Is Romney a Realist or an Idealist?

The GOP nominee has yet to clarify his foreign policy instincts

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Illustration: Oliver Munday for TIME; Romney: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

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This is the essential foreign policy question for Romney: Will he be a realist on the model of George H.W. Bush, who was the most adept foreign policy President since Eisenhower, or will he follow the intemperate, ill-considered idealism of George W. Bush, especially during the Dick Cheney--dominated first term? In a way, neoconservatism is the Republican foreign policy equivalent of supply-side economics. It has been tried and failed. The aggressive aspects of the doctrine--which provided the intellectual rationale for the war in Iraq--seem a form of myopic neocolonialism now. And the vagaries of the Arab Spring have demolished the broad-brush neoconservative idealism of George W. Bush's "freedom agenda." The reality of today's world is doctrine-averse. Diplomacy and the use of force must be subtle, most often multilateral and attentive to the facts of a rapidly changing world rather than to some overweening ideology.

There is likely to be an immediate foreign policy challenge to both Romney and Obama this fall. The nuclear talks with Iran, recessed during the past month of Ramadan, are reaching a climax. There is an implicit deal on the table: Iran opens the doors to all its nuclear facilities, closes down its Qum operation and agrees to stop producing highly enriched uranium in return for the right to enrich uranium for civilian power plants. If Iran accepts this deal, what does Romney do? If Iran rejects this deal, what does Obama do? It's not impossible that foreign policy, an afterthought in the race so far, will move dramatically to center stage come October.

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