Presidential Debate of October 22, 2012: AHA Roundtable

"I'm not sure history has ended"

Elizabeth Borgwardt, October 2012

Elizabeth Borgwardt“I’m not sure history has ended”
—John Bolton, Romney foreign policy advisor

What is the appropriate U.S. role in “nation-building,” both at home and abroad?  And what role does the U.S. appropriately play in supporting rule of law ideas?

Both candidates in the third presidential debate seemed to favor constructing coalitions and helping to develop the economies of various hot spots around the world.  Early on, Governor Romney spoke favorably of fostering civil society – although later he seemed to suggest that societies should simply behave with more civility, rather than anything Robert Putnam would recognize  – and what he called the “rule of law.”  President Obama then advocated the creation of “free markets” abroad.  Observers might be forgiven for thinking that each candidate’s endgame was to run as the other.  But then Obama pulled away by noting that “part of nation-building is making sure there is nation-building here at home.”  

“American exceptionalism” was a major motif of the Republican National Convention last August, even though this concept did not feature in the foreign policy presidential debate.  We learned last night that one dimension of such exceptionalism is apparently how any nation-building that might work for others abroad would not be appropriate domestically under President Romney.  The kinds of programs candidate Romney indicated he would support as part of U.S. foreign policy – including those promoting women’s equality, for example – are just flotsam primed for jettisoning in the domestic arena. 

Of course, not everyone on the Republican team believes in nation-building as part of what Romney called “our mission” overseas.  Former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, recently referenced in the New York Times as a possible secretary of state in a Romney administration, observed some time ago that entirely too much nation-building had been going on in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein: “I’ll exaggerate for effect but what we should have done is said to the Iraqis: 'You’re on your own.  Here’s a copy of the Federalist Papers.  Good luck.'”  Perhaps future victims of the domestic cuts will score a copy of The Fountainhead.

As an international lawyer, perhaps the most surprising moment of this debate for me was when Romney suggested that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be “indicted” under the UN’s Genocide Convention for incitement.  Seriously?  At the debate it was not entirely clear who would be doing the indicting; a later clarification from the campaign suggested the “World Court” but this is clearly incorrect; any activity remotely resembling what Romney was suggesting would have to originate with the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. 

Is Romney now a fan of such multilateral institutions?  And would Ahmadinejad not merely be indicted, but also arrested and prosecuted?  When unilateralist Republicans successfully blocked Senate ratification of the 1948 Genocide Convention until 1988, legal scholar Louis Henkin attributed their tenacity to “the ghost of Senator Bricker” and Bricker’s eponymous constitutional amendment.  The 1953 Bricker amendment was designed to scuttle multilateral initiatives of all stripes, but especially those linked to human rights and originating in the United Nations.  While the proposed amendment ultimately failed, it garnered such vocal grass-roots support – a group called “Vigilant Women for the Bricker Amendment” rustled up half a million signatures within a few months – that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles quietly agreed to refrain even from submitting such treaties to the Senate, burying the genocide Convention for the better part of two generations.  A Halloween-themed debate: John Bricker’s body is likely turning in his grave.
While John Sununu and other Romney advisors immediately began backtracking regarding the truly astonishing implications of the “indictment” comment, my sense is it would be specious to suggest that any such ideas reflect Romney’s putative policies.  Nor was this shoot-from-the-hip proposal necessarily an example of another common critique of the Romney ticket, namely, “inexperience” in making and executing foreign policy.  Inexperience has proven to be something of a phony issue for presidential challengers anyway, many of whom were former governors – and therefore unlikely to have had foreign policy experience -- when they first ran for the presidency.  Pat Buchanan famously slammed candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 as having no more international experience than what he had gained by having breakfast at the International House of Pancakes. 

What the Ahmadinejad episode really exposed was a glimpse of talking points gone wild, or rather, what happens when one collects checklists from advisors when one has few ideas of one’s own and not much interest in foreign policy.  The Genocide Convention talking point was apparently suggested by Eric Fehrnstrom, one of Romney’s chief advisors and the progenitor of the unfortunate “etch-a-sketch” image, and then rather unthinkingly regurgitated by the candidate.  The similarly ineffectual “Navy of 1916” talking point was developed by John Lehman, a senior Romney advisor who had served as Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy.  Lehman had so widely advertised this particular zinger in advance that Obama was ready for it, parrying with the most tweeted line of the evening, about the horses and the bayonets. 

Many of Romney’s advisors are not exactly unknown quantities.  In contrast to the peace-loving Romney we saw last night, John Bolton has advocated a nuclear strike on Iran.  I am essentially in accord with editorialist Bill Keller’s recent assessment that even if Romney is basically a center-right, pragmatist type of politician at heart, he is too much in hock to the far right to be able effectively to express that predilection.  The implications here are not confined to international relations, of course.  The point is merely to express alarm at who will likely be calling the shots in a Romney administration, whether it be with regard to initiatives in the Middle East, energy policy, or Supreme Court appointments.  As conservative activist Grover Norquist has recently grumbled, “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go.  We know what direction to go . . . We just need a president to sign this stuff.”

And finally, one refreshing moment in this third debate was a reference to how a commander-in-chief may sometimes seize unexpected opportunities in foreign relations.  Such happy opportunism often depends on earlier spadework, however.  One way forward, discussed during the debate, is by developing allies through diplomacy – external negotiations.  But another avenue is through designing a process for generating the best-quality advice – what we might call internal negotiations.  Negotiations within one’s own team has long been a bipartisan problem: GW Bush was notorious for cocooning himself in an echo chamber of yes-men, while Jimmy Carter expressed frustration with how the negotiating styles of some of his “outside the Beltway” advisors were received.

Last night, any discussion of such “internal” diplomacy – the credibility, judgment, and track record of each candidate’s foreign policy staff – was sacrificed to the characteristically trenchant point Daniel Rodgers made at the last Roundtable, about how the presidential debate format is necessarily about “one man and a microphone.”  This lonely image endures after the chief executive takes office: the iconic photograph from LBJ’s administration is not of happy beneficiaries of his Great Society programs, but rather shows the isolated president, bent and broken over his conference table after listening to reports of bombing raids over Vietnam. 

Leaders cannot decide in advance whether history will remember them for their foreign or for their domestic agendas.  But they can ensure that they recruit and retain the best possible advisors, and test competing visions through vigorous internal debate.

Elizabeth Borgwardt is associate professor of history and associate professor of law (by courtesy) at Washington University in St Louis, and in spring 2012 served as the Richard and Ann Pozen Visiting Professor of Human Rights at the University of Chicago.  Her recent essay, “Constitutionalizing Human Rights,” appears in the edited collection The Human Rights Revolution: An International History (Oxford 2012), and draws on research from her forthcoming book, The Nuremberg Idea: ‘Thinking Humanity’ in History, Law & Politics, from Alfred A. Knopf.  Her first book, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights is in its fourth printing from Harvard University Press.