08/06/2012 03:18 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

Romney Needs to Reset Foreign Policy

There is a case to be made for a Republican national security policy, but Mitt Romney has yet to make it.

The Republican candidate for president has struggled to find a hook beyond arguments which have limited appeal beyond his party's base, such as that he is tougher on Iran, a better friend to Israel, a more formidable adversary to Russia and China, and a bigger spender on defense.

His foreign trip did not help, coming across, rightly, as a campaign swing rather than a listen-and-learn, meet-and-greet tour by a prospective commander-in-chief.

The argument that America is less safe under President Obama falls flat beyond the hard core Republican faithful. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of those surveyed think Obama 'would better handle' foreign affairs than Romney, who tallied just 40 percent. Obama gets credit for being the president who, finally, delivered justice to Osama bin Laden. His winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has broad support. The international coalition against Iran, including unprecedented US, UN, and EU sanctions, led by the Washington, has never been stronger.

The debate over national security, it seems, is more contested within the Romney campaign than among the American electorate, which is preoccupied with the U.S. economic crisis and paying scant attention to international affairs.

Unless Romney changes tack, Obama will win the foreign policy debate without breaking a sweat.

This would be unfortunate, because there is in fact a debate to be had about national security, and Romney has in fact begun that conversation.

In a major foreign policy speech last month, the Republican candidate for president said, "A healthy American economy is what underwrites American power."

Romney should develop and expand on this link between the economy and national security. The U.S. economy is not healthy, so American global leadership suffers. The U.S. national unemployment rate remains at 8.3 percent, a tick worse than when President Obama signed into law the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the so-called 'stimulus' bill, in February 2009. The U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) grew by only 1.5 percent in the second quarter of 2012. This is now the longest recovery on record, and one wonders how long it can be accurately called a 'recovery.' The U.S. budget deficit for 2012 is projected at $1.2 trillion. There are as yet no prospects for serious reductions in entitlement spending, which in the coming years will make a bad situation worse. Simply put, a debtor nation cannot lead.

The financial crises in Europe, the result of out of control government spending on social and welfare programs, should be held up as a possible American future. Absent a comprehensive plan for growth, deficit reduction, and cuts in entitlement spending, such as those advocated by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, which Obama ignored, and Romney could endorse, the U.S. could face a similar calamity.

There is also an electoral advantage for Romney in linking the economy and national security. In the same poll which gave Obama the edge in managing foreign affairs, Romney bested Obama in being perceived as better handling the deficit, the economy, job creation, and taxes. Romney should rightly make the economy a cross over issue for national security. The economy also blends into energy and trade policies. Romney could usefully promote policies to increase export-driven growth, reduce dependence of foreign oil, and expand the U.S. energy infrastructure, all in the context of U.S. national security and global leadership.

A good template for a reset in a Romney foreign policy is an essay in Foreign Affairs by former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel. Written in 2004, and avoiding both ideological excess and partisan sniping, Hagel's Republican foreign policy stresses the linkages among economics, energy, and national security. For example, his observation, that "Deficits and entitlement programs, if unchecked, will undermine confidence in our economy, impede economic growth and investment, make the United States less competitive, and erode our position as a world economic leader. U.S. policymakers will then be forced to make hard choices between national security and domestic priorities," rings even more true today than it did in 2004.

There is plenty of time for Romney to re-make his case for a Republican alternative to Obama's foreign policy. While he will of course seek to contrast his views with the president on a wide range of issues, Americans will be well-served if Romney can move the national security debate toward the economy, energy and trade. Alternatively, tired conservative platitudes designed primarily for the Republican base will serve neither Romney, nor the country, in November and beyond.