09/28/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Welcome to Romney-World -- the Speech You Should Have Heard About

This week President Obama got two forums in New York -- one at the UN made headlines, the other at the Clinton Global Initiative tugged at the hearts of both the audience and many desperate people around the world by making clear that slavery is thriving in the 21st century -- in the form of human trafficking -- and that it was time to name the evil and end it.

Mitt Romney also spoke at CGI. While Obama's CGI speech drew a warm column from Nick Kristof, Romney's got little attention, but it's disturbingly worth parsing.

Romney demonstrated that, at his heart, he is a hedgehog, who knows one thing very well -- that markets are good things, if they are backed with American military power. He paid the essential, and I imagine heart-felt, tribute to charitable instincts and big hearts. He talked about foreign aid and social entrepreneurship. But after touching on those topics, he made it clear that he doesn't think they are meaningful answers. Indeed, for Romney, the functions of philanthropy and civil society are to be the icebreakers of American capitalism, much as many in the nineteenth century defended colonialism by saying "trade follows the flag."

Early on in the speech, Romney distinguished his view from that of the Obama administration, saying that his approach to foreign aid will explicitly be linked to the willingness of aid recipients to follow American models and American advice on how to structure their economies and their society.

"To foster work and enterprise in the Middle East and in other developing countries, I will initiate "Prosperity Pacts." Working with the private sector, the program will identify the barriers to investment, trade, and entrepreneurialism in developing nations. In exchange for removing those barriers and opening their markets to U.S. investment and trade, developing nations will receive U.S. assistance packages focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights."

If a Romney administration seriously attempted this approach, it would make a modest contribution towards deficit reduction -- because very few countries would accept U.S. assistance under those terms. Even the now reviled "Washington consensus" espoused multilateral neo-liberalism -- Romney would tie his constraints to U.S. investment and trade. (Since elsewhere in the speech he paid obeisance to trade agreements, including some that are substantially tilted against American manufacturing interests, I suspect he wouldn't act on his own advice if elected.)

The fact that Romney's foreign policy tin-ear is not confined to off-the-cuff remarks like those that got him into trouble in Britain and Israel, but extends to a carefully prepared and vetted speech only blocks from the United Nations, is profoundly revealing. There is not a single line in the speech which displays a shred of empathy -- as opposed to sympathy -- for the rest of the world. Nor is there anything in the speech which acknowledges any of the genuine difficulties or tragedies that afflict efforts to bring human societies into dignity and prosperity -- no, all that is needed, it appears, is for American capitalism to be copied by others, and backed by our gun-boats.

"I've laid out a new approach for a new era. We'll couple aid with trade and private investment to empower individuals, encourage innovators, and reward entrepreneurs. ...

In the weeks ahead, I will continue to speak to these challenges and the opportunities that this moment presents us. I will go beyond foreign assistance and describe what I believe America's strategy should be to secure our interests and ideals during this uncertain time."

This is the kind of speech a candidate might make at the very beginning of his campaign -- not as he gets ready for the home stretch. Romney has spent almost all of his foreign policy ammunition attacking Obama -- indeed he cannot resist closing at CGI with a dig at Obama for allegedly "apologizing for America." But stunningly, as the campaign closes, the best he can offer is that soon, someday soon, he will reveal his vision is of American strategy.

Even worse, this shallowness is reflected on his campaign's Web site, where he had access to an enormously deep Republican foreign policy bench. You wouldn't know it. Here, we are told that Romney will offer us an "American Century," in which America is "Strong." In case you want to know more, there is a peculiar atlas of the world to guide you. Europe, India, Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa do not exist in this Romney-world. Apparently they do not require foreign policy.

And if you read through the regions that do matter -- Afghanistan and Pakistan, China and East Asia, Iran, Israel, Latin America, Russia and the Middle East, you discover that each one exists only in its chosen supporting role in this "American Century."

Here's the graphic for a third of the world's population, East Asia:


It is almost inconceivable to imagine how the Chinese, Japanese or Korean Governments would react to this way of framing their futures. Our allies -- Japan, Korea -- certainly don't see themselves as part of a Chinese-American future. And the Chinese have spent the last century shedding the burden of foreign dominance -- now Romney tells them he'll bring it back! Latin America also exists -- the most important countries are Cuba and Venezuela, which are responsible for its problems. The solution, again, is a bigger role for U.S. business -- in partnership with Latin American companies.

"The campaign will also seek to involve both the U.S. and Latin American private sectors in efforts to expand trade throughout the region with initiatives that not only help American companies do business in Latin America, but also help Latin American companies invest and create jobs in the American market."

Other regions don't seem to qualify for the business solution. The sections on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, Israel and China itself make no mention of the power of American free enterprise solutions -- policy towards those countries is entirely about the big stick. Only for Russia does Romney seem to have a freedom agenda, speaking of supporting civil society.

Note: The Romney campaign is changing and making additions to this Web site as I write this -- Russia only made the front page this morning, and veterans moved up from the bottom to the top -- so when you click on the link Romney World may have changed yet again.

Romney appears to be living in the past -- indeed living in a mythical past in which all America had to do was export free-trade agreements along with gunboats to heal the world. The contrast is sharper with Obama, the first American president with significant experience living under a dictatorship allied with the United States -- if anything; Obama overestimates the influence of empathy in how others view the U.S. But you cannot imagine either Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan giving such a shallow, cramped and ultimately casual treatment to the challenges which face the global community.

Needless to say, issues like global warming, the collapse of marine fisheries, an impending world food crisis, pandemics, and human trafficking even in Europe and the U.S., do not exist in Romney world. Any Mormon missionary who spent two years in another country, say France, could give a more nuanced vision of the next century than this. Romney so badly wants to be president that he has apparently suppressed everything he once knew about complexity, back when he was that missionary.

If the CGI speech and the campaign Web site are any measure of his capacity on the topic, the foreign policy segments of the forthcoming presidential debates are likely to be very, very challenging for Governor Romney.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."