America Falls Out of Love With Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy

The Utah senator is scolding Trump's "transactional" approach to alliances, even though his internationalist approach has lost all appeal.

When Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in a presidential election that most Republicans believed was winnable, the former Massachusetts governor was quickly dismissed as an also-ran—the GOP version of Michael Dukakis. He was no longer the handsome, older, savvy businessman who would turn the economy around, but a bumbling, privileged stiff who couldn’t dislodge a vulnerable incumbent.

The stink of the 2012 defeat stuck to Romney during the 2016 GOP presidential primary, when then-candidate Donald Trump excoriated him for choking like a dog.

The tables have now turned slightly. Many Republicans now look at Romney not as a defeated nominee, but as a statesman of sorts. No doubt Never Trumpers like Bill Kristol and Rick Wilson are praying that Romney challenges the president in 2020 and brings the Republican Party back to the time when Trump was just another reality television star.

Romney, of course, already decided that a third presidential run wasn’t worth it. Being a U.S. senator, however, was another story. So he ran for a seat in Utah and won overwhelmingly in 2018. Six months later, there he was on the Senate floor, giving his maiden address, subtly poking Trump in the ribs without saying his name.

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He talked about everything you would expect him to talk about: morality, civility, decency, freedom, unity, free trade…and alliances.

One of the major gripes from Democrats and many Republicans in Washington is that Trump doesn’t care much for alliances. He treats friends like foes and foes like friends. This is a slogan tailor-made for a bumper sticker, but it’s also what a significant swath of the establishment believes.

Trump may deliver a speech in London and mouth nice words about the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom, but deep down he looks at everything as a transaction. He isn’t the first commander-in-chief to fulminate in private about the stingy Europeans who don’t provide their citizens with national defense capabilities befitting a Western power. But he is the first to openly, strongly, and repeatedly condemn them for it.

The 45th president views trade predominantly as a balance sheet. South Korea, Mexico, Japan, the European Union—it doesn’t matter how long a country has been a friend to the United States. If the U.S. is running a trade deficit, then it must get tougher and demand fairer terms.

The Washington establishment can’t stand this approach. The president’s critics and even some of his supporters regard it as overly simplistic, deliberately antagonistic, and plain rude. Romney is one of those people, and he said it outright on the Senate floor on June 4.

“It is in the United States’ most vital interest to see a strong NATO, a strong Europe, stronger ties with the free nations of Asia and the subcontinent, and with every free country,” the junior senator from Utah remarked. “We need to hold our friends closer, not neglect them or drive them away.”

Therein lies the Republican foreign policy dichotomy today. On one side are the Romneys, Marco Rubios, and Bret Stephenses of the world who continue to peddle stereotypical phrases like “U.S.-led liberal international order,” and label any finger-wagging at U.S. allies as disrespectful, childish, and ultimately counterproductive. And then you have Trump, a far more nationalist figure who thinks the U.S. is being exploited by countries that should be thanking us for our help.

Both sides have their faults. Trump’s worldview is steeped in his decades-long career in real estate, marketing, and show business—industries that prize the bottom lines of profit and ratings. This is reflected in his admiration for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a walking, talking diplomatic disaster if there ever was one. But outwardly, Salman exudes power and decisiveness—and is more than happy to purchase tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military weapon systems with which to bomb his enemies.

Both sides, though, are also right in part. Mitt Romney correctly underscores that America’s alliance system is one of our nation’s greatest strengths. But Donald Trump is right that maintaining alliances for their own sake—and without expecting anything tangible in return—shouldn’t be the objective, and may in fact perpetuate an unsustainable status quo.

There are few Republicans who have truly sought a happy medium between the Romney and Trump approaches on foreign policy. Most foreign policy on Capitol Hill is reflexive, hewing to shopworn internationalist talking points or hawkish posturing. In terms of what the American people want, however, Trump’s preference for a greater degree of restraint and putting democracy promotion and regime change in the rear-view mirror appears to be winning out.

In the words of a February 2019 Eurasia Group Foundation report authored by New York University’s Mark Hannah, the “desire for a more focused foreign policy is at odds with the more expansive role generally favored by foreign policy experts.” The liberal hegemony Mitt Romney continues to preach like gospel on the Senate floor is fast becoming unpopular among the broader electorate.

It is clear now that there has never been a period in the modern era when the establishment Mitt Romney represents has lost so much of its appeal. It will be interesting to see whether Republican lawmakers, elected to represent their constituencies at home, begin to fall in line with the rest of America.

Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.

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11 Responses to America Falls Out of Love With Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy

  1. Kent says:

    “It will be interesting to see whether Republican lawmakers, elected to represent their constituencies at home, begin to fall in line with the rest of America.”

    As someone deeply involved in Republican politics at the local level, I can tell you that this is far more difficult than the average person imagines. Running for Congress is vastly different than running for President. Here’s how it works.

    Suppose I’m Congressman Smith. A loyal vote for interventionist foreign policy, tax cuts, and globalism. I’ve been in Congress for 20 years and can summon unlimited amounts of campaign contributions from Lockheed, Raytheon, Goldman-Sachs and every private equity and hedge fund in the country. I also have a great relationship with the owners of my local newspaper and television stations, and key religious leaders in the region. They’ve all made a lot of money from me.

