Stop trying to make Mitt Romney’s foreign policy acumen happen. It isn’t going to happen.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

Mitt Romney’s foreign affairs foresight is so great that when this photo was taken on Oct. 3, 2012, he knew I’d be writing about him in the summer of 2014. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s the summer, some observers think there’s a Big Lull going on, and I understand the need for commentators to commentate about … something.  So I don’t begrudge Matt K. Lewis’s effort to make “Mitt Romney 2016 — This Time, He’s the Underdog!” happen.  But there was one thing in his Week column that I can’t let pass unmentioned:  his claim that, “in the intervening years since 2012 — and on a range of issues, not the least of which is Russia — Romney has been proven right.”  This refers to Romney’s on-air description of Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe.” 

This is a meme that has popped up with increasing regularity since last fall (even though, during the campaign, Romney backed away from that assertion) to the point where his 2012 foreign policy adviser Alex Wong tried to write an “I told you so” victory lap in Politico about it.  On Russia in particular, Wong wrote:

During the 2012 campaign, Obama and his surrogates — using what they clearly thought was a clever talking point — enjoyed needling Romney’s Russia policy as a throwback to the Cold War era. Employing what can only be described as willful blindness, they skipped over the recent history of the Georgia invasion, Putin’s own declared nostalgia for the Soviet Empire and all the other clear indications of a strong revanchist streak inside the Kremlin. For the Obama campaign, history stopped the day the Soviet Union fell. Throughout 2012, it was perpetually 1991.

But Romney was clear-eyed about Putin, and about the divergences between the ex-KGB agent’s interests and America’s own. Putin has never been a natural partner of the United States, and gaining cooperation from him can only be achieved by applying well-placed pressure to manipulate his interests. Granting Putin concessions and raising his international prestige—as Obama did—only emboldens him. And now the world is dealing with the consequences of an emboldened Vladimir Putin.

Yes, the world is dealing with the consequences of an emboldened Vladimir Putin.  Indeed, Putin is such a geopolitical threat that … that … he can’t sustain a piddling rebellion in his most important neighboring state, and in the process he’s alienated his chief European ally and private capital is getting the hell out of the country.  Imagine the United States sending leaders, fighters and arms to Nova Scotia and not being able to pry it away from the rest of Canada, while at the same time foreign capital leaves New York for London, and you have a good sense of Russia’s power projection capabilities at the moment.

I don’t mean to minimize Russia’s ability to wreak havoc across its borders — that ability clearly exists.  But there’s a difference being a neighborhood bully and being the number one geopolitical foe of the United States.

Wong’s deeper point in that essay should be taken more seriously, however:

The animating theory that underlay Romney’s view of the world was that the United States and its allies are in strategic competition with rival systems of governance, and always have been. “Other global strategies, each pursued by at least one state or major actor, are aggressively being pursued to surpass us and, in some cases, to suppress us,” Romney wrote in his 2010 book, No Apology. That book—although viewed by many who never read it as a run-of-the-mill campaign biography—was in actuality a book about geopolitics. It identified the governance models of China, Russia and radical Islamic jihadism as the chief competitors at this point in history to American-style political and economic liberalism. To beat those actors and ensure our security, Romney wrote, U.S. leaders must first recognize that we are in fact in a competition and that our adversaries are implementing sophisticated strategies to beat us.

Remember that Reality Creator vs. Zen Master divide in American foreign policy that I was talking about earlier this week?  Wong illuminates how Romney is in the Reality Creator camp.  And as I noted in that post, there’s an undeniably attractive appeal to that worldview when the alternative appears to be passivity and inaction.

But stop trying to make Mitt Romney’s foreign policy foresight happen.  It isn’t going to happen.

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Robert Rand · July 31, 2014

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