American presidential elections 2012: Mitt Romney’s foreign policy



Following the recent withdrawals from the Republican primaries of Messrs Gingrich and Paul, as well as his victory in Texas, the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, is now certain to be his party’s candidate to face Barack Obama during the November presidential election.[1] Though he has not elicited enthusiasm, Mr. Romney succeeded in setting himself apart during the primaries, which focused on issues of domestic policy. Due to the difficult economic situation and the relatively positive view which Americans take of the international actions of Mr. Obama, foreign policy did not appear to be a particularly promising topic for the Republicans during the primaries. During the general election, candidate Romney will likely continue to prioritise domestic themes.


For the same reasons, international topics could turn out to be an important element of Barack Obama’s campaign. That is at least how one could view the opening of his candidacy in early May. The Obama team has, not without risk, used the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden in a televised advertisement casting doubt on Mitt Romney by suggesting that the Republican  candidate would not have had the ‘guts’  to launch the raid against the Pastikan residence of the terrorist chief.[2] Several days later, the President made a surprise visit to Afghanistan, arousing the anger of the Republicans, who charged the President with once again using the death of bin Laden for electoral purposes.[3]


It is also worth noting that despite the electoral strategy of the Republican candidate the international situation remains especially unstable, particularly in the Middle East, where the possibilities of international crises are many. Six months before the voting, one cannot exclude the possibility that these questions will intervene at one moment or another in the debate. While during the 2008 primaries the positions held by Mitt Romney on international affairs were rather vague, it now seems necessary to look more closely into this facet of the  programme of the man who will run against President Obama.  To do this, it is appropriate to study the candidate’s statements and the makeup of his team in order to determine what would be the main contours of his policy if elected.




  1. The candidate’s main policy orientations


During the Republican party primaries, Mitt Romney began to position himself with respect to foreign policy. He distinguished himself as the Republican candidate who took the greatest care with these questions. Indeed, Mr. Romney was the only one to have detailed his positions on the topics of diplomacy, defence and national security in a white paper published in October 2011.[4]


Prefaced by the academic and former adviser to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, Eliot Cohen, this 43-page document presents Mitt Romney’s vision of the world and of the place he would give to the United States on the international stage. He argues in favour of a resolutely interventionist policy and reaffirms the need for solid American leadership. ‘The American choice is not, therefore, whether it should lead: it is how to lead wisely,’[5] says Mr. Cohen. The policy of Mr. Romney fits into the continuity of Republican tradition and advocates the assertion of American power. This power is presented as the key to an ‘international system that ensures the security and prosperity of the United States and our friends and allies.[6] Mr. Romney’s emphasis on this point attests to a desire to underline the difference with the policy of the Obama administration, which has ‘undermined America’s position in the world’[7]  and is on its way to making the United States  ‘a ‘hollow’ force’.[8]  The Republican candidate also used the occasion to reject the theory of the country’s decline, a perspective that ‘has been gaining currency, including within the high councils of the Obama administration.’[9] 


On the other hand, the general goals set by the former governor of Massachusetts are much more consensual and could bring together the two candidates who will face one another in November. Aside from the defence of American values and interests, the action of Mr. Romney on the international stage has as its goal to ‘maintain and advance an international system that is congenial to the liberal institutions of open markets, representative government, and respect for human rights.’ [10]However, he makes a gesture towards the Neoconservatives when he recommends to ‘employ all the tools of statecraft to shape the outcome of threatening situations before they demand military action.’[11]


In his white paper, Mitt Romney accords particular importance to China and Russia, which are presented as powers undermining international security.[12]  The Republican candidate does not hesitate to use muscular rhetoric, evoking the prospect of conflict with an ‘authoritarian’China, whose economic and military power keep on growing. In accordance with the general principles cited above, Mr. Romney wants to limit these risks by slowing down the expansion of Chinese influence in Asia. In order to discourage any aggressive behaviour on the part of Beijing towards its neighbours, he defends the maintenance of a major American military presence in the region and granting military assistance, notably in the form of planes, to Taiwan, as well as to the other regional allies. He also wants to develop cooperation with regional powers, including India, which could be concerned over the growing influence of China. And he wants to encourage trade with the countries of the region by creating a Reagan Economic Zone based on the principles of free trade.[13]


