Back in 2012, I drafted but didn’t publish a post with a couple of long quotes about the International Republican Institute programming at the Republican convention. I’m posting it below following a brief introduction.
2012 was back in the “good old days” when the Republican Party could still nominate a candidate for president who could be elected and had served as a state governor ahead of running for president. Way back in 2007-08 during my brief time working for IRI the GOP chose the Chairman of IRI, Senator John McCain, as its nominee for president; clearly a different era.
And thus now we see especially starkly one of the risks of using the two current political party institutes as primary vehicles for official U.S. democracy assistance: does Donald Trump represent democratic ideals and values outside the U.S? does Trump himself believe in democracy as an ideal as opposed to a personal opportunity (see V. Putin)? will people who actually work for IRI democracy programs vote for Trump with a secret ballot? do we want potential democrats from developing nations to come to witness Trump’s convention? how can IRI be partners with “center right” parties in Western democracies if Republican primary voters have repudiated the “center right”? (some less polite questions come to mind, but I’ll stop there–the basic point is that IRI and NDI should be merged to be truly non-partisan to do taxpayer funded democracy assistance overseas without the baggage of Trump, Clinton and whomever else as partisan figures in U.S politics).
Without further ado:
Conventions, however, serve another equally as important but perhaps under-appreciated purpose. These four days in Tampa will be an opportunity for Republicans to unify under a common goal (the nomination), to reinvigorate party members tired from a long campaign, and to get ready for that final push toward November.
The RNC hosts a multitude of important and fascinating guests. One such group is the International Republican Institute (IRI), which hosts foreign diplomats from conservative parties from across the globe. Some 150 international leaders have convened in Tampa to observe the RNC, meet with political advisors and American politicians, and have the opportunity to discuss what American foreign policy might look like under the next administration.
These high powered men and women shape the conservative movements in their own nations and will take away from the RNC a deeper understanding of the atmosphere of American politics. They will come to understand that we are a divided nation, but the division is narrow, nuanced, and difficult to govern by.
But at the convention, the campaign was careful not to draw any controversial conclusions from these philosophical musings about American greatness. The main session on foreign policy was hosted by the International Republican Institute, which Congress established in 1983 along with its partisan twin, the National Democratic Institute. Run by a former John McCain aide Lorne Craner, it exemplifies the non-problematic side of Republican neo-conservatism—the emphasis on encouraging democratic movements in authoritarian or formerly authoritarian countries through education and training. It held a meeting at an auditorium in Tampa on “The Future of U.S. National Security Policy.” The speakers consisted of four Romney foreign policy advisors, led by Richard Williamson, a former Reagan administration official who was also one of McCain’s principal surrogates in the 2008 campaign. The graying heavy-set Williamson, who looks like former Secretary of State Richard Eagleburger, would probably not fill a high post in a Romney administration, but he is perfect for this campaign, because he can, if necessary, take the edge off Romney’s more bald assertions.
The panelists sat on stage before a table, with several hundred campaign delegates, press, present and former Republican officials, and foreign diplomats in attendance. Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, who chaired the meeting, asked the panelists at one point about Romney’s statement that Russia is America’s “chief geopolitical foe.” Williamson explained that Romney was not trying to revive the Cold War. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “He talked about a geopolitical not a military foe.” (In fact, Romney has warned of Russia as a military threat.)
Another panelist former Minnesota Senator Norman Coleman jumped in to offer a further clarification, or dilution of Romney’s statement. “He talked about a ‘foe’ and not an ‘enemy,’” Coleman explained, although Coleman did not explain what the difference was, and I don’t think a dictionary would be much help. The panelists praised the bill coming up in Congress that would penalize any foreign official involved in human rights violations—a bill that is aimed partly at the Russians—but conspicuously steered clear of redline proposals, such as re-committing the United States to building anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe.
Romney’s representatives took a similar stand on other specifics. They said we should sell weapons to Taiwan, but adhere strictly to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. We should arm Syrian rebels (which it turns out the Obama administration has been doing covertly), but—in answer to a question from Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin—not establish a “no-fly zone.” We should declare that an Iranian nuclear weapon was “totally unacceptable,” but merely keep armed force an option. We should support human rights, but need not do so, Williamson assured the audience, by putting “boots on the ground.”
The speakers kept calling for a “robust” foreign policy and insisting that America should lead, and they denounced the Obama administration for failing to lead, but they offered very little indication that Romney would act any differently from Obama. That’s clearly what they intended to do. They wanted to get the rhetorical message across without committing Romney to any specific policies. Interestingly, Williamson and another Romney advisor, former George W. Bush State Department official Pierre Prosper, took a harder rhetorical line toward Russia at a posh smaller gathering at the Tampa City Club hosted by the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative, which has key Romney advisors among its founders, and the institute of Modern Russia, headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of the jailed tycoon. That was probably because of the audience. But they still steered clear of proposing any provocative actions that could invite a serious examination of Romney’s foreign policy.
[2016 Note: For a view of how this year’s Republican operation in Cleveland looks from the perspective of a close American “developed world” ally and overseas development partner, see “Jumping the shark at the RNC” from Australia’s Lowy Institute.