Presidents who are successful in foreign policy get the big picture right. And they typically have it right before taking office — although journalists and academics often recognize that only long after the fact, if at all. Ronald Reagan is a clear example. Years before he became president, Reagan understood, and said, that the Soviet Union was vulnerable economically and technologically. He argued that, if confronted with vigorous competition from the United States, the Soviet leadership could be forced into making meaningful agreements that benefited the United States and even into introducing change to the Soviet system. In the 1970s and in 1980, before his election as president, Reagan was virtually alone among national political figures in holding those views. Journalists covering Reagan at the time mostly missed the significance of his views and the impact they would have on U.S. foreign policy. They were occupied instead with the ephemera of political campaigns and constrained by their stereotype of Reagan as a foreign-policy novice.
Something similar may be at work in this presidential campaign. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have the big picture right in foreign policy, in ways that could affect U.S. national security deeply and positively. Yet those views are little noted or reflected upon by the media or academic commentators.
First, Romney has evinced a clear interest in pursuing a competitive strategy for the United States. He has focused on what our actual and potential adversaries in the world are up to, why, and what it means for us — and on employing our relative strengths to achieve our objectives.
It is worth remembering what it was that George Kennan, rightly perceived as one of the preeminent U.S. strategists of the 20th century, contributed so consequentially to U.S. foreign policy. Kennan set out an explanation of what the U.S.S.R. was about, how and why it acted, and what that meant for the United States. In focusing on the nature of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, Kennan pointed out that there was a peaceful way for the United States to overcome the threat, a way centered on the weaknesses of the Soviets and the comparative strengths of the United States and its allies.
Similarly, in Reagan’s classified strategy directives, a thoughtful analysis of the Soviet regime led to a policy approach aimed at shaping the environment in which Soviet leaders made decisions so as to encourage internal changes in the U.S.S.R: the mellowing of Soviet behavior and even changes in the nature of the regime. That strategy and its successful execution set the stage for the end of the Cold War.
The United States faces many and varied threats now, not one. Yet that makes following a competitive strategy — or strategies — with respect to our principal adversaries all the more important. In the first chapter of his 2010 book No Apology, Romney analyzes alternative strategies for global leadership by the United States and its main adversaries and competitors. That assessment in many respects sets the backdrop for Romney’s ensuing discussion of policy prescriptions for the economy, defense, health care, immigration, and so on throughout the book. Romney suggests that his interest in competitive strategy derives from his business and consulting experience: “Countries, like businesses, need strategies to survive and prosper. A nation’s strategy should be designed to propel it beyond its competitors and to increase the security and prosperity of its competitors.”
Yet his interest in pursuing a competitive strategy is a hallmark of successful presidents in foreign policy. It is a welcome and necessary contrast to four years of a president whose foreign policy, too often an odd mix of narcissism and declinism, seems entirely unrelated to a thoughtful analysis of the motives and capabilities of other important international actors. Should Romney carry through, once in office, with devising and pursuing competitive strategies to address the threats posed by our actual and potential adversaries, he will put U.S. foreign policy on a sound footing and maximize his likelihood of shaping the international environment in ways conducive to U.S. interests.
Second, Romney and Ryan have demonstrated a serious concern with the consequences of America’s debt and deficit on our foreign-policy objectives and responsibilities. Romney and Ryan are determined to address straightforwardly and urgently our exploding debt and deficit — a stark contrast with President Obama. In an address in the summer of 2011 to the Alexander Hamilton Society, Ryan focused on the intersection of our economic trajectory and foreign-policy aims: “Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course; and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.” Ryan added: “A world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place, a place where we have less influence, and a place where our citizens face more dangers and fewer opportunities. Take a moment and imagine a world led by China or Russia.”
Third, as part of their overall effort to strengthen the sinews of American power, Romney and Ryan have focused on reinforcing, not cutting, defense. Romney and Ryan’s intention to bolster the elements of U.S. “hard power,” especially defense, may not be fashionable. But it is no less important for that, and will help ensure that the military they seek to strengthen will ultimately need to be used sparingly, if at all.
On foreign policy, Romney and Ryan have the big picture right — to pursue a competitive strategy, fix our looming fiscal crisis before it triggers an avoidable decline, and rebuild the architecture of our hard power. Now they must get elected — and implement their vision once in office.
— Paul Lettow is a former senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and the author of Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.