Mitt Romney delivered his long-awaited foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute on Monday, and the response has been underwhelming.  There’s not much vocal criticism, which from a campaign standpoint is probably fine.  But there’s not much interest in the speech either way.  Among my circle of e-quaintance, the most common reactions have been that Romney’s formulations were outdated and Cold War-ish, and that there’s a real question whether the United States, with $16+ trillion in federal debt, can afford to execute his policies.

These are valid criticisms.  I believe, however, that a President Romney will learn quickly in the Oval Office, unlike the ideologue who currently occupies it.  If anything, Obama’s foreign policy formulations are even more outdated.  Romney’s would have had some validity as touchstones through the mid-2000s; Obama’s hard-left, 1960s-radical ideas have been superannuated for decades.  The world has borne but little resemblance to the fantasy-narrative of the anti-colonialist, “multi-kulti” left since at least the 1970s, and none at all since the late 1980s.  Even with a viewpoint that still posits a Pax Americana – a condition now defunct – Romney starts out ahead.

I agree with much of what Romney laid out, in terms of desirable policy.  America does need to rebuild the military; emphasize missile defense; support our allies more usefully and obviously; prevent Iran from getting the bomb; encourage liberalization in the Arab Spring nations; finish the job effectively in Afghanistan, rather than merely scheduling a departure; deal more firmly (if not confrontationally) with Russia and China; defeat radical Islamist terrorism; negotiate freer trade where we can; and lead the world in encouraging liberalization and consensual government (“democracy”) abroad.  These are good focus areas for US foreign policy.

But people aren’t wrong to sense that we aren’t necessarily up to this level of energy – and expenditure – at the moment.  America herself is in crisis.  We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to be: a nation that still believes in liberty, rights before God, personal responsibility, and limited government; or one that commits itself to class-envy policies, overweening government, enforced dependency, and a web of ever-triangulating untruths about the human condition as our “national idea.”

Nearly four years of the latter, in a full-to-overflowing dose, have turned the current American sensibility wary, splintered, and tired.  The people have been digging into our reserves – financial, mental, familial, communal – for half a decade now, and the reserves are dwindling.  Many people are waking up to the fact that the ideological-regulatory-welfare state doesn’t work, but they don’t all understand yet that that’s what they are waking up to.

America has a lot of work to do.  America herself has always been the best advertisement for liberty.  And the reasons America is declining in that regard all map back to the conscious forfeiture of liberty over time (almost all in the last 100 years).  This is the crux of America’s standing before the world: either we are free, prosperous, and enviable – something unique to be emulated – or we are just another nation, preachier and better armed than most.

I found two important things missing from Romney’s foreign policy speech, and one was an affirmation of liberty – qua liberty – as the fundamental American idea.  If we are going to export ideas, we should start with liberty, and all it meant to our Founders about man’s standing before God and the limitations it implies on the state.  “Democracy” is not an American idea, nor was it an American ideal prior to its gradual insertion in school curricula from the early to mid-20th century.  (The Founders despised democracy, associating it with mob rule and state decline.)

As a practical matter in foreign policy, we should, as the opportunity arises, encourage the development of consensual governments where they don’t exist today.  The standard forms for this are adult suffrage and multi-party systems.  But instituting these procedural arrangements is neither a panacea nor the quintessential evidence of American influence on the world.  European colonial powers fostered elections too, as they negotiated their way out of their former colonies, and there was no resulting eruption of liberty and prosperity.  Cold War Communists held plenty of elections.  To get the benefits of liberty, you have to emphasize and embrace liberty.

There is a limit to what we can do abroad in this regard.  We can advocate, but not dictate.  The most powerful thing America does, however, is model the benefits of liberty.  And this is the hinge point of American influence and capability abroad.  To justify the global leadership of a free people, we must practice liberty at home.  To pay for the global leadership of a free people, we must practice liberty at home.

If we want to negotiate sound free trade agreements, for example, our only option is letting Americans prosper.  Otherwise, Americans themselves will only see the downside of free trade.  Prosperity is increased by free trade, but doesn’t start with it; prosperity starts with liberty at home, individual initiative, and reliable conditions in which to exercise it.  Deregulating our economy is the most important thing a US president could possibly do to foster the conditions for free trade.  Even our tax code is not as important as our current regulatory environment, which has become the nation’s number one job-killer because it is aggressively expansive, eccentric, arbitrary, virtually unsupervised by Congress, and personally punitive on the part of government regulators.

