An essential rule for politicians: always make sure the microphone is off. On March 26 at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, Barack Obama was overheard discussing missile defence with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. With an open mic, Obama told Medvedev “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” Russia currently opposes American plans for a missile defence system in Europe as it fears it could be used against Russia, while the US claims that it is protecting itself and Europe from the threat of a nuclear Iran. News of the comment caused a considerable stir, as questions were immediately asked about the implications of the President’s remark. On the very same day, House Speaker John Boehner tweeted “When the president returns from S. Korea, we look forward to hearing what he meant by having ‘more flexibility’ on missile defense.”
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney then raised the issue in a more forceful manner. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Romney described Russia as “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” Among other issues, Romney expressed particular concern with Russian support for Syria. This provocative statement led to a direct response from Medvedev: “Regarding ideological clichés, every time this or that side uses phrases like ‘enemy number one,’ this always alarms me, this smells of Hollywood and certain times (of the past)…. we are in 2012 and not the mid-1970s.” Nevertheless, Romney reiterated his stance in a Foreign Policy piece about Obama’s foreign policy entitled “Bowing to the Kremlin.” All of this happened while the Nuclear Security Summit was still taking place.
At this point, on March 27, an unusual thing happened in a political landscape where any sign of weakness is usually attacked with glee. When Speaker Boehner was asked if he agreed with Romney, he did not take the opportunity to expand on his tweet and criticise Obama. Instead, he replied that “while the president is overseas, I think it’s appropriate that people not be critical of him or of our country.” Boehner has not yet endorsed a Republican candidate for 2012, but this was still a surprise. John McCain immediately spoke out to respectfully disagree with Boehner, arguing that if Obama “makes a statement that I think could endanger the United States’ national interest, I have to respond no matter where the president of the United States is.” Once Obama was safely back on US soil on March 28, Boehner quickly changed position again, pressing Obama for clarification that “no unilateral concessions will be made to the Russians, before or after the election.” Nevertheless, for a day, the quaint old notion was raised that politics stops at the water’s edge.
The phrase is most commonly associated with Republican Senator Arthur Vanderberg. His belief that politics should stop at the water’s edge lay at the heart of his efforts to create a nonpartisan foreign policy with the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations in the 1940s. However, even for Vandenberg, that did not mean that foreign policy issues were not open for debate. As he explained to a Michigan constituent in January 1950, “‘bipartisan foreign policy’ means a mutual effort, under our indispensible two-Party system, to unite our official voice at the water’s edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world. It does not involve the remotest surrender of free debate in determining our position. On the contrary, frank cooperation and free debate are indispensible to ultimate unity. In a word, it simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage.”
Of course, history shows us that even at the height of the Cold War, politics rarely stopped completely at the water’s edge, even on the broadest of issues. National security concerns were frequently used to gain political advantage, and not just in election years. And politics hasn’t really stopped in this case either. It appears that the issue here was less about any agreement between Obama and Boehner over policy, and more about the ongoing nature of discussions in Seoul. Boehner’s relative restraint (only relative – he did send the tweet after all) hinted at a recognition that while international negotiations are ongoing, domestic discord does little to support America’s standing in the global sphere, and can in fact undermine American authority. Nevertheless, while more cynical reasons for Boehner’s comment may yet emerge, for now it offers a rare – if fleeting – glimmer of civility in political discourse.
Arguably the bigger issue raised by the week’s events relates to America’s relationship with Russia, and whether a Romney Presidency would seek to return the United States to a Cold War atmosphere that was all too familiar to Vandenberg. Romney’s comment about Russia was at least consistent with his previous statements on the campaign trail, so it was not entirely opportunistic. And there is no doubt that the United States understandably disagrees with Russia in a number of areas, most strikingly over Russian support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also over internal matters such as anti-American rhetoric in the recent election and the very nature of democracy in Russia.
Yet with more immediate concerns in the shape of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, not to mention Iran and North Korea – let alone economic problems at home – Romney is being “reckless” (to quote a New York Times editorial) in searching for old monsters to destroy. At a White House briefing on March 28, Principal Deputy Press
Secretary Josh Earnest argued that “you don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to know that the Cold War ended 20 years ago” and that al-Qaeda was the bigger and more immediate threat. In addition, Earnest highlighted areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia, areas that Romney ignored: “The irony is that Russia, particularly in the cases of North Korea and Iran, (has) worked very well with the international community to isolate those two regimes and to seek a diplomatic solution to hold those two regimes accountable for living up to their international obligations.”
Also, even if Romney’s statement is consistent with his previous messages, his assessment of the significance of Obama’s comment was exaggerated. As Wolf Blitzer highlighted in the interview that started this whole exchange, it was a factual statement. It revealed very little other than a willingness to negotiate, and the fact that there is no chance of Congressional agreement on missile defence – or arms reduction, the other key issue here – this year. Obama confirmed this himself in his response on March 27. The fact that Obama will have more flexibility does not mean that he will bow to the Kremlin. Perhaps Romney’s bold rhetoric is primarily for domestic consumption, and consumption by the Republican party base in particular. But just as anti-American rhetoric in the Russian election crossed national boundaries, this exchange will only help those in both nations who seek confrontation rather than conciliation. The United States has enough challenges to face at the moment without adding to the list.
Romney concluded his Foreign Policy piece with a historical analogy, arguing that the American people deserved a foreign policy “founded upon our enduring principles and a recognition of our exceptional place in the world;” instead they were getting “a sad replay of Jimmy Carter’s bungling at a moment when the United States needs the backbone and courage of a Ronald Reagan.” If Romney is Reagan in this analogy, I will resist the temptation to borrow a line from Lloyd Bentsen. But based on this example, a Romney foreign policy will look to follow Reagan’s frequent strategy of looking for simple answers to complex questions, and framing issues in stark black and white terms rather than more appropriate shades of gray. The global situation is very different from how it was in 1979-80, when the Cold War was starting to heat up again. Most would agree it is better, and few would like to go back to those days. Except perhaps, for Mitt Romney.
 Vandenberg, Arthur H. Jr. (ed.), The Private Papers of Senator Arthur Vandenberg (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), pp. 552-3.