    You want to run against me to help represent President Trump’s views in Congress, which you strongly feel reflects the views of the community you desire to serve.

    I am going to run unlimited advertising lying about my own views. I’m going to talk about how I strongly support Trump’s views and highlight the few times I actually voted with him. You won’t have the money to counter that. I’m also going to lie about your positions in every mass media outlet I can find, and you’re not going to have the money to counter that either. Finally, I’m going to find a friend who is younger and better looking than you to run on YOUR platform. His sole purpose will be to split the vote for your platform, leaving me with a healthy plurality for a win.

    In the one chance in a million you do win, all those powerful interests are going to make it far and away in your best interests to vote just like I did. Your unemployed brother is going to get a loan to take a big stake in a subcontractor to the F-35, where he will be given a vice-presidency for a million dollars a year. Your wife, the life-long homemaker, will suddenly become a very desirable and expensive asset to K-Street lobbyists. You’ll be given a loan for that mansion on the beach, with the mortgage payments mysteriously being taken care of.

    This is how our electoral system actually works. It’s why you always seem stuck voting for the lesser evil. It’s why nothing ever seems to change regardless of who you vote for. And the beauty of American style democracy is that you will play along with it every time.

  2. Rossbach says:

    “But Donald Trump is right that maintaining alliances for their own sake—and without expecting anything tangible in return—shouldn’t be the objective, and may in fact perpetuate an unsustainable status quo.”

    So, when is President Trump going to start acting as though he actually believes that? His foreign policy is almost as big a disaster as his immigration policy – all talk and no action.

  3. Dan Phillips says:

    America’s alliance system is not one of our greatest strengths. It is entirely a post-WWII contrivance. Prior to WWII, we had had only one formal treaty alliance, with France in the War for Independence. We don’t need a happy medium between Romney and Trump. We need full throated nonintervention.

  4. Clyde Schechter says:

    “In terms of what the American people want, however, Trump’s preference for a greater degree of restraint and putting democracy promotion and regime change in the rear-view mirror appears to be winning out.”

    Where is there any evidence that Trump prefers a greater degree of restraint and putting democracy promotion and regime change in the rear-view mirror. People who think that way don’t hire Bolton and Pompeo. People who think that way don’t involve us in Saudi Arabia’s war crimes against the Yemeni people. People who think that way wouldn’t have an Iran policy based on regime change (which is what it is, notwithstanding the lies denying it.)

    I cannot believe that there are still people out there who think Trump is anything but a neocon when it comes to foreign policy. Wake up and smell the coffee!

  5. Tom Nix says:

    To Rossbach – a) no new crappy little wars (yet) b) no missiles from North Korea flying over Japan, c) more money from our NATO allies represent not successes?
    To me authors question boils down to elected Republicans ignoring voters as badly as the democrats. A plague on their houses.

  6. polistra says:

    Trump talks different, but there’s no difference in practice. Trump is serving both Saudi and Israel VASTLY better than any previous president. Those are the only allies who count.

    Trump’s insults and sanctions may make it emotionally easier for Europe to side with Persia and Russia, but simple economics was already pushing Europe in that direction.

  7. Mark Thomason says:

    I wish Kent was wrong. He’s telling us exactly what we need to hear, the real truth of it.

    It won’t help, for the same reasons he gives. But we do need to hear it anyway.

  8. Mork D says:

    I don’t agree with the premise of the article. Foreign policy is not black and white. One can stand for a strong association with foreign nations with whom the USA has a history, no matter how checkered.

    The Trump way is very new-economy, very neoliberal. ‘We don’t care about our shared history – what can YOU do for US, *right now?*’ That’s great if you want to go it alone, but as most of us try to get along with our neighbors for peace and quiet’s sake, also if we need to borrow a hedge trimmer next Spring, it’s usually better to be in with a crowd than in the corner by yourself with your values.

  9. Charlotte says:

    @Dan Phillips : “We don’t need a happy medium between Romney and Trump. ”

    “Happy medium” implies a substantial difference to be bridged. But I see no difference between Romney’s foreign policy and Trump’s. For both, foreign policy is obsessively about the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. From Romney promising “my good friend Bibi Netanyahu” whatever American blood and treasure he may demand, effectively abdicating his own responsibility as Commander in Chief and handing it over to a foreigner, to Trump’s complete capitulation to big money Israel and Saudi Arabia donors, there is no effective difference.

    Voted Republican for 20 years, holding my nose during the second W term, but couldn’t overcome dislike and suspicion of McCain and Romney. Trump persuaded me to give the GOP another chance. “What a creep. But maybe he’ll really stop immigration and get us out of the Middle East. Maybe the GOP is done with the McCain and Romney crap”. Chumped. Completely. Never again.

  10. Gerald Arcuri says:

    You elect a “businessman”, you get “deals” instead of a coherent foreign policy. And, increasingly, the deals are either bad deals, no big deal, or no deal at all.

    Romney would have at least not been an arrogant, petulant bully, like Donald J Trump is. Not sure the outcome would have been much different, but at least it might not have been so embarrassing.

  11. Jamie says:

    Very good article. Outstanding comments!

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