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Democracy Talks: Senator Mitt Romney

Senator Mitt Romney, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explains why America should play a leading role in global affairs, especially as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Article by William McKenzie, Lindsay Lloyd, and Christopher Walsh April 28, 2020 //   23 minute read

Senator Mitt Romney’s role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he leads a subcommittee on the Middle East, places the Utah Republican in the middle of debates over the modern clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Of course, his role as the 2012 GOP presidential nominee also gave him a prominent platform to discuss America’s role in the world.

During a 40-minute interview, the senator spoke with the Bush Institute’s Lindsay Lloyd, Chris Walsh, and Bill McKenzie about the reasons America should play a leading role in global affairs, especially as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. He believes that stepping back from leadership roles in international organizations like the World Health Organization only creates risks for our own country. And he contends that America should avoid isolationism as authoritarians gain power and China poses a threat to political freedom.

What impact, if any, do you see the coronavirus having on the cause of democracy?

Romney: At this stage, we have an opportunity for liberal democracies to come together, especially with regards to China and their objectives and aggression, their obfuscation and disinformation during the pandemic. Many European governments were skeptical in the past on the need to push back against China, but we may see some attitudes change by virtue of this pandemic.

[British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson, for example, is extremely critical of China now. A number of Western European countries welcomed the supply of masks and tests coming from China only to find that in many cases they were faulty. That has resulted in anger and re-thinking of the relationship that ought to exist with China.

At the same time, authoritarian regimes will attempt to exploit the pandemic and use it to extend the tentacles of authoritarianism. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has jailed journalists if they publish anything about the pandemic that he says is incorrect. These are the actions of a person trying to tighten his grip in an authoritarian regime.

China and perhaps other authoritarian regimes will try to draw a distinction between the death rate from the virus in the West and compare it with China. China has produced highly unreliable data but that doesn't keep them from trying to push their propaganda. If you look at the top 20 countries with the highest mortality rate from COVID-19, 19 of the 20 are western democracies. The exception is Iran, and all have much higher mortality rates than China.

China will be using information like this to suggest they have a superior model to confronting COVID-19. So will other authoritarian regimes. But this pandemic originated in China, and by China keeping a lid on it publicly, the virus spread around the world. They have been dishonest in reporting the cases there and have provided dangerously faulty tests and masks around the world.

The West and America in particular need to be as aggressive in our communication efforts as China will be in their propaganda efforts.

The West and America in particular need to be as aggressive in our communication efforts as China will be in their propaganda efforts.

Is there something about the messiness of democracy that makes it tougher for societies like ours to deal with a pandemic? Or do you feel we are generally doing okay?

Romney: China and other authoritarian regimes will draw on the data I just described to promote the idea that they are better prepared to deal with the challenges of the modern world, including pandemics. But that is a faulty analysis. China didn't do any better job than South Korea, Singapore, or Taiwan. Those democracies did every bit as well as China.

Even if you believe the data coming out of China, it had dealt with SARS in the past and had put in place safeguards, systems, and supplies to deal with an emerging pandemic. Many nations in the West, ours included, imagined pandemics were a feature of far-off places. That was simply wrong.

There's also been more variation among liberal democracies in dealing with the pandemic. Some western nations were prepared and took swift action, while others were unprepared and didn’t see the pandemic coming. They have suffered far more dramatically than others.

A growing hypothesis on my part is that countries with the highest rate of COVID infections and deaths have extensive air travel. Countries that don't have a lot of air travel are not going to see the kind of same kind of spread. You are going to see more spread than in a place where very few people are able to get on an airplane, like in China.

As a former presidential nominee, how do you think this pandemic might affect our campaign and the actual election? How might it affect elections around the world?

Romney: A crisis typically helps the incumbent, in part because the incumbent gets more time on TV. That includes incumbents like myself. We have more airtime and visibility in our respective states or districts. I'm sure that's true in countries around the world. The challenger has a very difficult time getting the message out.

That, of course, assumes the incumbent does an acceptable job managing the crisis. If the incumbent does a terrible job, then the incumbent is going to suffer.

By and large, most nations work through the kinds of disasters that confront us from time-to-time. It's my expectation that the long tradition of incumbents holding onto the job unless they do something very wrong would continue to play out in 2020. It's been 28 years since an incumbent president lost an election in this country, and the trend is more likely to continue, not less likely, as a result of this pandemic.

Your own state of Utah has a mail-in voting system. Is that a good model for other states?

Romney: My experience is that mail-in balloting is a plus all the way around. I'm sure it means that more people will vote and that's a good thing. It also means that older people will be more likely to vote. There are many older people, whether in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, or perhaps just shut in their own home, that find it difficult to get out and vote. Voting by mail will allow them to participate.

My experience is that mail-in balloting is a plus all the way around. I'm sure it means that more people will vote and that's a good thing. It also means that older people will be more likely to vote.

