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Dean Schwartz on the foreign policy of the next president

Eric Schwartz, Dean and Professor
Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
Saint Paul Rotary Club
October 30, 2012

"I want to thank you for the chance to speak with you today about foreign policy, national security and the next Presidential Administration.

National security is not traditionally a major factor in our Presidential campaigns. When, in the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton’s team coined the expression, “it’s the economy, stupid” – it was a reminder to themselves to focus directly on pocketbook issues of concern to Americans. And they were vindicated in that view: although President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings were so very high just after the first Gulf War and before that 1992 election, he was not able to translate those ratings into electoral success.

Despite the attention on national security issues resulting from the tragic killing of Chris Stevens, our Ambassador in Libya, and despite the media attention after the foreign policy Presidential debate earlier this month, foreign policy is not likely to be a decisive factor in the election next week.

I have to confess that this has been a source of some disappointment for me over the past couple of decades, during which time I’ve had the honor of advising three different Presidential campaigns on foreign policy and national security issues. As compelling as were the campaign-related experiences in foreign policy, those of us on the national security side of the campaign team operated with a keen awareness that, well, we were not the main attraction.

Rather, pride of place has gone to the domestic economic and social issues about which Americans care so deeply.

This is understandable.

But it is unfortunate that we have not had a broad and serious public discussion of America’s role in the world during this campaign, as there is no question that the national security stakes in the coming election are huge – and that the next President’s decisions on national security issues will have profound impacts on the quality of our lives, right here in the United States, for decades.

As my Humphrey School colleague, Larry Jacobs, and I noted in a recent commentary in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the United States now confronts major and dramatic shifts in world power and resources. Emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, not to mention Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey, are often growing at higher rates than the United States – and at higher rates than Europe or Japan. Brazil, Russia, India and China, known collectively as the BRICs, comprise some 40 percent of the world’s population and produce a quarter of global gross domestic product.

And of course, with greater economic clout comes a greater desire on the part of governments of emerging economies to have a say in the international institutions that play a role in the governance of international economic relations.

A 2008 report from the National Intelligence Council puts this phenomenon in very plain terms, and, with respect to shifts in resources, it states, and I quote: the 'historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East…is without precedent in modern history,' and notes that it puts “China in particular on track to have 'more impact on the world over the next twenty years than any other country” and to make the United States “less dominant.'

And while the United States continues to be responsible for more than 40% of world military spending, even here we see change. China, Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa and Turkey are all becoming – or have become – regional powers. According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research institute, all six are engaged in significant military modernization programs, and, with the exception of Turkey, have been increasing their expenditures – often at a rapid pace.

We need not view the rise of China and other new powers as a zero-sum game, in which the gains of others come at our expense. But even as we recognize the enormous strength and resilience of our own economy, our society and our military, none of this changes a simple existential fact:

That while the United States will, for the foreseeable future, remain the world’s dominant power, our margin for error is far less than it has been in recent memory. Geopolitical mistakes will be more costly, they will have far greater impact on our domestic economic circumstances, and – conversely – what we do at home on tax policy, monetary policy and spending will have a direct and profound impact on our capacity to influence the rest of the world and to sustain and enhance the quality of life for citizens of our country.

In a nutshell, foreign policy matters, perhaps more so than any time in recent memory.

So just how do we assess the candidates’ views, and how best can we understand the frames through which they view the world and our place within it?

In the broadest terms, we might identify four models that have tended to inform the making of U.S. national security policy over the past two decades. Each is informed by philosophy, theory, ideology and politics, and proponents of each would in essence argue that their model best promotes U.S. interests, including our influence, our power, our values and our well-being.

Beyond helping us to understand the broad perspectives of policy makers, the models enable us to predict the actions that the candidate, after being elected, may or may not be inclined to take – and to consider the implications of such actions.

So let me start my discussion of models with policy-makers who might best be characterized as traditional realists, who start from the premise that states pursue their national interests in an international system characterized by a continuous competition for state power and influence. I put into this category the Administration of George H.W. Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft. I’d also include here our former Secretary of State, Colin Powell. While these individuals have often been skeptical of some international institutions, they have respect for balance of power theory and have been prepared to work with the United Nations, negotiate with adversaries and, at time, reach accommodation – détente – with those adversaries. This, for example, explains the first Bush Administration’s dogged efforts to obtain international and UN support for the 1991 intervention in Iraq. This group is also characterized by what its members do not advance: they are traditionally reluctant to elevate values or morality in foreign policy, such as the idea that the United States has a deep obligation to promote human rights and democracy overseas – and that may have informed George H.W. Bush’s reluctance to continue to the march toward Baghdad to finish off Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime after the first Gulf War.

