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Foreign policy barely registers at Republican convention

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  August 30, 2012 03:18 PM

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TAMPA — There are 49 states beyond Florida, as the exuberant multitude of delegates to the Republican convention here makes endlessly clear, but is there a world beyond those states? And if so, does it interest the GOP?

For the first half of this convention week, you’d scarcely have thought so. Apart from the obligatory salute to immigrant roots (“I am the son of an Irish father and a Sicilian mother” — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), foreign affairs went virtually unmentioned by any of the speakers throughout Tuesday’s lengthy proceedings. Not until Arizona Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took the podium on Wednesday night did America’s role in the world get much attention.

McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, reminded the delegates that “success at home… depends on our leadership in the world” and that “always we have led from the front, never from behind” — a slap at the Obama administration’s policy of deferring to multilateral institutions and lowering America’s profile in military operations overseas. Rice reinforced the message of America as the world’s indispensable nation. At times of crisis, she said, every nation wonders what America will do:

Indeed that is the question of the moment — “Where does America stand?” When our friends and our foes alike do not know the answer to that question, clearly and unambiguously, the world is a chaotic and dangerous place.

But neither Rice nor McCain — nor vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, whose acceptance speech was Tuesday’s climactic event — offered any detail into how a Romney administration would answer that question. Rice did talk up the importance of free-trade agreements; McCain condemned Obama for announcing plans to withdraw US combat troops from Afghanistan. But that was about it for specifics. If the GOP convention is going to yield a coherent statement about Romney’s foreign-policy intentions, it will have to come from Romney himself in his acceptance speech tonight.

Given the state of the economy, it is easy to understand why Republicans may not be devoting much attention to international affairs. But that doesn’t change reality: Whoever is elected on Nov. 6 will have far more control over US foreign policy than over the US economy. Economic policy is heavily shaped by Congress; presidents have a much freer hand when it comes to foreign relations.

Other governments are well aware of that fact, which helps explains the presence of many diplomats from abroad in the Tampa area this week. “Llegando a #Tampa para participar en la Convención Republicana #GOP2012,” tweeted Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, as he arrived in Florida on Monday. On Wednesday, the American Jewish Committee hosted a reception at an art gallery in nearby St. Petersburg, one of several AJC events that attracted attendees from the diplomatic corps.

“There is always great interest in what happens in America,” said British consul general Kevin McGurgan. “Especially when you’re choosing a president.” A young foreign-service officer from Scandinavia, attending the convention as a guest of the Republican Diplomatic Partnership, echoed the point. “The average person in my country doesn’t understand how American politics works,” he told me. “But everyone understands that the president of the United States is extremely important.”

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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