If we want to encourage liberalization abroad – or if we want to make moral points about repression by the Iranian mullocracy, or what kind of government Afghanistan has, and how Afghans treat their women – we have to not only let Americans be free, but endorse, celebrate, and have a common definition for liberty of conscience and the classical-liberal idea. 

This is where I saw the second thing missing from Romney’s speech.  With the political triumphs of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia (also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – and a leading Sunni philosopher of sharia and the modern state), it’s “on” with state-Islamism in the Sunni Muslim world.  Westerners have been able to frame Shia Iran as an isolated, wildly extreme Islamist regime, and have largely declined to interest themselves in the political Islamization of NATO ally Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  But Egypt and Tunisia are long-time, moderate Arab partners of the United States, and Egypt in particular has the potential to assume a leadership role in the Arab world.  State-Islamism as a nascent political force is no longer isolated or theoretical.  As of 2012, it is real and present.

Meanwhile, Americans are justly concerned about our religious and intellectual liberties, for multiple reasons.  The contraception mandate under ObamaCare has galvanized the voters as few things have in the last 50 years; even many Congressional Democrats have been busy distancing themselves from it in the wake of the 2010 election.  Forcing people to buy a product (insurance coverage, in this case) to which they have religious objections certainly appears to violate the First Amendment principle that Congress will not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Yet the brouhaha over the mandate raises the more fundamental question why anyone, whether armed with religious objections or not, should have to purchase a service he doesn’t want to.  Why shouldn’t companies be able to decline, on whatever principle they choose, to purchase contraception coverage for their employees?  Why shouldn’t individuals be free to decline to buy health insurance at all?

Americans who can’t readily answer those questions are ill-equipped to deal with questions like why President Obama got it 100% wrong on the matter of the Innocence of Muslims video.  There are good reasons why the principle of liberty should override what other people are offended by, but do Americans know anymore what they are?  Are we ready to enforce the principle of liberty – on our own soil, at least – regardless of who takes offense at it?

I trust a President Romney not to abjectly apologize for the Innocence of Muslims video (and certainly trust him not to make up stories about the role of that deeply silly video in attacks on US embassies).  In terms of practical response, he won’t make these mistakes – and that is a big net positive.

But his foreign policy speech elided or glossed over two of the most important features of the current foreign policy environment: the confusion over and decline of American liberty – which makes every aspect of a US foreign policy either possible, or not – and the interlinked issue of state-Islamism, which whether we like it or not is dedicated to building an alternative vision for human life and the future.  State-Islamism clashes directly with the American principle of liberty, and clashes with it where it matters: in the daily lives of the people.  It must not be part of our foreign policy to curtail American liberty as a talisman against offending others – but more than that, it must be a part of our foreign policy to affirm the right to liberty, starting with the citizens of the United States.

I imagine Romney did not want to make his speech overly controversial by introducing a newly framed idea of potential menace from state-Islamism, and for that I don’t necessarily blame him.  The speech seems less in tune with reality because of it, but there’s a case to be made that continuing to frame policy within the old constructs leaves the door open – and properly so – to engagement with the Islamizing nations.  Perhaps there is still room to influence Morsi’s behavior in a positive direction.  If so, Romney shouldn’t burn bridges before January.

But we have reached the point at which he could not give a speech that was realistic and up to date, and still hold open doors that were built to swing on cues from the past. He could do one or the other; not both.

America isn’t in shape to be the jumping-off point for Romney’s foreign policy – at least not for all of it.  We need a reaffirmation of liberty and an opportunity to rebuild.  We aren’t the America Reagan was elected to lead in 1980.

Nor is the world outside that of the Cold War or the post-Cold War Pax Americana.  Too much has changed.  There is a movement abroad that opposes itself to the very essence of what America was meant to be.  It is not a movement of “all Muslims”; all Muslims is a very broad, diverse category, and most Muslims, like most people of any faith or background, are relatively apolitical, and get their political ideas largely from the society around them.  The great majority of American Muslims live in peace and harmony in our liberal society.

It is rather a radical intellectual movement, in some ways similar to international Marxism, and it has the power to polarize and repel populations.  As we speak, it is shifting its strategic focus from terrorism to the control of armed nation-states.  It has already had a run-in with American liberty, courtesy of the foreign policy instincts of President Obama.  It is real, and it’s not going away.  And yet the most effective way to oppose it is to affirm liberty at home, in exactly the circumstances under which Obama has recently apologized for it.

Without American liberty, there is no American foreign policy; there are only the cynical calculations of Anystate.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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