VIEWPOINT: Why We Are Having The Wrong Debate On Foreign Policy

Our foreign policy debate makes no sense.

At last week’s town hall, the only foreign policy question, on the attack in Libya, devolved into a dispute over how long it took President Obama to call it terrorism. That isn’t even the sixth most important question about Libya, let alone the rest of the world. Obama’s semantic choice was only at issue because Romney made a point of bringing it up, a seemingly odd choice when there’s a wealth of actually substantive arguments he could have made in response to Crowley’s question. Did Romney think the best way to score points with voters was proving Obama didn’t say the magic T word?

As it happens, yes. A survey of Romney’s foreign policy positions reveals an elevation of word choice and symbolism to totemic status; a basic assumption that the way the President speaks and presents himself is a principal determinant of American policy success. If you presuppose that, then it matters a great deal whether Obama chose to call the Benghazi attack terrorism, as refusing the label would lead to an inability to respond to the attacks as such. And it’s more than that — understanding why Romney thinks language is so important is the key to explaining why so many of this year’s foreign policy debates have seen so petty.

This fetishization of linguistic argument pervades Romney campaign arguments on foreign policy. He chastises Obama on Israel not for specific policies, but rather for having the temerity to say critical things about its government in public. He won’t explain how, specifically, Obama could’ve been harsher on Iran beyond rhetorical posturing and more strident remarks supporting the 2009 uprising. His Afghanistan message is that we should withdraw in 2014, but the administration was wrong to say that publicly. Romney blasts Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Russia, but doesn’t have much in the way of a specific alternative approach except stronger public criticism of Russian policy. Ditto with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. This pattern repeats on issue after issue after issue — Romney won’t commit to significant policy differences with the administration, but will happily propose to “project strength, not weakness” and end “appeasement” by shifting American rhetoric on the issue in question.


The only way to drag a coherent theory of foreign policy out of this mess is assume that Romney believes words, by themselves, have tremendous power to change conditions on the ground independent of major policy shifts. Indeed, Romney’s favorite formulation of his overarching foreign policy view — America “must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might” — appears to be all about how American leaders see and present themselves rather than how they actually conduct foreign policy. Judging from both his policy statements and rhetoric, then, Romney appears to have staked the foreign policy campaign on the argument that that his words can save the world.

It’s hard to take this argument seriously. Not because words can’t matter; if the President said he’d nuke Russia tomorrow unless it stops helping the Syrian goverment, that would be a big deal! But the reason it would matter would be that the words convey intent to make a real policy shift (if that’s what you’d call kicking off Armageddon). Linguistic shifts untethered to any real policy changes are generally empty rhetoric. It’s hard to see how, for example, Romney’s proposal to speak out more forcefully on Russia’s human rights record would actually change conditions on the ground in Russia when unattached to any meaningful sort of diplomatic or economic pressure.

International relations experts who study the effect of words and ideas on global politics tend to agree. Those most sympathetic to the notion that language matters are called constructivists; to simplify greatly, constructivists think the beliefs and values of states and their leaders are what fundamentally makes world politics tick. I happen to agree with them on this point, but that doesn’t really help Romney’s case. Constructivists think that the factors that shape what global leaders believe are complicated and diffuse; it takes sustained effort, not simple rhetorical about-faces, to change the world’s values. Put more concretely, long-term human rights advocacy by non-governmental organizations and diplomacy at the U.N. are much more likely to promote the spread of human rights in Iran than proclamations from the Oval Office.

So is Romney for real? His linguistic preoccupation seems far too absurd to have been greenlighted by his advisers, some of whom (like Aaron Friedberg on China) undoubtedly know what they’re talking about even if you disagree with them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to so: the arguments made by the broader Republican party and neoconservative writers suggest that they too often believe in the totemic power of words to demonstrate American “strength and resolve” and therefore achieve foreign policy victory. This neoconservative tendency is well-known and, to the movement’s discredit, widespread. This certainly explains some of the Romney campaign’s language issue, particularly on talking to and about dictatorships.

But I think there’s something else going on with the Romney campaign, something unique to the Republican foreign policy predicament post-Bush. The single most distinctively neoconservative policy idea — preventative war against WMD proliferators and state sponsors of terrorism — has become a political non-starter after Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the neoconservative appetite for them hasn’t dimmed, as evidenced by habitual calls for war with Iran and various forms of intervention in Syria, basing your campaign on getting involved in two new, potentially high-cost wars seems like a great way to remind Americans why they voted out the last Republican President in the first place.


That puts Romney’s campaign staff in a bind. They occasionally let slip hawkish language on Iran, and are generally on board with a more militaristic foreign policy, but can’t profess that publicly without engaging in a debate that they’re set to lose, and lose badly given the campaign’s desire to stay on economic message. Since there isn’t much of a policy middle ground between the Policies That Shall Not Be Named and Obama’s current approach to most of these problems, the Romney campaign can harshly criticize Obama’s record, but can’t propose much in the way of meaningful policy shifts. Hence the focus on Obama’s rhetoric; it’s easy to say a President Romney would change that without having to carry the baggage of a substantive change to the status quo American policy. Rhetorical argument signals differences with Obama without publicly committing to to any particular one.

What does this mean for Obama in the last debate? Simply put, force Romney to explain himself. Avoid getting caught up in Romney’s attacks on the administration’s record; keep the spotlight squarely on what Romney would do differently. If Romney won’t defend any specific policy changes, he’ll come off as unprepared to respond to Obama’s arguments; if he does engage, Obama will have strong openings to contrast his own foreign policy vision with Romney’s unpopular Bush III position. That’s the problem with a rhetorical strategy — sometimes, the other guy gets to talk too.