Call it the nostalgia tour. On Tuesday, when Mitt Romney leaves for his much-hyped international trip, he won’t merely be traveling overseas; he’ll be traveling back in time.
Romney likes to say that the goal of his foreign policy is to create another “American century.” Henry Luce coined the term in Life magazine in 1941 in an essay urging the United States to use World War II to eclipse Great Britain and assert its dominance on the world stage. “Among serious Englishmen,” Luce wrote, “the chief complaint against America ... has really amounted to this—that America has refused to rise to the opportunities of leadership in the world.”
For Romney, that’s still the narrative. On the campaign trail, he often cites an unnamed former British prime minister who implored him to understand the global importance of American strength. And the first stop on this week’s trip will be, you guessed it, Britain—a country that plays a comforting role in American foreign policy lore as the Tonto to our Lone Ranger.
But the world no longer works that way. In explaining Romney’s choice of foreign stops, his policy director, Lanhee Chen, declared that each country he’s visiting “shares our love of liberty as well as the fortitude to defend it.” But if Romney really wanted to underscore the way America and Britain are today exhibiting same “the fortitude to defend” liberty that they did in 1941, he’d go to Afghanistan, denounce Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops by 2014, and make a Churchillian speech about continuing the fight for as long as it takes and as much as it costs. But Romney isn’t going to Afghanistan, because doing so would expose how misplaced his 1940s-era analogizing is. Today, unlike then, totalitarian foes do not threaten world domination. Today, unlike then, Britain is not urging America to join it on the field of battle. Today, unlike then, “serious Englishmen” see America’s appetite for expensive and unnecessary wars as leading us down the path to bankruptcy that Britain traveled in the decades prior to 1941.
If Romney is going to England so he can pretend it’s 1941, he’s going to Poland so he can pretend it’s 1981. He’s going at the invitation of Lech Walesa, the former trade-union activist who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for his struggle against communist oppression. In Poland, according to advisers, Romney will visit sites of “historical significance” and highlight an alliance “rich in history.”
This history allows Romney to audition for the role every Republican presidential candidate has been trying to play since the Cold War’s end: Ronald Reagan. Romney has been trying out for a while now, even calling Russia America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” But if the Taliban aren’t the Nazis, neither is Vladimir Putin Leonid Brezhnev. Although Moscow can still give America headaches, it lacks the economic power to re-create the empire that Walesa helped overthrow. In fact, the most relevant lesson from 1980s-era Eastern Europe for today’s United States is the same one Romney could learn from a “serious Englishman”: the danger of assuming imperial responsibilities that you don’t have the economic muscle to sustain.
Romney’s other stop is Israel, where he’ll meet Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader as determined as himself to subordinate the present to the past. In 1993, when then–foreign minister Shimon Peres signed the Oslo accords, Netanyahu compared him to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Hitler. Since retaking the prime ministership in 2009, Netanyahu has made Iran the centerpiece of his Nazi analogizing (despite criticism in the Israeli press). And when the Arab Spring broke out, Netanyahu expressed nostalgia for men like Hosni Mubarak, with whom Israel could work more easily behind closed doors because dictators don’t have to justify their actions to their people.
So what would a trip to the 21st century look like? It would require stopping somewhere in the global east or south, where power is clearly shifting. And it would involve some recognition that turmoil in the global economy—and the global climate—poses as grave a threat to American security as do missiles, terrorists, and warships. Yet such realities aren’t on Romney’s itinerary, because they don’t seem to be on his agenda.
In his big foreign-policy speech last fall at the Citadel, Romney identified the five “powerful forces that may threaten freedom, prosperity, and America’s national interests.” First was “Islamic fundamentalism.” Second was “the struggle in the greater Middle East between those who yearn for freedom and those who seek to crush it.” Third was “the dangerous and destabilizing ripple effects of failed and failing states, from which terrorists may find safe haven.” Fourth was “the anti-American visions of regimes in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba,” and fifth was “rising nations with hidden and emerging aspirations, like China, determined to be a world superpower, and a resurgent Russia.” The remarkable thing about Romney’s list is that it could have been lifted verbatim from a George W. Bush speech in 2004. Nowhere does he betray any recognition that the international financial crisis has reshaped the international scene. In fact, for a candidate who has made “It’s the economy, stupid” his central domestic message, Romney’s foreign-policy vision is as dismissive of international economics as was Bush’s. The Romney campaign has foreign-policy working groups on “Afghanistan-Pakistan,” “Africa,” “Asia-Pacific,” “counterproliferation,” “counterterrorism and intelligence,” “defense,” “Europe,” “human rights,” “international assistance,” “international organizations,” “Latin America,” “Middle East and North Africa,” and “Russia.” But international economics isn’t on the list.
The itinerary of Barack Obama’s 2008 foreign jaunt didn’t perfectly mirror global realities either. But Obama has gingerly acknowledged the new realities of a world in which American resources are dramatically more limited and in which the countries of the North Atlantic no longer tell everyone else what to do. He has scaled back Bush’s recklessly expansive war on terror. He helped the G20 supplant the overwhelmingly European G8, thus creating a forum that includes developing powers like China and Brazil. And his top advisers have spoken in Eisenhoweresque terms about keeping America’s military commitments from undermining its economic strength.
In 1943 Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry Wallace, challenged Luce’s vision with a speech entitled “The Century of the Common Man.” Wallace’s vision had its problems, especially in its naiveté about Stalin’s U.S.S.R. But in his critique of Luce’s American triumphalism, Wallace imagined some of the realities that would confront the U.S. today. In the future, Wallace predicted, “Chinese and the Indians ... [will] all learn to read and write and operate machines just as well as your children and my children. Everywhere [in the poor world] the common people are on the march.” The next time Mitt Romney travels abroad, he should meet some of them.