All of the Republican candidates for president believe that Barack Obama’s foreign policy has failed the United States; most of them believe he has failed in the same way. They insist that Obama doesn’t really believe in America—that, as Mitt Romney has put it, we have never before had a president “so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart.” They believe that he has cozied up to enemies like Iran and competitors like China, and walked away from allies like Israel. They view him as a humanitarian with a weak grasp of America’s core interests who has presided over a unilateral disarmament. Obama, in short, is a soft man in a hard world—which is pretty much what Republicans have been saying about Democrats since Vietnam.

At the same time, the fact that Obama’s rivals are certain that he is wrong does not mean that they have a clear idea—or in some cases any idea—of what is right. At times the candidates’ level of ignorance has been stupefying. In early November, then front-runner Herman Cain worried about China becoming a nuclear threat (the country has had nuclear weapons since 1964). At a foreign-policy-only debate held in Spartanburg, South Carolina, two weeks later, Rick Perry vowed to let Europe solve its own fiscal crisis since the euro is a “competitor” to the dollar, and Michele Bachmann concluded that “the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel.” Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have much more fully articulated views than most of their rivals, but they reach much the same conclusions as the others. As Romney, the most plausible nominee, said in the party’s national security debate (held a few days after the foreign policy debate), “President Obama says that we have people throughout the world with common interests. I just don’t agree with him. I think there are people in the world that want to oppress other people, that are evil.” “Engagement” only encourages those evil forces; the time has come to replace the gentle handshake with the clenched fist.

That, in any case, is how Romney says he would govern America’s foreign affairs. But foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, consists chiefly of reactions to unforeseen events, and is shaped as much by those events as by presidential ideology. As a candidate, George W. Bush promised a hardheaded policy based on “interests” rather than “values,” but emerged from 9/11 sounding like a Wilsonian idealist determined to democratize the Middle East. Nevertheless, predispositions, basic assumptions about the world, do matter. Bush the candidate took a dim view of multilateralism, and as president he disdained the United Nations in favor of “coalitions of the willing.” Bush and his team viewed nation building as socialism on a global scale, and they chose to do as little of it as possible in Iraq and Afghanistan—a mistake Bush admitted in his memoirs. So while it is impossible to say exactly how a Republican’s foreign policy will differ from Obama’s, it is nonetheless quite clear that the outcome of the 2012 election will have a profound effect on America’s behavior in the world.

Strange though it seems, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the great foreign policy dramas of the last decade, will be very little affected by the presidential election: they are destined to fade away no matter who wins in 2012. The Republican candidates insist that, unlike Obama, they will “listen to our generals,” but none of them is so rash as to speak of “victory” in Afghanistan, as John McCain did in 2008. The American people have no more stomach for ground wars in the broader Middle East, much as they had none for ground wars in Asia by the early 1970s. The U.S. will largely leave the Afghan people to their own devices by 2014 even if this means that the Taliban will seize control of portions of the country. And Pakistan will remain a supreme problem, as neither party has any cure for this constant source of neuralgia.

But elsewhere, a Republican president would turn up the dial of confrontation. Iran is a particularly stark example, since Obama’s rivals have described his engagement policy there as complicity with evil (Rick Santorum: “We sided with evil because our president believes our enemies are legitimately aggrieved”). As a candidate, Obama argued that the U.S. had sacrificed even the possibility of finding common ground with nations like Iran by refusing to talk to them. As president, he replaced the bellicose moralism of George Bush’s “axis of evil” with a more anodyne lexicon of “mutual respect” for “mutual interests.” He took pains to extend greetings to the Iranian people on the holiday of Nowruz and to refer to the country as the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” In his speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama even acknowledged America’s role in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian leader.

There is more to this strategy than Republicans like to acknowledge. Perhaps Obama did believe (naively) that this more beguiling language would make it easier for the Iranian leadership to come out of its shell and make concessions on its nuclear program. But officials around him said from the outset that his ulterior purpose was to help forge an international coalition around tough measures toward Iran by first showing that the Iranians would not respond to gentle ones. And in this he succeeded: in 2010, Obama persuaded Russia and China to accept tough sanctions on Iran adopted by the UN Security Council. Iran is much more isolated today than it was only a few years ago. The Obama administration has been using clandestine methods as well, and in all likelihood collaborated with Israel to develop the Stuxnet computer virus, which disrupted Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.

