Friday, August 31, 2012

Comparing the Foreign Policy of Obama and Romney

Posted by Associate Professor Brian Lai

With the Republican National Convention now over and Mitt Romney the official Republican candidate for President of the United States, this seems like a good time to talk about the differences between the two candidates on a few foreign policy issues.

Before beginning, there are a few caveats to this discussion. First, it is unclear how important foreign policy will be for the November election. A recent CBS poll asked respondents to say what they think is the most important problem facing the country today. Unsurprisingly, 50 percent said something about the Economy or Jobs with only 2 percent saying something about War or Peace. The central importance of the economy is seen in other polls throughout this year, with various foreign policy issues at most gaining 10 percent of respondents saying they are the most important problem. So while the two candidates do have different positions and approaches to foreign policy, their domestic policies may be more central to the upcoming election.

Second, candidates for President are often unable to implement their foreign policy when elected, so to what extent Romney’s foreign policy would be what is actually implemented if elected is hard to know. For example, one of Obama’s campaign pledges, made at a 2007 speech at the Wilson Center was, “As President, I will close Guantanamo...” There are still over 100 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Similarly, in 2000, Bush said in one of the debates, “And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building.” He went on to say, “I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military's meant to fight and win war. That's what it's meant to do. And when it gets over extended, morale drops.” September 11th did change national priorities but again, under President Bush, the US did commit to rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq. President Clinton and Reagan both made claims about being tougher on China when they were candidates but under both Presidents, US relations with China were strengthened.

With those two caveats in mind, let us compare the foreign policies of Obama and Romney.


Starting with Afghanistan where an additional 33,000 troops are set to return by the end of this year, differences between the policies of the two candidates are not very clear. In May, Obama announced his policy, which included the aforementioned drawdown of troops. It also calls for the military and police of Afghanistan to take over combat responsibility by 2014. At that point, US forces will be engaged in counter-terrorism missions and training. Romney’s policy is similar to Obama. In various speeches, he has indicated that he supports turning over combat to Afganistan’s forces by 2014. However, Romney has criticized Obama’s approach. First, he has suggested that the withdrawal timetable should not have been made public. Second, he has been critical of how the President has communicated to the American public about American policy in Afghanistan. Finally, he has argued that Obama has been driven more by political as opposed to strategic considerations. In terms of their actual policies, both want combat operations to be completely turned over to the Afghanistan government by 2014 as well as the withdrawal of US combat forces by that time.

Defense Spending

One area of difference is in proposed defense spending. While Obama calls for slow growth in the defense budget, Romeny is currently calling for a much bigger increase in the size of the defense budget. Depending on how fast the US economy grows, by 2016, there could be as much as a 100 billion dollar difference in defense spending between Romney and Obama’s approach. Given the importance of reducing the deficit for both candidates, increases in defense spending have to come from somewhere. Where this will come from for both candidates is less clear.


Another contentious issue where policy differences are less clear is what to do about Syria. It is easy to observe Obama’s policy as the incumbent President which relies on trying to promote cooperation in the United Nations Security Council to implement economic sanctions to force Assad into negotiations. Based on statements about Syria, Romney’s policy differs in two ways. The first tangible difference is that Romney has on at least one occasion called for the US to assist in the arming of Syrian rebels, something the Obama administration has resisted doing. Arming the Syrian rebels is a contentious issue and the benefits and consequences of doing so deserve its own blog post. The other less tangible difference is being more forceful in the United Nations Security Council. Romney has called for the US to push harder in the UN Security Council for sanctions.


The two candidates policies towards China and Asia are another area where there are some similarities and a few differences. Earlier this year, Obama called for a shift in our military strategy to focus on Asia, including having a greater naval presence in the region and closer ties with Asian states. While China was not directly mentioned, it seems that one of the primary reasons for this policy shift was to address the growing rise of China’s military power and assertiveness in the region. Romney calls for a similar policy, arguing that the US needs an expanded naval presence and needs to assist allies in the region, including arms sales of sophisticated weapons systems. One area of difference between the two is Romney’s claim that if elected, he would pressure China to change its currency valuation policy by labeling China a currency manipulator and imposing countervailing duties (an import tax in response to unfair trade practices) on Chinese goods. While Obama has argued that China has manipulated its currency, he has not gone so far as to require his Treasury department to make that claim, leading to changes in US trade practices with China.


Both candidates oppose Iran developing a nuclear weapons and any future negotiations will also include either limits on the ability of Iran to enrich uranium or strict verification methods to insure that enrichment is not for a weapons program. Currently, the US has imposed unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran in order to leverage them into negotiations. These include sanctions on countries that buy oil from Iran. Both Obama and Romney have stated that a military strike is on the table. Where the two candidates might differ is what threshold Iran would have to cross before a military strike might be used. From Obama’s statements, it seems that any attempt to produce a nuclear weapon might lead to the use of force by the US. Romney’s speeches on the topic suggest a similar approach though speeches by those who advise Romney indicate that a Romney administration may use a different threshold of determining when Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. The other potential rhetorical difference is support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Currently, the US has warned Israel not to strike Iran unilaterally. Romney has not said that he supports a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but instead said that “I recognize the right of Israel to defend itself.” and a Romney aide saying that Romney would support Israel if it used military force against Iran.

One reason for the lack of clear differences in foreign policies may be that foreign policy is not as important a campaign issue for most Americans. Foreign policy was discussed at the Republican National Convention but was only a small part of both Ryan and Romney’s speeches. Also, foreign policies are somewhat constrained by other states. For example, while non-incumbent candidates often talk tough about China, once elected as President, they tend to maintain a policy to China that is consistent with previous administrations. Finally, there is still plenty of time for both candidates to lay out policies in upcoming speeches and debates. Thus, while there are some differences in Obama and Romney’s foreign policies, currently they are not as stark as their differences on domestic issues.

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