After our disappointment at the President’s and Governor Romney’s VFW speeches, we were greatly heartened to listen to the very thoughtful discussion at Brookings starring Rich Williamson, representing the Governor, and Michele Flournoy, speaking for the President. Flournoy served as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, where she had a hand in DoD’s Strategic Guidance, was co-founder of the Center for New American Security, and chairs the President’s foreign policy team. Rich Williamson is at Brookings and on leave to Governor Romney’s campaign, with extensive foreign policy experience in the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. administrations.
Much of the discussion focused on the Middle East, Iran and South Asia, with the headline differences focusing on whether we should be arming the Syrian opposition. But our overall assessment remains: particularly in our part of the world, the differences between the Romney and Obama campaigns are in fact quite slight, which is probably a good thing.
North Korea was not raised by the moderator, Marvin Kalb, but Williamson responded to a question from a Yonhap reporter on North Korea. He noted that North Korea was a difficult problem, and that the campaign had not outlined a detailed set of counterprorposals. Nonetheless, he underlined—to our pleasant surprise—that there had been bipartisan support for the Six Party Talks as the venue for addressing the nuclear issue. Williamson emphasized the ongoing importance of pushing China to be more forward on the issue, but without gratuitously distancing himself from the administration’s efforts in this regard. In short, if differences emerge on the issue they are likely to be subtle at best.
We found only subtle differences in tone with respect to China more generally. Williamson reiterated Romney’s claims that China is not playing by the rules and that he would aggressively use the WTO; however as we noted the Obama administration has hardly shied away from this approach. On other issues, it was all about emphasis as much as substance: that Romney would be more “forward leaning” on Chinese human rights and on the disturbing developments in the South China Sea. But again, we could find little daylight and indeed the entire Obama “pivot” could be defined precisely as being more forward-leaning on Asia.
At a still wider conceptual level, Williamson emphasized Governor Romney’s commitment to multilateralism, international law, and engagement but noted that “all countries look at their interests” and that Romney would be more in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy and Reagan. Flournoy responded–rightly in our view–that multilateral institutions and international law are not foreign constructs; rather, they are the outgrowth of the postwar order built by the US.
If the intelligence of this conversation were more typical of what we have seen in the campaign—not to mention the blather on CNN, MSNBC and Fox–the country would be in much better shape. Kudos to Brookings, Williamson and Flournoy.