WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney is in the midst of his first international jaunt as the presumptive Republican nominee for president. This is a moment for him to show the world and the American people that he is a serious alternative to President Obama, a leader who understands the complexities of the world, the threats we face and the seriousness of the times.
It is a golden opportunity for Romney to demonstrate his skills in Britain, Israel and Poland.
But there is also risk for Romney in this trip, as it will be tempting for him to break with the bipartisan American tradition of not criticizing a sitting American president when abroad.
Instead, Romney, much like Obama had during his 2008 trip abroad, needs a message that clearly articulates what he stands for on foreign policy.
Back in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama traveled to Britain, Germany, France, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan and Israel to share his vision of a new American foreign policy. He vowed to reset American relations with Europe and the Arab world, to maintain vigorous support for Israeli security, to withdraw American forces from Iraq, and to aggressively combat terrorism.
At the time, it was a needed message. Recall that just four years ago, America’s global reputation was in tatters, we didn’t know where Osama bin-Laden was, the Iranian nuclear program was under fewer restraints, and we were mired in a war in Iraq that seemed irretrievably endless.
Now, four years later, the United States can look abroad with confidence. Osama bin-Laden is gone and his terrorist network is on the run. Relations with Europe have been mended. We are out of Iraq and on our way out of Afghanistan, with security arrangements embedded in these relationships. Nuclear weapons stockpiles are decreasing. Iran’s nuclear program is under intense international pressure and scrutiny while diplomacy to resolve the crisis is under way. Israel is the beneficiary of the highest levels of American security assistance ever provided. America’s relations with the world have been revitalized.
As a result, the American people judge these actions as effective, with 64 percent of Americans, in an Associated Press poll from this spring, approving of Obama's handling of terrorism — the core national security issue of our time.
This trip therefore provides significant risks for Romney. He won’t match the hero’s welcome that Obama received in Berlin, when Obama spoke in front of hundreds of thousands of Germans. And he is unlikely to convince Americans in one trip abroad that he can outperform Obama on foreign policy, as evidenced by a 53 to 36 percent advantage that Obama holds over Romney on international affairs, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
So how will Romney distinguish himself?
In Britain, will he denounce Obama’s attempts to withdraw all of our combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014? If so, that would be criticizing a position that the United States shares with Britain, a country whose leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, recently called our bilateral relations “rock-solid.” Would Romney call for the United States to break with Britain – and the majority of Americans – to keep our troops in Afghanistan indefinitely?
In Israel, will he denounce Obama’s assessment that a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is essential to preserving Israel’s democracy and Jewish character? If he does, he’ll be challenging a position shared by the majority of Israelis and American Jews, including multiple past Israeli prime ministers and security leaders. Or, would he argue that Israel is less secure with Obama at the helm, despite record levels of security assistance provided by the U.S. to Israel – nearly $10 billion over the past three years – and an unprecedented level of pressure on Iran to come clean about its nuclear program? As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reminds us, “I don’t think that anyone can raise any question mark about the devotion of this president to the security of Israel.”
In Poland, will he reiterate his view that Russia is our country’s “number one geopolitical foe,” despite Polish pleas for positive relations between Russia and the United States? Will he denounce the 2010 New START treaty that reduced both American and Russian nuclear arsenals — a treaty that he called President Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake?” When he meets with Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, will he tell Sikorski that he was wrong for publicly supporting the treaty?
While Americans might not be paying as much attention to foreign affairs this election cycle as they did during the 2008 election, it still matters, as evidenced by Romney’s trip abroad. A candidate’s aptitude on foreign policy shows the character of the candidate. It also creates a baseline against which the American people can judge whether the next occupant of the Oval Office has what it takes to keep Americans safe.
The sitting president has passed this test. Now it’s time to see whether his election opponent is up to the challenge.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)