Why Obama and Romney really do see the world differently

Don't be fooled by the moderate Mitt of last night's debate. His worldview is radically different from Obama's

Published October 23, 2012 8:30PM (EDT)

For some viewers, it was no surprise Mitt Romney toned down his bellicosity last night and chose to minimize his differences with Barack Obama's on a number of foreign policy issues.  But Romney's largely tactical decision obscured the real “choice” on foreign policy that his election presents. That choice doesn't concern a specific issue but rather a broad philosophical view about America’s role in the world.

For all their seeming consensus, the two candidates represent two distinct political and intellectual traditions that were carved out during our post-World War II past. Obama's foreign policy touchstone is the work of the Cold War liberal Reinhold Niebuhr.  In "The Irony of American History" (1952), Niebuhr presented a vision of America’s role in the world tempered by his doctrine of sin and his deep sense of tragedy.  Niebuhr’s central paradox, as his biographer Richard Fox points out, was that “human beings bore responsibility for their actions despite the inevitability of the sins they would commit.”  Holding an ironic disposition could force Americans to battle the spread of communism while rejecting naive optimism in favor of a sense of humility and circumspection. It probably comes as no surprise that Niebuhr became an early critic of America’s entry into Vietnam.  Overextension of American power was just as dangerous to Niebuhr as denying that we had enemies in the world.  Such was the lesson of Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

Obama has ingested his Niebuhr, and it shows in various foreign policy areas.  It animates the so-called "lead from behind" doctrine (a term an Obama adviser used in an interview with the New Yorker) and his continued faith that we must hold open discussions even with enemies like Iran.  It animates his belief that America should not act alone in the world but build alliances – the sort of alliances his predecessor George W. Bush eschewed.  The resultant view of American power is: Yes, America can stand for good abroad but must be cautious and act with a sense of humility.  Obama has channeled his inner-Niebuhr ever since he made ending the Iraq War so central to his foreign policy.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, projects a dangerous philosophy that America can reshape history to its liking.  Throughout the campaign, Romney has tried to depict Obama as tentative and almost embarrassed by American power.  Last night, he reiterated his bizarre charge that Obama went on an “apology tour” in the Middle East.  Romney last night talked more about "peace" than about war, but in his key statement on foreign policy, an Oct. 8 address at the Virginia Military Institute, he talked up a president's right and duty "to use America’s great power to shape history,” and cited the need for “confidence in our cause” and “resolve in our might.”

For Romney, any hint of concern that America might make mistakes, overextend itself or submit to virtually any constraint projects an image of weakness.

Romney's view originates in Cold War conservative political thought.  Once Soviet communism became America’s No. 1 enemy, conservatives turned away from the isolationist tendency that had dominated their approach to foreign policy, embracing ideas like “rollback” and “liberation” – wars of aggression that could free people from the monolith of communism abroad. The new assertiveness found its extreme logical expression in Gen. MacArthur – who became a hero to conservatives – who called for extending the Korean War, for America to not just contain communism from creeping into South Korea but to expunge it from the North, and then onward to the liberation of Red China. (No wonder Truman fired him.)

The intellectual foundation for this aggressive approach was provided by a book that appeared the same year as "The Irony of American History": Whittaker Chambers’ "Witness."  An ex-communist spy, Chambers argued for an unwavering frontal assault on communism, powered by supreme self-confidence in American might and American righteousness.  For Chambers, his side of the upcoming battle had to discover “in suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man’s mind, at the same intensity, with the same two certainties” that communism provided: “A reason to live and a reason to die.  If it fails, this will be the century of the great social wars.  If it succeeds, this will be the century of the great wars of faith.”  (Richard Nixon was a great admirer of "Witness," and a later edition of the book carried a proud endorsement from Ronald Reagan.) Niebuhrian doubt and paradox have no place in this worldview.

I’m not sure if Romney has read Chambers the way Obama has read Niebuhr. But his blithe confidence – a near-religious faith – in America’s dominant role in the world certainly colors everything Romney stands for.  He channels the Cold War conservative tradition of self-certainty and rollback when he calls for renewing enemy-status for Russia, sending more troops to Iraq, arming rebels in Syria, getting tougher on Iran (though how he could get any tougher than Obama has been on this one is unclear). And of course most of his top foreign policy advisers -- and presumably, in a Romney administration, top appointees -- are neocon blowhards like Dan Senor and (God help us) John Bolton.

In an election where slipperiness on a range of issues is the hallmark of Romney's candidacy, President Obama would have done voters a service by laying out his larger vision of America's role in the world, and highlighting the deep gulf between his philosophy and Romney's. The choice before us is too consequential to let such fundamental differences slip by without debate.

By Kevin Mattson

Kevin Mattson is a historian at Ohio University and the author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952

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2012 Elections 2012 Presidential Debates Barack Obama Mitt Romney Reinhold Niebuhr