Indeed, here, as elsewhere, Obama has proved to be less “liberal,” and more traditionally pragmatic, than many of his supporters hoped or his critics have charged. He has increased the use of Predator drones and continued the practice of extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to other countries, despite criticisms from human rights groups. Many of the old-line foreign policy professionals who served under the first President Bush, like Brent Scowcroft, the former national security advisor, feel more comfortable with Obama’s conduct of foreign policy than with the more confrontational one that Romney and others promise. (Only Jon Huntsman, of all the Republican candidates, has sought the advice of this group.) A Republican president would thus move American foreign policy not from the left to the right, but from the center to the right.

For all Obama’s efforts, his Iran policy is at best a qualified success; the leadership there is still enriching uranium, still apparently seeking to design a warhead, still posing a profound threat to Israel. The Republican candidates insist that Iran hasn’t capitulated because Obama has not applied enough pressure. They would, of course, cut out the deferential language and the holiday greetings. They would attempt regime change, if from a distance. But the real difference between a hypothetical Republican president and Obama—and it is a very important one—is that a Republican would be prepared to launch an attack on Iran designed to slow their development of nuclear technology, or would give Israel the go-ahead to do so. Yes, Obama has said that “all options are on the table,” but he might not be prepared to attack Iran. The Republicans say they would. “If we reelect Barack Obama,” Mitt Romney said in Spartanburg, “Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”

At bottom, Obama’s policy is designed to buy time in hopes that the collective bite of sanctions will change the Iranian calculus, or that some as yet unforeseeable change inside Iran will produce a new policy. He seeks, in Cold War language, to contain Iran. Romney and others argue that the U.S. doesn’t have the luxury of containment—that Iran represents an existential threat, which must be stopped now. But airstrikes, whether by the U.S. or Israel, would not wholly eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, and would provoke very serious blowback. Leon Panetta, Obama’s defense secretary, has warned the Israelis of possible “unintended consequences” of such a mission, including attacks on American soldiers, diplomats, and assets across the Middle East. And while some Arab elites might welcome an attack, ordinary citizens in the Middle East would be enraged. The U.S. could thus pay a very grave price for a relatively modest gain.

The Republicans tend to paint themselves as hardheaded realists as against Obama’s universalist idealism; but a true realist would regard such an option as a bad bargain. The Republican candidates see China as another power seeking to assert itself at America’s expense. Romney has said that Obama has let China “run all over us,” stealing American jobs and waging a “trade war” against the U.S. Rick Perry, harking back to hoary Cold War rhetoric—in fact, to Marxist rhetoric—has proclaimed that “the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history.” Candidates of both parties tend to accuse an incumbent president of the opposite party of coddling China and neglecting human rights, but China’s rising power means that the issues on the other side of the balance are now not chiefly moral, but strategic and, of course, economic. Romney has said that he would haul China before the World Trade Organization on charges that it was manipulating its currency, the renminbi, in order to assure a steady flow of cheap exports.

But as with Iran, it’s not clear how much space actually lies on the more aggressive side of the Obama administration’s own policies. Obama has responded to China’s rapidly increasing military budget, its growing presence in the South China Sea, and its assertive claims over disputed territory in the region by offering pointed reassurance to American allies like Japan and South Korea. On a recent swing through Asia, Obama announced that the U.S. would be stationing 2,500 Marines at a base in Australia, and declared, with uncharacteristic brassiness, “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” Even while making these shots across China’s bow, the president has tried to send other, perhaps contradictory, messages. On international finance, administration officials have said that the cheap renminbi is hurting the U.S. economy, but they have not threatened retaliation or action before the WTO. On the military front, the White House has not explicitly said that China is trying to exclude the U.S. from the region, though that is what they fear.

A Republican president would, at the very least, shift this delicate balance. The U.S. would more bluntly describe China as a rival and demand changes in Chinese policy more harshly. Conservatives speak of creating a much stronger Asian alliance beefed up by more, and more advanced, American weaponry and a more open acknowledgment of China’s drive for regional hegemony. Indeed, Romney and other conservatives cite the imperative of responding to Chinese militarism as the most powerful argument for increasing the Pentagon budget, rather than cutting it by $450 billion over a decade, as Obama and Congress have agreed to do. Romney would increase defense spending by at least $50 billion a year, and engage in a massive program of shipbuilding aimed in part at deterring Chinese designs. Of course, this would make reducing the budget deficit that much more difficult; Romney has not explained what domestic programs he would cut even more deeply than is currently planned in order to finance such an expansion.

