The Tale of Two Romneys

We don't know which is running: the moderate from Massachusetts, or the conservative philosophically

The question going into the general election is: who is the real Mitt Romney? We don't really know which of them is running, the moderate from Massachusetts, as Newt Gingrich never tired of saying, or the conservative mantle bearer who is philosophically to the right of Ayn Rand.

Now that Rick Santorum, the social conservative, has suspended his presidential bid, Romney can rejigger his campaign for the general election. That usually means a candidate turns his attention to the wide middle ground where the coveted independents are awaiting his charms.

Romney isn't doing that. In fact, as a recent appearance at a conference of the National Rifle Association suggests, he is banking to the right even more on issues like immigration, abortion and gun rights. He even endorsed US Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian federal budget, which calls, in effect, for gutting Medicare.

Bob Moser of the American Prospect calls this the Santorum Effect:

 ... [Santorum] helped push Romney to the right of the average general-election voter ... Romney cannot "course-correct" back to the centre — except in completely symbolic ways — with hardcore conservatives warily watching for any hints of apostasy.

This of course depends on the sound memory of the media. As it did with President Obama's hope to implement a new tax on millionaires, the media is beginning to forget all those arch-conservative things Romney had to say to get arch-conservatives to believe he was just as arch a conservative as Santorum. You know, like bombing Iran, repealing health care reform laws and eliminating the Education Department.

Now that the GOP nomination process is essentially over (though former House Speaker Gingrich and US Rep. Ron Paul are still in the running), pundits are now reverting to calling Romney a moderate, mostly because that's what he was during the time of his governorship of Massachusetts and because that's what his genuinely conservative rivals kept calling him.

But is it true? Yeah, probably. Romney works too hard to sound conservative but appears at ease when talking about things like the safety net and the embattled middle class (conservatives never say "safety net" or "class"). Romney also seems to think of himself as a competent manager more than a fire-breathing ideologue. He was, after all, the head of a private-equity firm that made money by cleaning up other people's messes.

Such an attitude toward government has roots in American liberalism and neoconservatism (which is like liberalism sans hope). Such theories generally call for the solving of social problems by identifying and applying the right fix. Politics is more puzzle than worldview. Take away the idea that society is perfectible, and you might have the moderate that Mitt might be.

That, of course, assumes he's not going to enact all those conservative things he says he's going to enact as president. But saying isn't being -- and conservatives know this better than most. Noam Scheiber of the New Republic argues that Mitt is too moderate to beat Obama, only because the GOP's base is going to be second-guessing him from now till November, just as it did with Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. Romney isn't like George W Bush, whose conservative bona fide were unquestioned that he could talk about the poor and without sounding like a candy-ass liberal.

I buy it. You sell conservatives on gays, guns and God, not on rational public policy. If you do, you can't rely on their vote. Romney doesn't have to worry about appealing to independents. He has to worry about his base.
 

Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney talk to members of the media aboard his campaign plane on March 6, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear