By Willis Sparks
Before the Republican National Convention opens the 2012 presidential campaign season on August 27 and returns the country's focus to its domestic hopes and fears, Mitt Romney is headed abroad to try to build some credibility on foreign policy. Having focused his campaign almost exclusively on the fragile U.S. economy, Romney wants to narrow Obama's polling advantage on foreign policy questions and offer an image of himself as "leader of the free world." The most obvious way to accomplish this is to stand alongside key U.S. allies facing traditional U.S. foes. Romney will make stops along the way in Britain, Israel, and Poland.
The visit to London is a reaffirmation of American foreign policy tradition and a chance to place Romney inside the "special relationship." With his appearance at the London Olympics, it's also an opportunity to remind voters of the leadership Romney brought to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games -- the least controversial line on his resume.
The stop in Jerusalem underlines another special relationship -- and reminds voters that Obama has yet to visit Israel as president. It's certain to produce warm photos of Romney with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, old friends who met while working together at Boston Consulting Group in 1976. The images will offer a stark contrast with the frigidly formal shots we've seen following Netanyahu's strained meetings with Obama. Romney will promise that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon on his watch -- and (at least) imply that a nuclear Iran is inevitable if Obama is re-elected.
And Poland? A Pew poll released in June found that only 50 percent of Poles express confidence in Obama. Compare that with 80 percent in Britain, 86 percent in France and 87 percent in Germany. In some cases, this is a legacy of the preference among some Warsaw Pact countries for Republican presidents, but it's also a function of some notable Obama mistakes.
Obama trod on Poland's diplomatic sensitivities in May when he referred to Nazi concentration camps located in Poland as "Polish death camps" during a ceremony to bestow America's highest civilian honor on a Polish resistance fighter. Expect Romney to honor the Polish victims of Nazi atrocities.
And don't forget Obama's live mic gaffe with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, the one where he asked outgoing president Medvedev to ask incoming president Putin for "space" in exchange for "flexibility" on the question of U.S. missile defenses scheduled to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Romney hopes his visit to Poland, at the invitation of former Polish president and anti-Communist icon Lech Walesa, will help him make the case that only he can forcefully meet threats from Russia, which he has (oddly) labeled America's "no. 1 geopolitical foe," carrying on in the tradition of uncompromising Cold Warriors like Ronald Reagan.
Governor Romney can't match the ecstatic reception candidate Obama received in Berlin in 2008. Nor can he share credit for killing Osama bin Laden or ending the unpopular war in Iraq, Obama's signature foreign policy achievements.
But he can remind voters that Republican presidents like to draw clear lines between America's friends and foes -- and that while Obama remains remarkably popular in much of the world, at least a few U.S. allies are probably hoping for a Romney win.
Willis Sparks is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Global Macro and United States practices.
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By Carroll Colley
While Russia will enter the WTO in late August, U.S. industry will be left on the sidelines until Congress removes the Cold War-era impediment to greater trade between the former foes. But it's a safe bet that Congress won't graduate Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which is necessary to grant permanent normal trade relations to Russia and take advantage of its accession to the WTO, before the November election. The reason? Russia is perpetually steeped in controversy, and U.S.-Russia relations have become a campaign issue in the race between Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. U.S. industry likely won't be able to take advantage of greater market access in Russia until the lame-duck session at the end of the year, and possibly later.
The White House is much more focused on November 6 (Election Day) than August 23 (the approximate date of Russia's WTO entry). Only after repeated requests from Republican lawmakers for senior level officials to testify on the Hill -- widely viewed as a Republican maneuver to force the administration to speak on the record about its Russian policy -- did the administration relent by sending the duo of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. The White House calculates that a "yes" vote on graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik (a 1974 provision that ties trade relations to freedom of emigration and other human rights considerations) would have little electoral upside, and might even harm Obama before the election.
Obama's meeting on June 18 with President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G20 in Los Cabos seemingly failed to produce a breakthrough on Syrian policy. Headlines about ongoing arms shipments bound for Syria and the potential for continued Russian intransigence at the U.N. Security Council also represent potential political liabilities during the election home stretch, not to mention a host of domestic political issues. Romney, meanwhile, has called Russia the U.S.'s greatest political "enemy" -- and later changing that description to "foe" -- because he senses a potential weakness in an Obama foreign policy that has otherwise produced several notable successes.
It would be much simpler, politically, if supporters of graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik could cast it as a vote for American business, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in a recent opinion piece. But they can't. Passage is complicated by the Magnitsky bill, human rights legislation that targets government officials involved in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody in 2009. Largely viewed as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik, the stated aim of the bill is to deny visas to corrupt officials, freeze any U.S. accounts they have, and publish their names. The reality is that the Obama administration last summer instituted its own visa ban and any potential offenders have long ago transferred any funds from the U.S.. The net effect of the bill, therefore, is the "naming of names," which would represent a significant embarrassment to the Putin regime. The bill enjoys broad bipartisan support, with a number of lawmakers stating publicly that passage of the Magnitsky bill is a prerequisite for their vote on Jackson-Vanik.
The Obama administration has sent contradictory messages about its support for the Magnitsky bill. While originally opposing the bill, the administration seems to have accepted the inevitable and has been working with its primary author, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. One recent Senate version provides for the public list as well as a confidential annex, which would largely allow the administration to circumvent the thrust of the bill by invoking national security exemptions. This is strongly opposed by a number of senior lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, who was a co-sponsor of the effort to repeal Jackson-Vanik on the caveat of corresponding passage of the Magnitsky bill.
As the August recess rapidly approaches, the window for graduating Russia from Jackson-Vanik prior to its WTO accession closes. Obama appears to have little room to maneuver in expending political capital on the matter without raising the risk of elevating Russia-and its collateral baggage including Syria, Georgia, Iran, and domestic protests-to a legitimate campaign issue. Unless Congress moves forward on its own prerogative-which appears unlikely-the repeal of Jackson-Vanik won't get passed before November, or later, leaving the world's largest economy unable to take advantage of the accession of the WTO's newest member.
Carroll Colley is the director of Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.