The second foreign policy model I’ll identify is liberal internationalism. Liberal internationalists do not ignore the traditional concept and role of power in international affairs, but emphasize what they believe is a critical U.S. interest in a rules-based international system with strong multilateral organizations and strong U.S. support for key allies. They also would argue that U.S credibility and effectiveness in international relations is directly related to the values we espouse as a nation, and that a world of governments that respect democracy and human rights is one that will be more congenial to U.S. interests, however defined. Liberal internationalists in the Obama Administration led the charge for U.S. intervention in Libya to save lives, while accepting the importance of obtaining Security Council approval for the intervention.

Both the third and fourth models I will describe are associated with the more hawkish wing of the Republican party, and they are sometimes grouped together, but they are distinct.

One model is neo-conservatisim. Neo-conservatives are informed by a deep commitment to American exceptionalism – that we are a unique and possibly even a chosen people, with values and capabilities that demand we be world leaders – and, in particular, leaders who promote democracy and freedom around the world. This perspective is informed by President Ronald Reagan’s articulation of America as a “shining city,” a beacon, a magnet, and I quote, “for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.” End quote. Neo-conservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz in the George W. Bush Administration, like Elliott Abrams, also in that Administration, are quite comfortable with the assertion of unilateral American power, including military force, to promote not only economic and security interests, but also the ideal of American democracy.

Finally, there is a group I call foreign policy “Hobbesians.” As distinct from both liberal internationalists and neo-conservatives, the Hobbesians are not so concerned about spreading American values. This group would argue that the primary focus of U.S. national security policy must be on anticipating and responding to security threats in a brutish international arena characterized by a "war of all against all,” as Thomas Hobbes put it in Leviathan. This fourth group is different than the first I mentioned, the traditional realists, as they have less regard for balance of power theory, are deeply and profoundly skeptical about the role of international institutions – which they regard as unnecessary constraints on U.S. power – and therefore are more comfortable with the unilateral application of U.S. power – that is, the need for us to be the big dog in the international system.

So where in these paradigms do the candidates fit, and why does it matter?

I believe President Obama’s statements, his policies and his advisors, all put him most comfortably into the liberal internationalist camp. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, he was advised by Anthony Lake, the former Clinton National Security Advisor who once characterized that Administration as neo-Wilsonian; and President Obama counts among his White House advisors Samantha Power. As you may recall, she authored the Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide, A Problem from Hell, and was harshly critical of the Clinton Administration’s failure to act to stop the Rwandan genocide. She played an influential role in the Obama Administration’s effort to press the Security Council to authorize the intervention in Libya, with the goal of safeguarding the thousands of people whose lives were at risk in Benghazi.

To be sure, President Obama’s advisors also include foreign policy specialists who have been skeptical about what they might term morally-based efforts to promote our ideals and our values – advisers who lean more in the traditional realist direction that characterized the Administration of George H.W. Bush – the father. And you can see that some of those perspectives have informed the actions of the President, for example, when he argues that the United States does not regard itself as responsible for the repair of failed states wherever they exist, and declares that “it’s time to do some nation-building at home.” In addition, and much to the consternation of some human rights activists from both the Democratic and Republican parties, he has been skeptical about ambitious moral objectives for U.S. foreign policy, such as exporting democracy.

This tilt toward a traditional foreign-policy realism that defines security interests more narrowly is also evident in President Obama's willingness to part with some members of his party and use drones to target Al-Qaida leaders, even if they are U.S. citizens.

Notwithstanding those tilts, it is still fair to say that the President foreign policy approach fits comfortably within the frame of liberal internationalism, and it gives us a sense of how he'd respond to any number of current and future challenges. For example, on Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon, he would be unlikely to attack Iranian facilities and go to war without strong multilateral support, and he would continue to exercise strong pressure on Israel not to act unilaterally. Even in the event of an international armed conflict with Iran, the President would be very reluctant to pursue the ambitious regime change and nation-building effort that characterized U.S. engagement in Iraq.

