CORRECTION: The original version of this story misidentified Lech Walesa. He is a former president.
For any man who would be president there are unwritten rules of foreign diplomacy. Mitt Romney seems to have internalized some, while others apparently slipped out of the briefing book on his flight across the Atlantic to debut as a potential leader of the free world.
Romney largely adhered to the rule against seeming overly critical of the president on foreign soil. He also compensated neatly with a blistering critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy delivered at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nevada shortly before he traveled abroad. In his speech, Romney criticized Obama for being overly solicitous of adversaries such as Iran, and insufficiently supportive of friends like Israel.
Romney’s first overseas trip as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was smartly plotted to advance that narrative. Stop by London, rub elbows with like-minded conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, remind viewers back home that he managed to run a pretty successful Olympics in Salt Lake City. Check. Fly to Israel, hobnob with fellow conservative and personal friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remind American Jewish voters in swing states such as Florida of his oft-repeated contention that President Barack Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. Check. Catch a flight to Poland, remind Polish-American voters in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania that the Obama administration scrapped a planned missile defense facility in Poland in order to “reset” relations with Russia, which historically has used Warsaw as a speed bump. Check.
Romney failed to read the unwritten rule, however, about not criticizing your hosts on their home turf. At first blush his comments in London that a reported lack of security personnel and planned transportation strikes were “disconcerting” seemed downright mild, especially compared to blaring headlines in British tabloids in recent weeks claiming that the Games were going to be an unmitigated disaster (“Security Shambles Could Cause Chaos” was a typical recent headline in The Daily Mail). As Romney learned, however, Londoners have the same proprietary view toward the Olympic Games as many parents have about their children: We can scold them, but you had better not dare.
“Romney has discovered that even the ‘special relationship’ with Britain doesn’t make up for British resentment of a Yankee coming over and raining on their great national project,” said James Lindsey, a senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. That points to a danger of foreign trips for presidential candidates. “The upside is not all that high since you are really only trying to project a presidential image, but as Romney has discovered the potential downsides are significant because any misstatement opens you up to a lot of criticism.” By attending a fundraising dinner in Britain cohosted by executives at banks under investigation in London’s rate-fixing scandal, Romney also revealed once again a blind spot for perceptions that he is oblivious to the wrongdoing of Wall Street, and out of touch with average voters.
In Israel, Romney ignored the unwritten rule not to become overly embroiled in local controversies and disputes. He was on safe ground publicly recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself by denying Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. However, in calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel and hinting that his administration would move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv (a move rejected by Republican and Democratic administrations going back decades), Romney signaled that under his leadership the United States would decisively take Israel’s side in its dispute with the Palestinians, and abandon its venerable role of mediator in the conflict. He then added insult to injury by suggesting that the Israeli economy had outpaced the economy of the Palestinian territories because of the power of Israel’s “culture” and the “hand of providence.” Interjecting God and cultural superiority into an ethnic-religious conflict is never a good idea. Doing so while ignoring the obvious fact that one economy in the equation is free, and the other is under military occupation, was baffling.
Romney’s rhetorical hard line that Russia is the United States' “number one geopolitical foe” has played well in Poland, where Romney received the support of former President Lech Walesa. It has been less enthusiastically received by Western European powers, however, who objected to what they perceived as George W. Bush’s unnecessarily antagonistic approach to Moscow (which culminated with Russian troops invading Georgia in 2008). Western European allies are also sensitive to Romney’s oft-repeated argument that Europe is exactly the kind of basket case that the United States will become if he is not elected.
“If I were not to get elected, we would in my view become more like Europe,” Romney told C-Span recently. “With higher deficits, with a debt that could put us in a Greece, or Spain or Italy-like circumstance, with chronic high unemployment, with low wage growth, and with a military that gets slowly but surely hollowed out so it could pay for the various programs the government would try and keep in place.”
Romney’s close affinity for Israel’s right-of-center Likud Party, his tough line on Russia and Afghanistan, and his unwillingness to propose solutions to climate change all sound familiar to many Europeans. “Notwithstanding their widespread disappointment in President Obama, Europeans are nervous about Romney precisely because his positions remind them of George W. Bush,” said Simon Serfaty, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.