Romney Abroad: A Candidate Tries to Find His Diplomatic Voice

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Carsten Koall / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, prepares to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on July 31, 2012 in Warsaw, Poland. After visiting London, Israel, and the polish city of Gdansk, Romney traveled to Warsaw to meet with the Polish President and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski.

Seasoned foreign policy advisers will tell you that in diplomacy there’s an inside voice and an outside voice. Candidates – especially those running in primaries – will say the most bombastic and outrageous stuff on the record only to admit moderation and identify areas of compromise off the record. For diplomats the opposite is true: off the record, they will tell you what they really think of their foreign counterparts; on the record they will be full of nothing but praise and platitudes. The inside voice is for creating strife; the outside one is for avoiding it. Problems occur when politicians take their inside voice abroad, as Mitt Romney has learned this week.

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In hindsight, Romney’s trip – to the London Olympics, Israel and Poland – looks like it was going to be a challenge for the candidate under any circumstances. Comparisons with President Obama’s triumphal 2008 trip as a candidate were inevitable. Romney was never going to draw 100,000 adoring Germans to a speech in Berlin, and the trip quickly became rhetorically constraining. In 2008, Obama was celebrated for being a historic African American candidate who had a positive message of hope and, most importantly, he wasn’t George W. Bush. Romney is challenging now incumbent Obama who remains much more popular abroad than at home. The trap came when he pledged to follow tradition – all U.S. politicians usually refrain from political attacks on the commander-in-chief while abroad – while also refusing to detail his own policy initiatives, which left him precious little to talk about.

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London: Running for President requires a candidate to spend his days promoting his resume as better than anyone else’s. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that Romney questioned whether the Brits would be as prepared for the London Olympics as he was for the Salt Lake City games when he ran them in 2002. If he hadn’t been traveling to London, this swipe might have rated page A20. Instead, the insult earned him a rebuke from British Prime Minister David Cameron, a fellow conservative, about how holding an Olympics in “the middle of nowhere” was obviously easier than holding one in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The British papers labeled Romney “Nowhere Man,” and the U.S. press declared him “DOA” in the UK. For a candidate whose whole critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that the President is too critical of allies and too friendly to enemies, Romney started his trip by slapping one of America’s closest allies in the face.

Israel: What got Romney in the most trouble in Israel was again using his inside voice when he was outside. At a Sunday morning fundraiser in Jerusalem, Romney said this:

I was thinking this morning, as I prepared to come into this room, of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here, and you see the GDP per capita — for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita — you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.

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This provoked a Palestinian firestorm; accusing Romney of racism for suggesting that one culture is simply more industrious than another. The campaign, taken aback, pointed to a similar statement Romney made in Chicago in March:

My business used to take me to different parts of the world … I was often struck by enormous differences between different nations that in many cases were living right next door to each other. I was interested in the differences in their prosperity, and how it was that nations so close to each other in terms of geography, could be so different in terms of prosperity. I mean, look at Mexico and the United States, Israel and Egypt, Chile and Ecuador.

Setting aside the fact that Romney, a guy trying to win the Latino vote, just pretty much accused Mexicans of cultural laziness – why else did the U.S., right next door, succeed while they have struggled? – saying this in Chicago and saying it in the capital Palestinians claim as their own are two very different things. In Chicago, these remarks underline American exceptionalism to a largely Republican audience at the end of the GOP primary season. In Jerusalem, you are not just propping up the Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians, you’re antagonizing much of the Arab world, many of whom are also important American allies.

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Poland: By the time the Romney campaign hit their last stop, tempers were flaring –never a good thing in diplomacy. As Politico’s Jonathan Martin wrote:

As Romney was walking away from Pilsudski Square toward his vehicle, reporters asked him about his string of gaffes and whether he had any comment for Palestinians, some of whom took offense at the Republican’s suggestion Monday in Jerusalem that Israel’s economy is superior because of cultural advantages Israelis enjoy. Romney ignored the questions and got in his car. ‘Kiss my ass, this is a holy site for the Polish people,’ said aide Rick Gorka. ‘Show some respect.’ Gorka than told a reporter to ‘shove it.’ Gorka subsequently called a pair of reporters to apologize, saying he lost his cool. ‘It was inappropriate,’ Gorka said.

Stateside, this would’ve hardly registered a blip on the radar. But, capping off a week of candidate gaffes and staff blunders, the faux pas seemed to validate the Democratic line that Romney and his staff have a ways to go before they’re ready for the prime time world stage.

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