Mitt Romney’s comparative advantage in the presidential race was supposed to be his business expertise and fearsome intellect, but his international pronouncements have channeled Rambo rather than economics pioneer Adam Smith or the foreign-affairs chessmaster Henry Kissinger. President Obama, wanting to look equally tough, has gone to the World Trade Organization with a case accusing China of subsidizing car parts. Both candidates should step back from this damaging war of wills, and recognize that American success in dealing with the rest of the world, both economically and diplomatically, depends not just on strength but on sagacity.
A display of strength is the right response when faced with an egregious dictator, like Hitler or Stalin, who eyes the map and wonders how much he can take with impunity. But those times are not these times. Against the two foreign-policy challenges that flared up in recent days — a trade dispute with China and the rioting in the Middle East — bluster and brute force provide no solutions for the United States.
Consider the trade case: China's outsize growth may seem threatening to many in the United States. But as that growth slows, the unhappy will feel emboldened, and the incentive for the country's leaders to rally their people around a belligerent nationalism will only grow. America must use strength and skill to limit that possibility. We must pick our battles wisely, and that should preclude starting foolish trade wars or, as Romney has urged, labeling China as a currency manipulator.
That doesn't mean avoiding conflicts altogether. When the Obama administration decided this week to deploy a new missile-defense system in Japan, it predictably elicited protests from Beijing. The timing was unfortunate; the decision came amid major anti-Japanese protests in China. Still, the US move was defensive and defensible; it protects an important ally against a genuine risk from North Korea.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration decision to simultaneously start a WTO case against China needlessly increased the rancor. The case is misguided: If China is subsidizing exports, those subsidies benefit American consumers. But Obama, who is campaigning hard in manufacturing-intensive Ohio, is allowing politics to trump good policy.
Obama's effort to out-Rambo Romney on China makes particularly little sense, since the GOP candidate appears only to be hurting himself with his bellicosity. According to the election prediction market Intrade, Romney's probability of election tumbled from 42 percent on September 10 to just over 33 percent five days later. This drop occurred as Romney used harsh words to berate the Obama administration's performance in the Middle East.
Romney suggests that he would take a tougher line. Yet America's enemies abroad are not all despots who can be frightened off by shows of US power.
The streets of the Middle East have erupted not because some Americans made a stupid video, but because political entrepreneurs in those societies chose to exploit that video. The riots in Libya and Egypt follow an all-too-common pattern: Would-be leaders, currently on the edges of power, stoked the fires of hatred to conjure crowds that could bring them more clout. America faces such an enormous challenge because the Arab Spring brought freedom for many, including opportunistic extremists. If China has its own democratic spring, anti-American voices will similarly emerge.
Finding a shrewder approach toward these developments could substantially strengthen Romney's presidential bid. Republicans have enjoyed an edge in foreign affairs when they combined strength with savvy. Eisenhower and Nixon and George H.W. Bush were committed to American power, but they were also committed to getting the most from that power through skillful diplomacy and statecraft. Voters have been wary of Republicans, like Barry Goldwater, who fail to couple their toughness with restraint.
Weakness will not bring peace, but neither will empty bravado or trade wars. If there are more ordinary Americans engaged with the economies of the Middle East and China, Americans will seem less like remote devils. After World War II, American GIs won the hearts of German boys, including my father, with chocolate bars. To reverse recent setbacks, Romney would be wise to craft a foreign policy that reflects Kissinger's careful calculation, even if Rambo likes it less.
Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, is the director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.