Like the rest of the Republican presidential field, Mitt Romney has gotten a pass on foreign policy throughout this campaign. In particular, the former Massachusetts governor has gotten away with inconsistent and largely incoherent statements about America’s commitment in Afghanistan. But with his most viable rivals either choosing not to run or self-destructing, his re-emergence as the clear GOP frontrunner requires him to start defining what a Romney presidency would look like on questions of security and war and peace.

In that context, Romney’s rousing speech on foreign policy at the Citadel today provided some welcome clarity about the contrast he plans to draw between his ideas and those of President Obama. Romney’s unapologetic statement of American exceptionalism and devotion to the promotion of freedom as well as his understanding of the threats facing the country from Islamism, Iran, as well as China and Russia, provides encouragement for conservatives who have been waiting to hear whether he is up to the task of being commander-in-chief.

At the core of Romney’s speech was a reaffirmation of a concept much derided in the Obama administration: the idea of American exceptionalism. In Romney’s formulation it is this belief in the founding principles of the republic that propels the nation onto the world stage to defend the universality of human rights as well as national security. While he went into some detail about specific threats and challenges, the overall theme was one of commitment to the idea of U.S. leadership and maintenance of its position as the strongest nation on earth in what he says will be yet another “American century.”

Some on the left will deride Romney’s speech as a rerun of the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush administration. But in tone as well as text, it was a reminder that, contrary to the claims of some in the media his party is retreating into isolationism, belief in a strong foreign policy and a willingness to defend American values and allies is still the mainstream position in the GOP.

Though there were no great revelations in the address, some of the most interesting points concerned Romney’s commitment to reversing Obama’s cuts in defense spending. Given that many in his party have succumbed to the notion the Pentagon must be slighted in order to deal with the budget deficit, Romney’s clarion call for more spending on national defense and the Navy showed despite the public’s current obsession with the economy, he understands there are other concerns that must sometimes trump those of the fiscal hawks.

Romney went out of his way to talk about the need to support Israel and to defend its existence as a Jewish state and to increase defense cooperation. At the same time, he also emphasized the need to confront Iran and to stop its drive for nuclear weapons as well as regional hegemony.

But in addition, he also specifically addressed the threats from the rising military power of China and the desire of Russia’s autocrats to recreate the Soviet empire. Such bold talk will dismay some who think Obama’s belief in engaging these rivals makes sense, but given the utter failure of the administration’s hopes to get those two powers to act sensibly on threats like Iran, Romney’s position makes perfect sense.

On Afghanistan, Romney was still a bit vague as he spoke of consultations with the military to determine which force levels will be required to maintain America’s gains there. His pledge that the decision he reaches on that issue will not be influenced by politics may be a reach, but it should provide some hope a President Romney won’t be in thrall to the desire of some to bug out of the U.S. commitment to keep the Taliban from returning to power.

Romney’s speech, like the roster of foreign policy advisers his campaign released yesterday, should quiet worries he isn’t prepared to meet the dangers a feckless Obama will leave for his successor. Most Republicans are bound to be happy about a president who promises never to apologize for America and who thinks the 21st century must be yet another American-dominated epoch.  Though there is no guarantee he will follow up effectively on all the points he articulated today, at the very least, it is a good start.