Russia is described as a ‘destabilising force,’ due to its grip on the energy supplies to Central Europe and the West, its store of nuclear weapons, its recent military aggression and its  influence within international institutions like the United Nations. Mitt Romney believes that this force must be ‘tempered’ and that the policy of the United States should discourage all aggressive or expansionist behaviour by Moscow. He criticises the failure of the Obama administration, which has made many concessions without receiving anything in return. The Republican candidate therefore wishes to revise the American position on the new strategic arms reduction treaty (START) and on the policies of arms control. He wants to help the Europeans to reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies and to strengthen cooperation with the states of Central Asia.[14]


Next, the ex-governor of Massachusetts focuses on the Middle East, where he accords a large place to Israel, criticising the way President Obama has distanced himself from Jerusalem. He prioritises the security and legitimacy of Israel as a state. He believes that the political instability which has arisen in many countries of the region has exacerbated the security problems of the Jewish state. The Republican candidate rejects the ‘illusion’  according to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central problem of the region, arguing that this has been confirmed by the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring.[15]With respect to the last point, he wishes to support the progressive forces in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but is concerned over the opportunity which these uprisings provide to the radical Islamists and to Iran.[16]  On Syria, his statements do not beat around the bush.  Bashar al-Assad is a ‘dictator, a killer and a proxy for  Iran’[17]  and he should give up power.  Mitt Romney has stated this position repeatedly in the weeks which followed, calling for ‘arming the Syrian oppositiuon groups so that they can defend themselves.’[18]  On the Iranian question, Mr. Romney also wants to appear very firm, repeating that the prospect of a nuclear Iran is ‘unacceptable’ and that the military option remains topical. But he still advocates hardening the sanctions, particularly those directed against the financial interests of the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Central Bank. If the position of Moscow and Beijing does not allow validating this procedure via the United Nations Security Council, then he thinks that the United States must act outside the UN structure, with the help of willing states.[19]


On the subject of Afghanistan and of Pakistan, Mitt Romney says that the goal is to eliminate Al-Qaeda and to weaken the Taliban to the point where they do not represent any existential threat to Afghanistan or to the stability of Pakistan. The Republican candidate acknowledges the importance of the death of Osama bin Laden but denounces the contradictions in the administration’s policies on Afghanistan, particularly, the sending of reinforcements in 2009 coupled with the announcement of a calendar of withdrawal. If he is elected, he wants to reconsider the transition in Afghanistan in coordination with the American military leadership and to prompt Kabul to fight more effectively against corruption. It is also worth pointing out that the crucial question of relations with Islamabad has largely been dodged. The ex-governor focuses only on the links between the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban.[20]


According to Mr. Romney, Latin America has been neglected by President Obama. It is a region which is given a lot of attention in the Republican candidate’s programme. He believes in fact that the democratic progress of the region is under threat, in particularly from Venezuela and Cuba, which are at the head of a  ‘Bolivarian and anti-American movement.’ He therefore wants the United States to play a more active role in the region, especially through an initiative to promote democracy and free trade: the Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America (CEOLA). CEOLA is expected to serve as a springboard to help the countries of the region join the Reagan Economic Zone.


Finally, Mitt Romney speaks of North Korea and regrets that Washington has been too  conciliatory towards Pyongyang. He recommends a tougher attitude, especially through strengthening financial sanctions against the regime, and wants to encourage China to use its influence to facilitate the disarmament of North Korea.[21] At the same time, one notes that the European Union, Africa, Japan, Brazil and NATO do not figure in the Republican candidate’s white paper. Some of these points, as for example NATO,[22] have been touched upon in op-eds published in the presss but remain anecdotal.



