The differences between Obama and Romney on foreign policy

Article Highlights

  • It’s the 12th year of fighting in Afghanistan yet foreign & defense policy issues play a small role in the election.

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  • Obama has centered foreign & defense priorities on transnational threats that lend themselves to nonmilitary responses.

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  • Monday’s debate will offer voters a chance to learn more about the future of our national and international security.

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On Monday, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will turn to foreign policy. Despite the fact that America's military is now in its 12th year fighting in Afghanistan, foreign and defense policy issues have played a small role in the election. When the candidates have touched on foreign policy, the exchanges have been limited for the most part to Libya, Iran, and Romney's defense budget plans.

Contrary to growing popular perception, Monday's debate will highlight that these two men have substantially different worldviews that the American public will be well served to learn more about.

"Despite the fact that America's military is now in its 12th year fighting in Afghanistan, foreign and defense policy issues have played a small role in the election." -Mackenzie EaglenFrom the outset of his administration, Obama has focused his foreign policy attention on transnational threats such as nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and international terrorism. These threats tend to require international responses that focus on nondefense elements of national power—and have, in many cases, been used as justification for large defense budget cuts.

While the Navy's 2013 shipbuilding plan retired more ships than it plans to build over the next five years, for example, the administration proposed substantial investments in biofuels and other green energy projects for the Navy. According to one Pentagon report, the biofuels could cost an extra $1.76 billion dollars a year by 2020. In the administration's view, focusing Navy investment in biofuels is a priority that deserves substantially increased resources, while other considerations such as submarine construction, can afford to be pushed off into the future.

The president has largely countered international terrorism through the increased use of Special Operations Forces, the intelligence community, and remotely-piloted vehicles while shifting security spending away from traditional defense programs like aircraft, ships, and tanks. This benefits a more law-enforcement style approach that punishes transgressors while avoiding the kind of comprehensive war strategy favored by the Bush administration.

Obama has centered his defense and foreign policy priorities chiefly on transnational threats that lend themselves to nonmilitary, or at least nontraditional, responses. Because of this, he has been ready and willing to slash defense spending and programs because they are not essential to his foreign policy.

The key difference between the two men is not what they would spend on the military but rather what those defense capabilities can do for the nation, our allies, and peace and stability around the world.

Romney has made clear that his foreign policy views reflect a more traditional perspective. He is concerned with state-based threats such as Iran and North Korea, as well as strategic competitors like China and Russia. Romney's intuition that states still represent some of America's primary challenges has a number of tremendously important implications.

First among these is that states can—and sometimes must—be deterred through traditional military means. This means a Romney foreign policy inherently places more importance upon military strength than the Obama vision. Military strength requires sustained investment. Consequently, Romney has been clear that his administration would seek to increase defense spending to allow for a more robust national security posture.

With this increased defense investment, Romney would focus on key military programs that play a role in deterring—and if necessary, defeating—state-based threats. One of Romney's most visible goals has been his plan to increase Navy shipbuilding from nine ships per year to 15. Another goal is to reverse Obama-era cuts to active duty Army soldiers and Marines. A Romney administration would also likely increase Air Force investment to bolster a service that has mortgaged its future to pay for its present.

Despite the relative absence of foreign and defense policy from the campaign trail so far, the president and Romney diverge on their assessments of the most important threats, the role of the military in foreign policy, and their proposed levels of defense investment. These are important and telling differences. Thankfully Monday's debate will offer voters a chance to learn more beyond the sound bites about priorities and the future of our national and international security.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies


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About the Author


  • Mackenzie Eaglen has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff. She specializes in defense strategy, budget, military readiness and the defense industrial base. In 2010, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission established to assess the Pentagon's major defense strategy. A prolific writer on defense related issues, she has also testified before Congress.


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