China really does seem to have moved away from its doctrine of “peaceful rise” to one more threatening to the neighborhood, which is why Obama has adopted a tougher tone. But toughness carries dangers of its own. China’s cooperation is indispensable on a vast range of issues, including the global economy, energy supplies, and climate change; provoking Chinese nationalism is a sure path to a scratchy relationship. This is why presidents of both parties have tended to accommodate China more than they said they would as candidates. Moreover, it’s not clear that even those allies who fear China’s bullying tactics would welcome a chestier American presence; they, even more than the U.S., have to balance their security concerns with the wish to benefit from China’s locomotive economy. It is an article of faith among Republicans that the twenty-first century, like the twentieth, will be an American century— which is to say, not a Chinese one. But “communist China” is an absurd archaism, and China is not likely to wind up on the ash heap of history. Treating the world’s premier rising power like the Soviet Union in the 1960s would be a mistake of historic proportions.

One of the favorite GOP tropes is that President Obama has truckled to our adversaries and betrayed our allies. The one ally the Republicans are almost always thinking of in this formulation is Israel. Michele Bachmann vows never—unlike Obama—to let an inch of space come between the U.S. and Israel. Romney accuses Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus.” It is absolutely true that Obama has been more willing to criticize Israel than George Bush was, though no more so than many of his other predecessors. Obama determined early on in his tenure that Israel would have to make the good-faith gesture of freezing the construction of settlements in the occupied territories in order to give the Palestinian leadership the political space to make painful concessions of its own in a negotiation over a two-state solution. Israel ultimately balked, and the Palestinians walked away. In his Cairo speech, Obama called on each side to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other’s core aspirations. It would be hard to argue that his policy of equal pressure on both sides succeeded: Obama managed to offend the Israelis and disappoint the Palestinians, with little to show for it. He is, however, working with very unpromising materials, since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling to make serious concessions for peace, while the Palestinians are so divided that they probably couldn’t even agree on concessions of their own.

A Republican president would stand by the Israeli leadership even if it behaved in ways that inflamed the Palestinians, and the Arab world in general. This could well make a very bad situation significantly worse. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (and now CIA chief) David Petraeus have all publicly stated that the deadlock over a Palestinian state fosters anger at the U.S. in the Arab world, and thus endangers our national security. That anger will only deepen as prospects for peace disappear altogether and the U.S. resolutely defends Israeli intransigence. Indeed, in recent years the certainty of support from Republican leaders has given Netanyahu the confidence to ignore Obama’s pressure. In the past, autocratic allies in the Arab world have served as interlocutors with Israel, and dampened public fury over the plight of the Palestinians. The Arab Spring has largely put an end to that era—which means that the U.S. is more exposed than ever to Arab public opinion.

The U.S. under a President Romney—or Gingrich or Perry—may be more certain where it stands than it is today; but it will stand alone. The U.S. will have more adversaries— including Iran, China, Russia, Venezuela, and “Islamists,” to name the principal ones the candidates have targeted—and it will have fewer allies. As a candidate, Obama argued that George Bush had done America a disservice by turning his back on traditional allies in western Europe as well as the United Nations, and he set out to repair relations in each case. White House officials argue that the combination of restored multilateralism and compliance with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty has helped the U.S. forge strong responses to both Iran and North Korea, while the president’s willingness to share leadership in the UN Security Council led to the resolutions that authorized NATO’s air war in Libya. Multilateralism, for Obama, is not a gesture made out of weakness, but a means of enhancing American strength.

The Republicans, by contrast, see the UN as a fundamentally hostile place, the more so as the issue of Palestinian statehood continues to play out there. Under a Republican president, U.S.-UN tensions might sink to the level of Bush’s contentious first term, and Washington might respond by defunding all or part of the institution. Whatever immediate satisfactions this provided to some might fade as the new president discovered that the UN does a lot of things—like peacekeeping—that the U.S. wishes to have done but doesn’t want to do itself. The Republicans are also skeptical of many of America’s traditional allies. Few of them even mention western Europe. Romney, for example, speaks of Europe chiefly as the home of a failed experiment in social democracy. Gingrich does the same. But Europe’s problems will soon become America’s, and the U.S. will have to work with European capitals in order to contain the spreading financial crisis.

Presidential candidates almost always treat the world as simpler than it really is. Candidate Obama, to his credit, did not reduce foreign policy to shibboleths, and never made success sound like a mere effort of will. His rivals, however, seem to actually believe the simpleminded nostrums they peddle on the stump and in debate. That’s a frightening thought. The Republicans believe that the world is more dangerous than Obama thinks—and they would conduct America’s policy in a way that might make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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James Traub

James Traub is a journalist specializing in foreign affairs. He writes a "Terms of Engagement," a weekly column in He is also writing a biography of John Quincy Adams.