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Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Romney, Obama and The Audacity of Reasonableness

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COMMENTS

11 October 2012 16:48

Michael Fullilove's paper, The Audacity of Reasonableness, is a timely analysis of the two US presidential candidates that identifies an oft-ignored feature of US foreign policy: its continuity. Indeed, the enduring story of US foreign policy is one of continuity, with few if any stark differences of approach beyond the 'water's edge'.

Among the substantive differences between Obama and Romney that Michael acknowledges is that their rhetoric on foreign policy is 'worlds apart'. It is here that I take issue with the weighting he assigns to the rhetoric of the Romney campaign.

I have argued previously that attitudes to American exceptionalism can be categorised under two broad themes: exemplar and missionary. The exemplar view produces an inclination towards a stewardship role; the missionary view inclines towards leadership.

The examples Michael provides in support of his argument reveal the Obama administration's inclination to the stewardship role, which is certainly consistent with the exemplar thinking of Anne-Marie Slaughter as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department in the first two years of the administration.

What is clear from the Romney campaign is not only that he inclines toward a leadership role for the US, but also that he rejects the validity of the stewardship role as exercised by the Obama administration. The central theme of the Republican presidential campaign has been American exceptionalism. This was reiterated strongly at the GOP national convention and again in Romney's foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute on 9 October, entitled The Mantle of Leadership:

Our friends and allies across the globe do not want less American leadership. They want more; more of our moral support, more of our security cooperation, more of our trade, and more of our assistance in building free societies and thriving economies. So many people across the world still look to America as the best hope of humankind. So many people still have faith in America. We must show them that we still have faith in ourselves; that we have the will and the wisdom to revive our stagnant economy, to roll back our unsustainable debt, to reform our government, to reverse the catastrophic cuts now threatening our national defense, to renew the sources of our great power, and to lead the course of human events.

Michael points out that the primary indicator of Romney's commitment to this rhetoric will be in his nomination of key foreign policy personnel. I couldn't agree more. So too has Michael identified the broad spectrum of advisors that Romney has engaged: 'orthodox realists, muscular unilateralists and the occasional recalcitrant neoconservative.'

However, even if we juxtapose John Bolton with Robert Zoellick, or Mitchell Reis with Robert Kagan, the attitude to American leadership is one of degree rather than kind, with limitations on that leadership being the key differential. The people Romney has engaged are not people that 'foreign policy happens to', rather, they are people with a clear vision of America's unique role in the world, the importance of US leadership, and the requirements in fulfilling that role.

Michael states that whilst Americans face a clear choice on 6 November, it is not likely to be an epochal moment. I would add the disclaimer that epochal moments are not readily identifiable, even in retrospect, and rarely present themselves with prior warning. Who, on 20 January, 2001 – the day of George W. Bush's inauguration – predicted the epochal events that would follow within a few short months?

Romney closed his speech in Virginia by stating:

The 21st century can and must be an American century. It began with terror, war and economic calamity. It is our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom, peace and prosperity. The torch America carries is one of decency and hope. It is not America's torch alone. But it is America's duty – and honor – to hold it high enough that all the world can see its light.

Romney is not content to 'manage' American responses to international events; he is duty-bound to steer the world on the right path. The question remains: is America weary of the world and is the world weary of America?

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