As the U.S. elections approach, Mitt Romney’s sometimes bellicose rhetoric on national security is raising European eyebrows. But many in Washington believe that if the Republican contender were to become president, U.S. policies might not differ much from the last four years. Despite Romney’s strong criticism of Barack Obama, some of the challenger’s views on foreign policy issues are similar to the president’s. And the points on which they disagree may matter little: U.S. presidents rarely implement their more outlandish campaign pledges. In any case, Congress will continue to set limits on U.S. policy on issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and nuclear arms control, whoever the president. But, if Mitt Romney genuinely believes much of his foreign policy rhetoric, a Republican victory in November could mean difficult times for transatlantic relations.
The former governor has, for example, identified Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” He considers Obama’s ‘reset’ with Moscow to have been a failure. He opposed ratification of the New START treaty on strategic weapons reductions because it supposedly allows Russia to expand its nuclear arsenal – Romney has notably warned that the treaty, unprecedentedly, allows Russia to mount intercontinental ballistic missiles on bombers. The Republican candidate has also strongly criticised Obama’s missile defence plan as less technologically reliable and ambitious than that of George W. Bush, and for downgrading the involvement of U.S. allies Poland and the Czech Republic.
Europeans, however, welcomed the U.S.-Russia reset. Many of them worry about Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and non-co-operation on Syria. But most Europeans think the reset has made Russia more helpful on Afghanistan and Iran. They like New START, and many EU governments will have been confused by Romney’s concerns about bombers equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles. Indeed it would be impossible for a bomber to take off with such a heavy load. Even EU countries that are more hawkish on Russia are likely to see Romney’s views as unnecessarily antagonistic. Initial concerns in Poland and the Czech Republic about the Obama administration’s commitment to their security have been largely addressed, after the US placed fighter jets in central Europe and started holding regular military exercises there. And Poland has been working on its own reset with Russia in recent years.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.