During his fifth State of the Union, President Obama articulated a foreign policy vision that can pretty accurately be described as modest. On nearly all fronts he displayed a preference for restraint and moderation, rather than bold engagement abroad. There was one notable exception, however: Trade. The President outlined a second-term trade agenda that is as ambitious as anything we’ve seen since the 1990’s. Completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and launching a new round of US-EU FTA talks holds the potential to bring about the broadest and most robust expansion of economic liberalization, harmonization, and engagement since the Uraguay round. For a President who has spent four years trying to constrain the scale and scope of traditional hard power, he appears much more comfortable allowing economic statecraft to be the face of American leadership overseas. In that way, Obama’s second term foreign policy may end up looking very Clintonian, and no I don’t mean Hillary.
In a window of a few short days, both Mitt Romney and Defense Secretary Panetta have descended on the Middle East, and the differences in the policy visions put forth by the two men could not be more stark. Romney has been consistently suspicious of the democracy movements throughout the Middle East and North Africa, going so far as to suggest that the Arab Spring has become an “Arab Winter.” If he does not support working with the region’s bourgeoning democratic institutions, then what underlies his strategy for a 21st century Middle East? One of his top foreign policy advisors suggested to the press that he would not oppose a unilateral (or perhaps U.S.-assisted) military strike on Iran. Never mind that a move like that would certainly send energy prices through the roof and cause a shock-wave of destabilizing ripple effects throughout the region. And as far as his approach to economic growth for these nations? He and members of his party have been highly critical of aid and financial support to the transition countries, and when he spoke to an audience at a fundraiser in Jerusalem he observed that the strength of the Israeli economy was based on their “culture” and “the hand of providence.” Policymakers in Tunisia struggling to consolidate democratic gains in the face of economic stagnation are unlikely to be inspired by the Governor’s suggestion that hope lies in simply appropriating Jewish culture and getting on God’s good side.
Secretary Panetta, in sharp contrast, ventured to Tunisia in order to develop a collaborative strategy “to support the Tunisian government’s efforts to strengthen the capacity of their defense institutions,” and help them defend their fragile democracy against al Qaeda and al Shabab. This defense support is in addition to an economic engagement program highlighted last month when Under Secretary of State Hormats visited Tunis. He explained that in addition to lobbying for the creation of a flexible Middle East and North African Incentive Fund to support moderates and democratic institutions, under President Obama’s leadership the “United States is helping stabilize the Tunisian economy by extending a guarantee that will enable the central bank to issue bonds worth several hundred million dollars to international investors…The United States provided a $100 million cash transfer to the Government of Tunisia for near-term debt relief…accelerating economic growth and job creation.”
While the President’s team offers support for these nascent democracies by aiding the development of their economies, institutions, and counter-terrorism capacity—Mitt Romney appears perfectly happy to write-off the entire region as just another unlucky, uncultured, place that is best viewed through a rifle scope or the cockpit of a fighter jet.