I don't know that mail-in ballots help or hurt one party or the other. But it is a better tool than relying solely on people trying to find a place to vote, encountering long lines, or finding it hard to get childcare so they can vote.

Let’s shift to the international side of things. We've seen a rise in isolationism in recent years. How do we get to a place where we can get the U.S. to be engaged internationally?

Romney: Our number of COVID infections and death rate per capita will open us to propaganda and criticism by China and certain autocracies. There also will be a measure of resentment that America didn't do very much, at least in the public perception, to help the poorest countries.

China also took advantage of the fact that they are the manufacturing power in the world to send masks and tests to hard-hit countries like Italy. Even though some of those masks were faulty, China gained credibility through so-called “mask diplomacy” by doing their best to help other countries. We were seen as hoarding what supplies we could and were not seen as being active on the global stage. So this pandemic has probably not helped our cause from that standpoint.

The decision to defund the World Health Organization (WHO) also could be seen in a negative light by other countries. I would have preferred having us use our power to reshape the World Health Organization to make it more effective, more transparent, and more honest as opposed to taking our marbles and going home. That only makes WHO more susceptible to the influence of malign actors like China.

I would have preferred having us use our power to reshape the World Health Organization to make it more effective, more transparent, and more honest as opposed to taking our marbles and going home. That only makes WHO more susceptible to the influence of malign actors like China.

The rise of populism in our country on the left and right as well as populism in other western democracies, particularly in Western Europe, tends to encourage a degree of isolationism that is counter to our interests. We're involved in the world because it's good for America -- and for other people. When we are not involved in the world, bad things happen that ultimately can drive us inward.

The WHO is just one example. If we are not paying too much attention there, or are not countering the Chinese voice, then the WHO doesn't perform the role that it should. In this case, giving us a warning that would have been in our national interest.

We should be actively involved in international organizations and in world affairs to promote our interests. We should be involved to foster the conditions in the world that are good for our economic vitality, jobs, innovation, climate, and those things Americans enjoy.

Beyond the COVID pandemic, how do you assess the threat that China poses to the global order and our values of freedom, human rights, and free enterprise?

Romney: I see China as the champion of an entirely different model and the geopolitical competitor on the world stage. At this point, they are advancing their cause and we are not. China's objective is to replace the United States and the West as the global superpower militarily, economically, and geopolitically. Their economic efforts are robust and effective and their geopolitical and military efforts are also highly effective.

Geopolitically, we see their efforts to play a larger role in international bodies, like the WHO. We see them bribe and threaten other nations to get them to ignore the human rights abuses in their own country among the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, and religious minorities. They use the same tactics to convince other countries to isolate Taiwan. All these efforts are designed to strengthen their geopolitical hand.

Militarily, many Americans unfortunately fall for the easy calculation that, because we spend so much more than anyone else, we must have by far the biggest investment going into military weaponry. That is not necessarily the case. China’s procurement of weapons and systems is as great as ours. And they can concentrate their fire power in the Pacific. If we allow this to continue, they will have a position of relative strength in the Pacific.

Economically, China's strategy is to dominate one industry after another so western companies wither and die, and China moves on step-by-step. The prime example is steel, where they had a 5 percent share of the global steel market before they were a member of the World Trade Organization. Now they have a 53 percent share of steel production. And they are successful in other areas, particularly related to medicines, medical devices, and personal protection equipment.

We are now painfully aware that we didn't have the mask-making capacity we needed, and we don't have the medicines we need. Americans were shocked to learn that all our penicillin comes from China. This puts us in an extraordinary strategic disadvantage. It also strengthens their hand.

In light of China's ambition, and its success in pursuing that ambition, it is essential that free nations and all nations that abide by the global order come together and present China with a choice: Either abide by the economic rules that the rest of us follow or no longer have free access to all of our markets. This effort is overdue but essential if we're going to prevent further spread of China’s authoritarian reach.

Drawing from your work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as with organizations like the International Republican Institute, what countries do you see taking their obligations of freedom and human rights seriously? What was the impact?

Romney: Iraq. Many Iraqi leaders genuinely want to be a strong independent nation that plays by the world’s economic and geopolitical rules. It does not want Iran as the puppet master nor does it want to be beholden to the West as the dominant force in its politics.

Many Iraqi leaders genuinely want to be a strong independent nation that plays by the world’s economic and geopolitical rules. It does not want Iran as the puppet master nor does it want to be beholden to the West as the dominant force in its politics.

Those leaders are under extraordinary pressure from Iranian influences as well as from other malign actors. They are working valiantly to retain their independence and to emerge as a stable strong global player. A great deal is at stake in Iraq's success.

I have met with the president, the speaker of the house, and the former prime minister. Each of them expressed a desire to remain independent of foreign influence, but they also said "’Where is America?’" Iran is investing in our country, putting money into our institutions, making an enormous effort to expand their economic reach, but the West is not.”

