It is hard to have a greater contrast of foreign policy philosophies than the one that pits Mitt Romney vs. Jon Huntsman.
On Friday, at the Citadel, Romney gave a full-throated defense of American power as a force for good in the world. He promised to restore President Obama’s cuts in the defense budget and to increase our shipbuilding; separately he also promised to increase the size of the army by 100,000 troops. On Afghanistan, Romney was a bit ambiguous, but he put the emphasis on mission accomplishment–not on drawdown: “The force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully is a decision I will make free from politics.” HIs most-quoted lined was: “I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.”
Today, Huntsman is giving his own foreign policy address in New Hampshire. His website provides a preview of what he’ll say: He will call for reductions in the size of the armed forces. “Simply advocating for more ships, more troops and more weapons isn’t a viable foreign policy,” he claims. He further argues, stealing a line from Barack Obama: “With regard to Afghanistan and other foreign entanglements, America should not be nation-building overseas when we have nation-building to do here at home.” This may not be isolationism, but it’s as close as a presidential candidate not named Ron Paul can get, whereas Romney is advocating a classic “peace through strength” foreign policy broadly in line with the foreign policy of Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
It is instructive to note, that with this clear contrast on offer, Romney is leading the Republican race with 21.8 percent in the Realclearpolitics average, while Huntsman is bringing up the rear at 1.8 percent–behind Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and lots of other candidates who will never occupy the Oval Office. Obviously, the difference in their relative political strength is not due entirely or even mainly to their foreign policy positions, but surely it is instructive that Huntsman is finding no political traction in spite of (or perhaps because of) his willingness to break with mainstream Republican foreign policy thinking.
Before this race started, it appeared that many Republicans were so fed up with the cost of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan they would be open to a candidate promising a return to quasi-isolationism in the mold of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, the last three Republican presidents who did not believe America had to lead the world. It hasn’t worked out that way. The Ron Paul fringe aside, it appears that the view I call “conservative internationalism”–which has a pedigree stretching back to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond–is alive and well and dominant within the Republican Party. Those of us who believe in the need for American strength in the world–which I believe includes the vast majority of the electorate–can be grateful for that.