Romney’s simple foreign policy ideas won’t work in the real world

September 8, 2012 

Mitt Romney has been criticized for not discussing foreign policy. Give him a break. He probably figures he’s already said all that he needs to say during the primaries: He has a big stick, and he is going to use it on Day 1. Or as he put it: “If I’m president of the United States ... on Day 1, I will declare China a currency manipulator, allowing me to put tariffs on products where they are stealing American jobs unfairly.”

That is really cool. Smack China on Day 1. I just wonder what happens on Day 2 when China, the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. debt securities, announces that it will not participate in the next Treasury auction, sending our interest rates soaring. That will make Day 3 really, really cool. Welcome to the Romney foreign policy, which I’d call: “George W. Bush abroad – the cartoon version.”

I know that Romney doesn’t believe a word he’s saying on foreign policy and that its all aimed at ginning up votes: There’s some China-bashing to help in the Midwest, some Arab-bashing to win over the Jews, some Russia-bashing (our “No. 1 geopolitical foe”) to bring in the Polish vote, plus a dash of testosterone to keep the neocons off his back.

What’s odd is that Romney was in a position to sound smart on foreign policy, not like a knee-jerk hawk. He just needed to explain what every global business leader learned long before governments did – that, since the end of the Cold War, the world has become not just more interconnected but more interdependent and this new structural reality requires a new kind of American leadership. Why?

In this increasingly interdependent world, your “allies” can hurt you as much as your “enemies.” After all, the biggest threats to President Barack Obama’s re-election are whether little Greece pulls out of the eurozone and triggers a global economic meltdown or whether Israel attacks Iran and does the same.

In this increasingly interdependent world, we have few pure “enemies” anymore: Iran, North Korea, Cuba, al-Qaida, the Taliban. But we have many “frenemies,” or half friends/half foes. While the Pentagon worries about a war with China, the Commerce Department is trying to get China to buy more Boeing planes and every American university worth its salt is opening a campus in Beijing; meanwhile, the Chinese are investing in American companies left and right. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is the biggest thorn in America’s side in Latin America and a vital source of our imported oil. The U.S. and Russia are on opposing sides in Syria, but the U.S. supported Russia’s joining the World Trade Organization and American businesses are lobbying Congress to lift Cold War trade restrictions on Russia so they can take advantage of its more open market.

Think of Egypt. I was critical of Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, for attending the Nonaligned Movement summit meeting in Iran. I argued that he was giving legitimacy to an Iranian regime that had crushed the very kind of democratic movement that brought Morsi to power. But Morsi surprised me, for the better, by using his visit to Tehran to call out the Iranian leadership for supporting Syria’s “oppressive” regime. The Iranians were livid. You can be sure that, on other days, Morsi will say and do things that will give us indigestion. We still need Egypt’s strategic support in the region. It still needs our economic aid.

If the world is more interdependent, how do we create healthy interdependencies so we rise together, rather than unhealthy interdependencies so we fall together? The 2008 global economic crisis was an example of an unhealthy interdependency. So is the failure to reach any kind of global climate agreement. When we bring Russia into the World Trade Organization, we’re creating a healthy interdependency. When Russia protects Syria’s dictator, even when he’s crushing his own people, it’s creating an unhealthy interdependency.

The best way for an American president to forge healthy interdependencies is, first, to get our own house in order and gain the leverage – in terms of resources and moral authority – that come from leading by example. For instance, Romney is right: There are unhealthy aspects to the U.S.-China interdependency that need working on, but they are not all China’s fault. We would have more leverage to build a more healthy relationship if we saved more, consumed less, studied harder and got our own banks to behave less recklessly.

Republicans love to criticize Obama for “leading from behind.” But if you’re not leading by example in an interdependent world, you can lead from the front or behind – no one will follow you for long.

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, may be reached at 630 Eighth St., New York, NY 10018.

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