11/13/2012 02:27 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

GOP Must Learn From the Global Sigh of Relief

Republicans went to bed Tuesday night with a sigh of disbelief but the world woke up Wednesday morning breathing a sigh of relief. International surveys showed that people nearly everywhere preferred Obama to Romney, and the exultant post-election commentary from around the world confirms the polling data.

The Republican Party needs to rethink its foreign policy if it wants to win support at home and abroad. The two are interconnected. Throughout the campaign, polls consistently told us that Americans trusted Obama to do a better job on foreign policy. That trust was in part a reflection of Americans' appreciation for the dramatic decrease in anti-Americanism in most parts of the world since Obama took office.

Romney spoke little about foreign policy during the campaign, offering mostly platitudes about
restoring respect for America in the world. Trouble was, Obama already did that. By almost every statistical and anecdotal measure, Obama has brought America out of the reputational hole George W. Bush dug for the country.

Romney's gaffe-filled visit in August to England, Israel, and Poland -- the choice of destinations themselves revealed a GOP out of touch in this Asian Century -- was meant to burnish his foreign policy credentials, but only further tarnished his credibility. After Romney publically questioned London's preparedness for what proved to be a sensationally successful Olympics, even some British Conservative Party leaders expressed their disappointment with the GOP candidate and their preference for Obama.

And it wasn't just gaffes that sank Romney's chances for international gravitas. His official foreign policy positions showed that his campaign and his party had no clear, post-Bush vision for America's role in an increasingly post-American world.

Romney's proposed solution to seemingly every geopolitical challenge was simply more toughness. What to do about Iran's nuclear program? Toughness. China's currency manipulation? Toughness.

Even though Obama, to the chagrin of many liberal critics, escalated drone warfare, kept Guantanamo open, helped Libyan rebels topple the Gaddafi regime, increased military aid to Israel, and gave the order for a daring mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, Romney argued that what America really needs is more toughness.

And he meant primarily military toughness. Despite preaching deficit reduction, Romney promised to preserve America's enormous defence budget.

Republicans can do better. And if the party wants to fare better in 2016, it must develop a clear-eyed foreign policy vision that pairs toughness with smartness. A great deal can be suggested for this new vision, but let me offer just three brief recommendations.

First, be honest about the multipolar world. The unipolar moment in which the United States enjoyed unrivalled hegemony is gone forever -- and that has nothing to do with Barack Obama. The rise of China and other powers inevitably means a relative decline in America's economic and military strength. Republicans will look increasingly out of touch to voters and to the international community if they continue to engage the world with a fossilized foreign policy.

Second, embrace diplomacy. Because the United States must increasingly contend with rising powers and cannot force its way in the world, the country must rely ever more concertedly on non-military means of advancing its interests.

No one understood this better than former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. In a 2007 speech Gates, a Republican, called for "a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security -- diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development... We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military."

Embracing diplomacy means embracing the State Department as Gates did. True, the State Department has a reputation for being hostile to Republican administrations. But that's largely because for decades Republicans have derided the agency and given little regard to diplomacy. I served at the State Department under Bush and Obama, and can testify that Republicans can work with and within the bureaucracy if they appreciate the institutions, traditions, and most of all the importance of diplomacy.

Third, learn from Obama's diplomatic successes--and failures. His record is far from perfect, but any president that draws huge crowds of fans rather than protestors when travelling overseas deserves some emulation. President Obama has enhanced America's image by pursuing a pragmatic and collaborative diplomacy. He is guided by a conviction that American strength is best exercised judiciously and in partnership with a community of nations.

As the author of a book entitled No Apology, Romney loved to hate what he called Obama's "apology tour" of the Middle East at the start of his presidency. But that tour, culminating in Obama's historic "A New Beginning" speech to the Muslim World, unleashed a wave of global goodwill that continues to buoy American diplomacy. Apologizing is the right thing to do if you have done wrong. America remains, on balance, a force for much good in the world, but the country is not infallible. Acknowledging mistakes is an act of strength.

None of this is to say the GOP should embrace every aspect of Obama diplomacy or the Democrats' foreign policy agenda. Obama's reliance on drones, his about-face on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and his stuttering response to the Arab Spring have all been deeply problematic. Still, his diplomatic successes far outweigh his failures. If Republicans want to win in four years, they must appropriate the best of the past four years.

Learning from the Democrats does not mean ceasing to be Republicans. To his credit, President Obama has explicitly patterned his foreign policy after the realism of the elder George H.W. Bush. So, for the GOP, emulating Obama means returning to a more traditional, prudent foreign policy that embodies the best of American toughness -- and smartness.

Judd Birdsall is a former U.S. diplomat and a current Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University. From 2007 to 2011 he served at the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom and was founding chairman of the Forum on Religion & Global Affairs.