  1. A diverse team largely linked to the Bush administration


Apart from the positions listed by the candidate, the team of advisers surrounding him is another indicator of what his policy might look like.  Along with the publication of his white paper, Mr. Romney presented a list of 22 special advisors in charge of foreign policy and national security and 18 other members of thematically organised working groups.[23] Still others, like the former United States ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, have contributed later to Mitt Romney[24] but figure among the most influential voices.


The main characteristic of the Romney team is its links with former members or supporters of the administration of President George W. Bush. One can therefore observe that  the conservative and Neoconservative currents of the Republican party are especially well-represented. Apart from John Bolton and Eliot Cohen, we find here the former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, Eric Edelman, the academic Robert Kagan and Daniel Senor, who was a member of the team put in place by the administration to see to the transition in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. All three are members of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a research centre founded by the herald of Neoconservatism, William Kristol, as successor to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).  On its internet site, the FPI cites among the principal threats facing the United States, ‘rising and resurgent powers, including China and Russia’.[25]  Associated with the policy of George W. Bush in his first term, and especially with the intervention in Iraq, they represent the hard line of the Mitt Romney team. If this tendency is often depicted as the most influential in the candidate’s entourage, this perception deserves to be qualified. The very great firmness with regard to Russia and China, and the marked support for Israel, are directly drawn from the Neoconservative playbook. However, we see that on subjects like Iran or Syria, Mitt Romney advocates a hardening of sanctions or a greater support for the opposition but does not go so far as to call for American military intervention. This moderate posture is used by some observers, including some in the Republican camp, to underline the slight difference which exists between Messrs Romney and Obama.[26]


Other sensitivities of the last Republican administration are also present. The former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), General Michael Hayden codirects, with Michael Chertoff, the working group of the Romney campaign on intelligence. When he was at the head of the NSA, General Hayden opposed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the place of the Pentagon in intelligence activities,[27] also distancing himself from the nerve centre of American foreign policy at that time. Furthermore, his arrival at the head of the CIA in May 2006 was accompanied by a drop of Neoconservative influence within the administration during the second term of President Bush, marked by the nomination of Condoleezza Rice to the Department of State and of Robert Gates to the Department of Defense.  More recently, General Hayden has broken with part of the team of candidate Romney by coming out against any military initiative in Iran.[28]


We also see the presence of others favouring a more moderate approach, like the diplomats Mitchell Reiss and Richard Williamson. The first served in several administrations and particularly worked with Colin Powell at the Department of State and in the National Security Council under two incarnations of the realist current of the Republican party, Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft.[29] During the Republican primaries of 2008, Mr. Reiss was one of the main advisers of Mitt Romney. Seen as a representative of the Republican establishment, he has been marginalised by his statements in favour of negotiations with the Taliban and has seen his influence fall.[30] Richard Williamson is an eperienced and respected diplomat who served under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. More recently, he occupied the function of personal envoy of President George W. Bush in the Sudan.[31]




  1. A muscular rhetoric to mask positions which are intentionally vague


The diversity of the team of the former governor of Massachusetts has inevitably caused internal frictions and fights over influence which sometimes give the image of a disorganised campaign. This has also contributed to confuse the  message of Mr. Romney on a theme which does not figure among his strong points. The intransigence shown by the Republican candidate over the opportunity to talk with the Taliban has, for example, sowed doubts within the campaign team. Indeed, this position contrasts with the statements of close advisers like Mitchell Reiss or the co-chairman of the campaign’s working group on Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Shinn. The latter, who has worked on the problem of negotiations with the Taliban for the previous Republican administration, believed that a negotiated agreement was ‘desirable’ under certain conditions.[32] The statements of Mitt Romney on Russia, presented as ‘the enemy number one’ of the United States, and on his position of revising  the START treaty have also surprised some in his team and within his party.[33]  On this last point, Senator Richard Lugar was astonished by the  ‘discredited objections’ used in the argumentation of Mr. Romney who, it seemed to him, did not seem ‘informed about history and the context of arms control.’[34]