They noted that Saudi Arabia, which is Iran's competitor in the region, has made almost no effort to help build their economy. And they were concerned that the United States had not made the economic investments to help balance what was coming from Iran.

If you look around the world, it's fair to say that freedom is not on the ascendancy. Various institutions that track the progress of freedom say it is in decline. One reason is that people who are in power want to stay in power. And they have learned how to repress the voices of freedom.

They have learned that a direct blatant attack may be unsuccessful, and that more subtle methods can tighten the grip of their power. For example, they can repress the media by minimizing it, criticizing it, and removing hostile reporters. And they can weaken the rule of law in a way that Orbán has done in Hungary by closing the lower courts or stacking them with friends.

They also can repress religions as you're seeing in Russia and China. Religion presents a dual loyalty. People have a loyalty to God but also to the state. Repressing religion helps take away those loyalties.

Of course, the rise of nationalism and populism calls for a degree of isolationism, which is conducive to tightening the hand of authoritarians. I get concerned that we in the West are playing right into the hands of authoritarians and that our more populist rhetoric and campaigns will provide some of the very slogans that will be used by authoritarians to repress their media and weaken the rule of law. Those institutions are essential to the establishment and preservation of democracy.

I get concerned that we in the West are playing right into the hands of authoritarians and that our more populist rhetoric and campaigns will provide some of the very slogans that will be used by authoritarians to repress their media and weaken the rule of law.

I'm concerned with trends I see going on, but I am encouraged by a nation like Iraq that is fighting so hard to maintain its independence and democratic potential. I'm also very encouraged by NGOs, including the International Republican Institute, that advocate for freedom.

What threats do non-state actors pose to freedom? You could say the pandemic has knocked ISIS off the front pages.

Romney: That’s a fair point. We are in competition for geopolitical leadership with autocracies such as China and Russia, but there is another competitor --  radical Islam -- and perhaps I minimized it at my peril. Radical Islam has an entirely different view, and that is neither China nor the West will succeed. Instead radical Islam will be the planet’s dominant player, or at least in major portions of it.

Radical Islam has different shapes and flavors in different places. But, in each case, it is theocratic in its orientation and uses violence and terror to obtain power. Since it has not been as overt in the United States of late, I think many of us, myself included, are not as intent on watching its tentacles expand as we should be.

But, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations’ subcommittee on the Middle East, I certainly see it throughout the Middle East, whether it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Houthis in Yemen. And, of course, what is going on in Syria is horrific. The jihadists have not laid down their weapons and are ever more assertive. The Middle East and North Africa remain up for grabs.

If we don't pay attention and remain involved in those parts of the world, very bad developments could draw us in and cost American lives and treasure in another dramatic and horrific way.

As we wrap up, let’s talk about our own hemisphere. Whenever we get past this coronavirus situation, what role should the United States have in our hemisphere?

Romney: There is an ongoing debate politically about whether we should be involved in our hemisphere or the world generally, or whether we are better off walling ourselves off -- perhaps literally as well as figuratively -- from other nations and focusing entirely on our own nation.

There is great political attractiveness to an inward focus. People want more help from government and want to see our country doing better. As a politician, you say I'm going to focus on helping Americans and stop worrying about other people. It's a pretty compelling political argument.

But if you look at history, turning inward will ultimately inure to our detriment. I subscribe to the foreign policy view that was fashioned by [President Harry] Truman and [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson following the Second World War, which is that we should remain involved in the world. If we are not, bad things could draw us in, such as a world war. This view says we should be strong and that we are stronger by linking with our friends and allies. It also says that we should promote our values, particularly in our own hemisphere.

But if you look at history, turning inward will ultimately inure to our detriment.

We have made a strong effort to promote those values in Venezuela and to a degree in Cuba. So far not successfully, but I applaud the fact that this administration, prior administrations, and people on both sides of the aisle have made numerous efforts to move Venezuela to a more sustainable posture.

It’s hard to convince people in a sound-bite why that makes sense, but the reality is that many American jobs are linked to the production of goods and services that go to other countries. If we want higher incomes and better jobs in America, we need good trade relations with other countries so they'll buy goods and services from us. If they don't, they will ultimately buy them from other nations, and those nations will obtain an advantage. They will produce better products at lower costs, and American products will become too expensive and not competitive. Then, we will find ourselves weaker with fewer and less high-paying jobs.

Some of these things take time to play out, but this is why involvement in the world economically and geopolitically is in America's interest. Unfortunately, in making a populist appeal, we ignore that our self-interest coincides with having genuine concern for people around the world and trying to make the condition of the world better for all of us.

Ever since the Second World War, we have traded with the world in a generally open manner and that has propelled America to be the world’s economic powerhouse. Our income per person is well above the autocratic nations of the world and it's even well above our western counterparts.

Do we have problems? Absolutely. And is the disparity in income in America a problem? It is. Can we do better? Absolutely. But withdrawing from the world would not be in the interest of the American people.