard to change. Presidents don’t make it solely as they please. They instead confront complex realities abroad and difficult politics at home that greatly narrow their choices. Just four years ago Democrats were trumpeting, and Republicans complaining, that Obama would “transform” American foreign policy. Today the tables are turned. Republicans are trumpeting, and Democrats complaining, that Obama’s foreign policy resembles George W. Bush’s second term. Guantanamo remains open, the Afghanistan war drags on, and drone strikes mount. The ambitions of the 2008 campaign yielded to the complications and trade-offs that characterize governance.
Second, despite the harsh campaign rhetoric and partisan jabs, Obama’s and Romney’s foreign policy views are broadly similar. A year ago journalists were trumpeting how an isolationist wave was washing over the Republican Party. And if Ron Paul had won the GOP nomination we would have a clash of foreign policy worldviews. But Romney is not Ron Paul. He is an internationalist with a strong pragmatic streak—much like Obama. The two men may not live in the same zip code when it comes to foreign policy, but they certainly reside in the same area code.
Third, while Romney hasn’t offered many specific foreign policy prescriptions, the ones he has offered look a lot like Obama’s. The governor sees the need to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, favors tougher sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and offers Syrian rebels kind words but no direct U.S. military support. In other words, current White House policy. The two significant foreign policy promises on which Romney does differ from Obama—spending far more on defense and punishing China as a currency manipulator—are also two vows that probably won’t last much past inauguration day. Dreams of bigger defense budgets clash with the cruel math of tax cuts and budget deficits, while common sense, or Chinese retaliation, will cool the current ardor for going toe-to-toe with Beijing on currency valuations.
None of this is to say that a Romney foreign policy would mirror Obama’s or that the results would be the same. A President Romney probably would not negotiate a new arms control treaty with Russia. (Then again, the odds are that Obama won’t either, or if he does, that any resulting agreement will languish in the Senate.) And a President Romney might tinker with missile defense plans, try new approaches to doling out foreign aid, or find himself embroiled in fewer public disputes with Israel’s prime minister. Moreover, many foreign policy choices are close calls. So even men with similar world views and pragmatic streaks can disagree about which is the right one, and even closely decided decisions can have immensely different consequences.
It is to say is that Campaign 2012 doesn’t present the American electorate with a stark foreign policy choice. The candidates are less stark alternatives than variations on a theme, and a basket of tough foreign policy problems awaits whoever wins on November 6. If that turns out to be Mitt Romney, he will quickly discover what Obama already knows: what is easy to promise on the campaign trail turns out to be exceedingly difficult to deliver once in office.