Some have seen in the positions taken the mark of influence of the hawks on the Romney team led by the ardent defender of a unilateralist American foreign policy, John Bolton. These divisions and the feeling which inspires the ‘Bolton faction’ among some advisers of the former governor of Massachusetts have leaked to the press, all of which attests to a high level of frustration in the candidate’s entourage.[35] In addition, it should be noted that despite the influence of his party on American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War, Mr. Romney has ostensibly kept remote from Republican figures associated with realism, like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and George Shultz. This has likely pushed sensible observers like Colin Powell to keep their distance from Mr. Romney. The former Secretary of State of George W. Bush has criticised the statements of the Republican candidate about Russia and denounced the influence of his advisers from the ‘far right.’[36] 


Others have seen, on the contrary, the reflection of a lack of authority in the entourage of the Republican candidate. According to confidential talk from some members of his team, Mr. Romney has a tendency to take decisions without consulting them. This absence of dialogue and of discussion has even prompted some to wonder publicly about the reality of his convictions. ‘No one knows if the candidate has a clear-cut position on these subjects’, a person close to the campaign suggested to the New York Times.[37] Moreover, the ex-governor does not have a political adviser overseeing the entirety of his campaign as, for example, Karl Rove did for George W. Bush. Furthermore, Mr. Romney appears to be particularly involved in the political and strategic dimension of his campaign, juggling his various circles of advisers before taking his decisions, most often alone. He also writes himself most of the op-eds which he signs and attentively reads the others.  Only those very close to him – family and some advisers of long standing –  are credited with a certain influence on the candidate.[38]


This opaqueness which surrounds the decision-making process within the Romney team supports doubts which arose in his 2008 campaign, where his positions, especially on international affairs, appeared to be vague. Neverthelesss, this impression could be part of the strategy of the Republican candidate. ‘Romney does not really want to go deeply into these questions before being elected,’ says one advisor. His taking positions on international affairs aims simply at ‘giving the impression that Obama is not sincere when he says that he will prevent Iran from having bomb, whereas Mitt is.’[39] 




  1. Conclusion


If the question of the foreign policy which Mitt Romney would lead as president remains open, the positions taken up to now and the choice of his entourage illustrate the image of firmness which the former governor of Massachusetts would like to make. The marginalisation of the realist current of the Republican party in the campaign of Mr. Romney reflects a wish to differentiate the image of the candidate from the establishment and to court a broader electorate which is attracted by the emergence of the Tea Party. The distancing from Mitchell Reiss also allows us to think that Mr. Romney has drawn lessons from the Republican primaries of 2008, when he appeared too timorous on international questions. Finally, as Richard Williamson has suggested[40],  Mitt Romney hopes that this firmness will contrast with the supposed weakness of Barack Obama, bringing to mind the image of Ronald Reagan confronting Jimmy Carter in 1980.


Despite the efforts made by Mitt Romney to appear as the candidate of firmness, one may believe that the reality of the international situation would compel him to conduct a more measured policy once in power. The muscular rhetoric of the campaign should not conceal the relative closeness existing between the positions of Messrs Romney and Obama on foreign policy. That is largely linked to the reduction of the margin for manœuvre of the United States on the international stage as a consequence of the assertiveness of powers like China,  Russia, India and Brazil. One may in fact wonder about the ability of a future Republican president to put an end to the Iranian nuclear programme, to  stabilise Afghanistan or to force Beijing to revalue its currency. Apart from the importance of the economic context and the relatively positive image of the international actions of President Obama, this reduction of American influence explains why the foreign policy will not be a decisive topic this year.  The tone employed by Mitt Romney and his team aims essentially at masking the fact that they in reality have few profound arguments to distinguish themselves from the line of Barack Obama.


