Condoleezza Rice’s turn on stage seemed to be evidence of a speaker in search of an argument, as though a production company lined up a star actor cast before determining the plot. “Where does America stand?” she asked in the midst of a litany of global ills—from sex-trafficking to the Syrian revolution—in which she suggested, through some sleight of hand, that the United States had failed to take a stand. “My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice,” she said. “We must not be reluctant to lead, and you can not lead from behind.”
But in no instance did she say what a leaderly America would do. For all the disruptions in Romney’s belief system, there is an unusual continuity in his foreign-policy posture: He became a hawk in 2007 when one facing McCain and Giuliani in a Republican primary in the era of Bush would not risk otherwise. Then hawkishness had obvious policy ramifications, particularly support for continued commitments in Iraq.
Now that hawkishness is something of an artifact, where the posture lives on but without much policy to support the shape—as though the only way to challenge a Democrat for the presidency is to run rightward on national security. Romney has been left parading into rhetorical battle with Russia and China, dubbing the former a “number one geopolitical foe” and threatening a trade war with the latter over currency issues.
Rice, the Cold Warrior, didn’t seem ready to march in either of those parades. She barely mentioned Russia or China, and when she spoke of the latter it was in awe of how much more aggressive Beijing has been than Washington in negotiating new free-trade agreements. “Sadly we are abandoning the playing field of free trade,” Rice said, “and it will come back to haunt us.”
Have we learned anything yet this week about what a Romney foreign policy might be, other than occasional suggestions that Obama is a vacillating weakling? Is it anything other than critiquing from behind?