What was Mitt Romney up to with his Washington Post op-ed? Not what you think


When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post lamenting Donald Trump’s behaviour as disappointingly un-presidential and unbecoming, many saw it as a first step towards a 2020 primary challenge to Mr Trump.

I don’t really think so. Consider this.

Mr Romney is 71. He’s just been seated in the Senate for a six-year term, ie until he’s 77. He’s already run for president (and lost). And he’s been governor of Massachusetts. Mr Romney himself ruled out (on CNN) another run for the White House.

So, however credulous it might sound, I actually believe this politician at this point of time. I don’t think Mitt Romney is going to run against Mr Trump.

I don’t think he needs the aggravation, and I don’t think that’s the reason he wrote the op-ed.

So, why did he write it?

The most insightful opinion I’ve heard/read expressed comes from Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. On Bloomberg Opinion, Professor Brands noted the foreign policy implications of Mr Romney’s broadside and the “high-stakes struggle for the soul of Republican statecraft.”

Mr Romney is trying to set himself up, writes Professor Brands, as the “congressional conscience of US diplomacy… heir to John McCain…tireless advocate for US internationalism” and for America’s “moral authority” to provide a template to the world.

The Professor also discerns an attempt by Mr Romney to articulate “a renewed Republican internationalism based on opposition to aggressive authoritarian regimes.”

This sounds absolutely spot-on.

Mr Romney, an American conservative from a time when conservatism did not mean white nationalism and bigotry, is also pretty old-style in his long-held belief that the US has something to offer the world.

In his op-ed, as the Professor notes, Mr Romney made no secret of his disdain for a world order without American leadership. The alternative, Mr Romney said, is Chinese or Russian leadership and it will be “autocratic, corrupt and brutal”.

Professor Brands says that “a renewed American internationalism” is the right answer and the right frame for US foreign policy. “As Charles Edel and I argue in our forthcoming book, the central cleavage in global affairs is the divide between the US and its largely democratic allies that want to preserve the existing global order, and the ambitious autocrats who want to remake it to their own advantage.”

But the Professor too is sceptical whether this Republican Party will go along with Mr Romney’s vision of foreign policy. It’s hard to see much appetite for it even though Mr Trump’s outgoing UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Republican senators such as Ben Sasse have  continued to argue for strong alliances and free trade. And the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’s annual survey of American attitudes on foreign policy, released in early October 2018, shows  that Americans generally support liberal internationalism and an “active” role for the US in world affairs. They don’t support Mr Trump’s ‘America First’ transactional, selfish and isolationist view.

Really then, Mr Romney’s op-ed was a continuation of the findings of that survey. It offered the Republican Party the chance to embrace inspired and inspiring internationalism once again. As Professor Brands writes, US internationalism “has persisted for so long because it has been supported by both major political parties”. To survive now, it needs more Republican voices to speak up for it.