Lastly, one notes that the Republican candidate’s programme reflects the importance which he gives to the economic dimension in the international correlation of forces. This appears particularly in his position with regard to Moscow, whose influence in the energy domain he fears. This tropism, which comes from his career in the private sector, is a means of taking advantage of his experience as a businessman and to link foreign policy with the main preoccupations of Americans. Considering the form which the campaign may take, this seems judicious but perhaps may not be sufficient to prevent the reelection of Barack Obama.




© ESISC 2012

[1] Nia-Malika Henderson, Philip Rucker, ‘Romney clinches nomination, attacks Obama on Solyndra, but Trump steals the spotlight’, The Washington Post, 30 May 2012.

[2] Chris McGreal, ‘Obama campaign marks Bin Laden raid anniversary with Romney attack ad’, The Guardian, 30 April 2012.

[3] Michael D. Shear, ‘Obama’s Afghanistan Trip Could Escalate Political Criticism’, The New York Times, 1 May 2012.

[4] Mitt Romney, An American Century : A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals, 7 October 2011,

[5] Ibid., p. 2.

[6] Ibid., p. 7.

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

[8] Ibid., p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 9.

[10] Ibid., p. 7.

[11] Ibid., p. 8.

[12] Ibid., p. 5.

[13] Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[14] Ibid., pp. 34-36.

[15] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[16] Ibid., pp. 20-22.

[17] Ibid., pp. 23-24.

[18] Callum Borchers, ‘Mitt Romney urges US to arm Syrian rebels, lead effort to oust Bashar Assad’, The Boston Globe, 29 May 2012.

[19] Mitt Romney, op. cit., pp. 24-28.

[20] Ibid., pp. 30-32.

[21] Ibid., pp. 28-29.

[22] Mitt Romney,  ‘Reinforcing alliance’s military might is vital’, The Chicago Tribune, 19 May 2012.

[23] Philip Rucker, ‘Mitt Romney taps foreign policy, national security advisers’, The Washington Post, 6 October 2011.

[24] John Bolton,  ‘Romney: The Conservative Who Can Beat Obama’, The Wall Street Journal, 20 January 2012.

[25] Mission Statement, The Foreign Policy Initiative.

[26] Helene Cooper, ‘Candidates Hammer Obama Over Iran, but Approaches Differ Little’, The New York Times, 5 March 2012.

[27] Raphaël Ramos, Soixante ans après sa création, la CIA doit redonner la priorité au renseignement stratégique, [Sixty years after its creation, the CIA must restore priority to strategic intelligence] ESISC, 2 October 2007.

[28] Mark Landler, ‘On Foreign Policy, Romney Breaks With Advisers’, The New York Times, 20 January 2012.

[29] Ben Smith, ‘Romney’s Foreign Policy Hints’, Politico, 6 October 2011.

[30] Ben Smith, ‘Mitt Romney hawks new hard line on foreign policy,’ Politico, 19 January 2012.

[31] ‘Romney’s Foreign Policy May Mean Hardball Is Back’, The Associated Press, 18 April 2012.

[33] Richard A. Oppel Jr., ‘Romney’s Adversarial View of Russia Stirs Debate’, The New York Times, 11 May 2012.

[34] Peter Baker, ‘Lugar Attacks Romney on Nuclear Treaty’, The New York Times, 8 July 2010.

[35] David E. Sanger, ‘Is There a Romney Doctrine?’, op. cit.

[36] Michael D. Shear, ‘Powell Criticizes Romney on Foreign Policy’, The New York Times, 23 May 2012.

[37] David E. Sanger,  ‘Is There a Romney Doctrine?’, op. cit.

[38] Maggie Haberman,  ‘Mitt Romney’s top political adviser: Mitt Romney’, Politico, 4 June 2012.

[39] David E. Sanger, ‘Is There a Romney Doctrine?’, op. cit.

[40] Richard Williamson, ‘Obama’s Jimmy Carter Moment’, Foreign Policy, 26 April 2012.

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