So where in the models I’ve described can one put Candidate Mitt Romney?

In short, the jury is very much out.

We just don’t know.

And it’s hard to argue that President Romney’s debate statements have brought clarity to this question.

On Iran, for example, he emphasized earlier in the campaign the importance of a United States readiness to use military force, while in the recent debate with President Obama, he spoke only of tightening sanctions, which he seemed to acknowledge had a crippling impact on Iran. Similarly, on Afghanistan, Governor Romney has, until recently, condemned President Obama’s articulation of a date certain for withdrawal of U.S. troops, but he failed to repeat that condemnation in the debate – in fact, he appeared to accept the withdrawal date and even endorse it. On these and other issues of strategic importance, such as Iraq and China, it’s fair to say that his perspectives have varied over time.

And in fact, over the course of his long career in public life, and during the current campaign, Governor Romney has expressed views that might fall into one of three camps – realist, neo-conservative and Hobbesian. Moreover, a look at the Governor’s roster of reported advisors reveal individuals from all three camps.

Some, although not a large number, are from the traditional realist camp of the Republican Party. This past summer, it was fascinating to note the appointment of former World Bank President Robert Zoellick to lead national security transition planning for Governor Romney. Zoellick, who also served as an advisor to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is an expert in the tradition of George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. According to various media reports, his appointment resulted in great consternation among Romney advisors who are from both the neo-conservative and from what I’ve called the Hobbesian camps.

In a blog in the Washington Post, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that, “for foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema.” She went on to write, and I quote, “as the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as “soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state.” End quote.

In short, Zoellick is a realist, and his appointment was followed by reports from the campaign that other advisers – who are not enamored with Zoellick, to put in mildly – will also play an important role in the foreign policy transition.

Indeed, many of those who have been frequently identified as foreign policy advisors to the campaign – John Bolton, Elliot Cohen, Cofer Black, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman – are former Administration officials who were strong proponents of a much more hawkish foreign policy – either from the neo-conservative or the Hobbesian perspectives I’ve just described.

So why does all this matter?

To answer that question in a compelling way, one need only go back to the 2000 election of George W. Bush. At that time, if traditional realists in the Administration had been ascendant, if the views of Colin Powell, President Bush’s Secretary of State, had held sway, it’s hard to imagine that the United States would have invaded Iraq. Instead, the neoconservatives and the Hobbesians within the Administration prevailed and we went to war.

Whatever your view about whether that war has served our national interests, the decision has had enormous and historical consequences for the United States.

So it’s probably worth knowing just how inclined a Romney Administration would be to go to war with Iran, whether a President Romney would be likely to do so even without international support, and whether – should he choose to do so – his goals would be limited to addressing the nuclear threat or whether he’d also seek to pursue democratization and regime change.

In the case of President Obama, we can be reasonably sure we know the answer.

In the case of a President Romney, the answer is more elusive.

But it is not unreasonable to suggest there will be a greater willingness on the part of a President Romney than a President Obama to use force, to do so unilaterally, and, in doing so, to be prepared to pursue ambitious nation-building objectives. The reason for this conclusion is simple and straightforward: on Iran, on Russia, on Iraq and elsewhere, the Governor and his campaign have over time communicated considerable sympathy toward the policy perspectives and predilections of the neoconservative and Hobbesian advisors who surrounded President George W. Bush and who ultimately made the case for the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003. The candidate’s foreign policy website, entitled “An American Century,” reflects many of these perspectives.

For Governor Romney’s strongest supporters in the national security community, this approach would help to correct for what they contend is a weak foreign policy from President Obama that has adversely impacted American ability to shape world events. However, for those who support President Obama on national security, the approach I’ve described overestimates the capacity of the United States to act unilaterally without great cost, and will result in a mis-allocation of commitments and monies at a time when our capacity to marshal resources for our domestic economy is critical to our continued strength and resiliency as a nation.

While this dispute will not factor prominently in the decisions that millions of Americans will make on Tuesday, it deserves to become a much more important part of our national discussion and debate after the election.

The stakes, for us, for our children, and for our children’s children, are very high, and demand no less."