On Canadian Thanksgiving Monday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a major foreign policy address to the faculty and students of the Virginia Military Institute. He did not mention Canada once.
Yet the speech contained some messages that Canadians may find interesting -- and familiar.
The main theme of Romney's Middle East-focused talk was the importance of U.S. leadership in international affairs, despite the understandable weariness of many Americans with the costly wars that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks. Romney warned that leadership is expensive, requiring more defense spending among other things, but the costs of not bearing those burdens was worse in the long run for Americans and their friends.
Romney cited the assassination of U.S. Ambassador the Libya Christopher Stevens in Benghazi as one example of the price of cheap-skating security: al Qaeda has developed a beachhead in Libya in part because the NATO military intervention in that country was from the air, not unlike the NATO interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s. Canada, which participated in both, has seen first-hand that bombs can break the will of dictatorships in Serbia and Libya, but they do nothing to help people to build new democratic institutions.
In Syria, Romney joined the chorus of criticism of the international community for doing too little to stop the government of Bashar Assad from slaughtering people in the streets to retain power -- Romney was forceful in his comments, but not nearly as forceful as Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who addressed the Syrian crisis in his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Yet Romney and Baird agree that the United States and Canada must do more.
Iran's nuclear program and repressive domestic policies also drew criticism and calls for stronger action in Romney's address. In addition to sending clearer signals about U.S. intentions, and responding more forcefully to provocations from Tehran, Romney called for the United States to unambiguously support its regional ally, Israel. Here, too, Romney was echoing Canadian foreign policy: the Harper government has pledged strong support for Israel's security and in response to Iranian harassment, closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran and sent Iranian diplomats in Canada home.
Turning to Iraq and Afghanistan, Romney noted that while President Barack Obama has claimed that "the tide of war" in these countries in receding, what has taken its place is not peace but growing instability. The investment that the United States and allies including Canada made to help these countries following their liberation from oppressive regimes is, in Romney's view, being wasted in the haste to retreat.
Canada's long experience with post-conflict peacekeeping and stabilization operations is a testament to the fragility of order in post-conflict societies and the need for international engagement. Canada's Stabilization and Reconstruction Training START initiative is part of Canada's ongoing commitment in this area.
The closing lines of Romney's speech noted the importance of U.S. engagement and partnership with close allies like Canada. His message for Canadians and others was succinct:
"Our friends and allies across the globe do not want less American leadership. They want more -- more of our moral support, more of our security cooperation, more of our trade, and more of our assistance in building free societies and thriving economies. So many people across the world still look to America as the best hope of humankind. So many people still have faith in America. We must show them that we still have faith in ourselves -- that we have the will and the wisdom to revive our stagnant economy, to roll back our unsustainable debt, to reform our government, to reverse the catastrophic cuts now threatening our national defense, to renew the sources of our great power, and to lead the course of human events."
Romney's vision of U.S. global leadership is like the Hollywood-budget version of Canada's indie foreign policy sensation, and to the extent that it mirrors choices that Canadians have taken and are comfortable with, it will resonate well north of the border.
Should Romney become the 45th president of the United States, it will be essential, though, for him to recognize that U.S. leadership must be exercised in a spirit of partnership for it to be successful. The message to Ottawa in January can't be "Thanks Canada for doing the right things in world affairs -- we'll take it from here."
Romney criticizes President Obama for "leading from behind" around the world, but running to the head of the line and "leading from the front" may not be well-received by allies either. Particularly given the problems the United States faces -- "unsustainable debt" and the real challenges that Romney identified in his speech -- it may be smarter diplomacy to "lead alongside" allies, acknowledging the contributions others have made and continue to make to international peace and security.