Last week’s announcement that former World Bank president and U.S. Treasury official Robert Zoellick would lead Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy transition team rankled hawkish conservatives, who fear that the credentialed realist might find his way to becoming secretary of state. Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post blogger and outlet for neoconservative unease, projected: “Zoellick … couldn’t be a worse match for Romney.”

The response to what should have been an uncontroversial appointment has been revealing. Despite the backlash, or more likely because of it, the move has prompted conservative skeptics of Romney’s Bush-era foreign policy boilerplate to give the campaign a second look. Several commentators, including Gideon Rachman and Jacob Heilbrunn, latched onto the news as a sign that Romney was interested in forging a different path.

So far Romney’s foreign-policy rhetoric has resonated with few beyond the GOP’s knee-jerk hawkish contingent, which is apparently satisfied by Romney’s awkward efforts to portray Obama as someone “with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart.” Romney recently told the VFW, “if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.” But the apologizer-in-chief rhetoric and the emphasis on Obama’s “weakness” and Romney’s imagined strength find no footing because there’s no major foreign-policy disaster to attach them to. Republicans have painted Democrats this way for a generation. But Obama simply does not have that naïve “liberal” view Romney accuses him of.

If Romney wants to speak the right language in critiquing Obama’s foreign policy, he’d be wise to read up on Reinhold Niebuhr, whom the president has described as his favorite philosopher. Niebuhr was a pacifist socialist who eventually became an advocate for U.S. involvement in World War II. As a writer and thinker he was fixated on the contradictions of security and freedom, and the dilemma of the Hobbesian “children of darkness” and the Lockean “children of light.”

To read Niebuhr is to relish these tensions, to grip the fundamental balance of the moral universe. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” he wrote. “But man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” The concepts gear together like great cosmic cogs. “Goodness, armed with power, is corrupted,” he wrote. But “pure love without power is destroyed.” Much of Niebuhr’s worldview depends on these balances.

Reading Obama yields a similar effect. In 2009, literary critic Andrew Delbanco pointed out in the New Republic that Obama’s books are populated by counterweighted sentences, for instance: “There’s the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager’s abortion.” Obama expresses his worldview, Delbanco wrote, in sentences “organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other–a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts.”

Linking Obama’s mindset or his actual foreign-policy decision-making directly to Niebuhr would be a slippery project. However it’s useful to contrast his deliberative approach with Romney’s settled, outdated critique of the president as the generic ineffectual Democrat. The Romney campaign’s hardened rhetoric misses the president who gave the order to kill bin Laden, who helped topple Qaddafi, and who is drifting towards war with Iran. The Republican narrative of Obama as a 21st-century Jimmy Carter might work if there was some latter-day Iran hostage crisis or other foreign debacle. But there isn’t one.

Countering that narrative has required sound decision-making and a little luck as much as Niebuhrian tendencies. Jimmy Carter, too, was an admirer of the great 20th-century theologian and channeled the scholar’s thought in his administration. Carter’s famous “malaise” speech called on Americans to reject consumerism and to embrace conservation for the public good, invoking familiar Niebuhrian themes of restraint and humility. Though the speech is considered emblematic of a “loser” presidency today, it was successful at the time: Carter’s poll numbers shot up afterwards. Carter stepped in it a short time later when he fired 34 cabinet officials and top-ranking aides, a move that created the “crisis of confidence” he initially sought to address with the speech.

Carter’s successful jeremiad is so linked to his unwise cabinet purge that his well-received criticism of American hubris is disdained in popular memory today and has forged the basis of the Republican caricature of Democrats shirking national leadership. But more than three decades later, Obama’s Nieburhrian foreign policy has succeeded as a response to neoconservative hubris in favor of a more prudent approach.

Niebuhr recognized that “relative innocence or inexperience in wielding power is no guarantee of virtue. It is on the contrary a hazard to the attainment of virtue.” He saw post-World War II America embarking on a journey toward virtue similar to Britain’s path of learning painful lessons from the American Revolution and the Boer War. A long experience of national responsibility had taught Britain virtues the naive America had yet to learn:

Britain has certain advantages over America in this realm… Britain has had longer experience in wielding power in world affairs than America. Through this experience Britain has learned to exercise critical restraint upon its power impulses to a larger degree than its critics realize.

Similarly, in his memoir My Early Years, Winston Churchill reflects on the lessons Britain learned from its failures in the Boer War, failures that would result in a recalibration in British foreign policy:

Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated War Offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant Commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant Fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations all take their seats at the Council Board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.

These are lessons not altogether different from what Americans should take from the Iraq experience. Romney could more credibly critique Obama’s foreign policy if he brought the debate up to this level, rather than conjuring up a straw man from a time warp. He now appears likelier to repeat the mistakes of Iraq rather than learn from them. If he were to articulate a vision of how to respond to the Iraq debacle, of the uses and limits of intervention, he might gain traction.

Demonstrating a proper restraint in the use of power would be a good beginning for Romney. But he could do more to demonstrate a much-needed long view of American foreign policy. As it stands, Niebuhr is a window into Obama’s worldview and his motivations for using power. But however useful this background is for ad hoc decision-making, it has not led to an Obama Doctrine or a long-term strategy for America’s role in the world.

Romney has so far been an amateurish foreign-policy candidate. To win over his skeptics, he must recognize the strength of Obama’s deliberative style, then best him by articulating a set of coherent general principles to guide future foreign policy. Needless to say, the hysterical reaction to the Zoellick appointment among some of Romney’s biggest supporters is not encouraging.

Ryan Prior is a college correspondent for USA Today and has previously written for David Frum’s blog at Newsweek and the Daily Beast.