President Obama: the New Guardian of a Realist-Based Security Policy by Timothy J. Sandole

The 2012 presidential election has been disappointing as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned. To a certain degree, this is understandable: The lumbering economic recovery and chronically dismal employment numbers have kept President Obama and Governor Romney at each other's throat over the health of the U.S. economy, dedicating little time to international issues. But dodging a serious discussion about foreign policy is dangerous to the national security of the United States because of the potentially significant geopolitical shifts that can challenge the orientation and stability of the U.S.-dominated world order. What arouses even more anxiety in the short term, however, is the intermittent, yet startling amount of foreign policy-related polemics emanating from the Romney camp, raising serious questions as to whether Mitt Romney is fully prepared to craft a responsible national security strategy.

While Obama certainly deserves criticism for some of the strategies he has employed (his capriciousness in Afghanistan stands out), it can at least be noted that he has devised, thought through and ultimately employed strategies that reflect a sound understanding of U.S. power and its limitations. For all of the criticism Romney places on Obama’s record, the governor has yet to scrupulously articulate a major foreign policy strategy. Thus far, Romney’s rhetoric has been simultaneously ambiguous and counter-productive, stating that, on his first day in office, he will designate China a currency manipulator and also labeled Russia as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe” without afterthought. The former is inimical to U.S. interests because it could precipitate a nationalist backlash in China and start a trade war, further choking off the U.S. economic recovery. The latter is bizarrely anachronistic—a clear throwback to the Cold War. At the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton correctly stated that normalizing trade relations with Russia, a recently inducted member into the World Trade Organization (WTO), is in the economic interests of the United States. While Russia certainly creates headaches from its support for Iran and Syria, ideological predispositions should not preclude cooperation with them on issues beneficial to the United States. A Romney presidency could put said cooperation in jeopardy.

Romney is seemingly inspired by American exceptionalism, or the notion that the U.S. is morally endowed to spread its values around the world as a primary driver of policy. This philosophy, which is ebulliently embraced by neoconservative puritans, defined much of George W. Bush’s foreign policy (mis)adventures. Thus far, it appears Romney continues to support the neoconservative mantra of unnecessarily high defense budgets—never mind any fiscal woes, what a strategy may demand, or the appropriation requests from the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a hands-off approach toward Israel, even if that entails holding the United States rhetorically hostage to strike Iran; and a belief that the United States must unreservedly “lead from the front” in all military campaigns, regardless of what U.S. interests demand or any strategic constraints that may exist.

Obama, on the other hand, has been able to capture the foreign policy middle ground by sensibly judging where America’s interests are vital—securing loose nuclear material and pivoting toward Asia—as opposed to interests that are less pressing but nonetheless important—indirect  intervention in Libya and staying relatively clear of the imbroglio in Syria. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, sums this feat up in a recent article he wrote for The National Interest: By co-opting “traditional realists not generally associated with Democrats,” Obama has given his Democrats “their first real shot at being America’s leading party on foreign policy...”

The neoconservative hijacking of the Republican Party away from national interest-oriented Republican realists like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz is unfortunate but hardly new. Obama’s judgment of international affairs has proven to be so judicious that the Democratic Party has supplanted their Republican counterparts in a public shift as the responsible guardians of U.S. national security policy. In an election year where foreign policy is barely mentioned, it is a better bet to go with Obama’s prudent record of subordinating U.S. values to U.S. strategic concerns rather than stand behind Romney, who seemingly has transposed those two priorities.

Editor's note: The last sentence of this article has been changed to better reflect the author's intent. 

Timothy Sandole is an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Security Policy from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.