I warmly recall a meeting with Mitt Romney in 2011 in the sitting room of Admiralty House in Whitehall. He was seeking the Republican nomination for President, and I was Secretary of State for Defence and a well-known supporter of the Republican party. He would go on to be chosen as their presidential candidate in 2012 and, although he would lose that election, he would ensure that Barack Obama was the first president ever to win a second term with fewer electoral votes and a smaller popular vote percentage.
I had met Mitt previously at several political functions but had never had a lengthy conversation. I found him highly intelligent, confident, and extremely personable yet very clear about where he stood, especially on geopolitical issues and his personal values. I remember him giving me a copy of his book in an almost apologetic way, charmingly different to the self-promotional style of so many politicians.
There was one policy area where we were in strong agreement and where we were both regarded as unfashionably hawkish, and that in regards to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. We had witnessed the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia following a period of increasing tension between Putin and the increasingly Western leaning government of Mikhail Saakashvili, a pattern of behaviour that would be repeated with Ukraine a few years later.
We both felt that the lack of a firm response by the United States government under Barack Obama sent the wrong signals to the Russian leader, who was likely to interpret the relative silence as a sign of weakness that would only embolden him. The chasm, in style and substance, between Senator Romney and President Obama would be amplified in the third presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, when Mitt claimed that “Russia is without question our number one geopolitical foe”.
It was pounced upon by the Obama election team to portray their challenger as an out of touch relic of the Cold War. To put the dispute in context, Republicans had been outraged by an off-microphone comment from Obama to the then (nominal) Russian President Medvedev in 2012 when he said “after my election I have more flexibility”, which was taken to imply that the US government was sending mixed messages about its international interests. Looking at events of recent years, it is quite clear that it was Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama, who was right about Russia.
One difference today is that elements of the Republican Party now seem closer to the Obama line, with the war in Ukraine becoming a divisive issue amongst some of its supporters. We can only speculate what Ronald Reagan would think about his party calling for defence spending designed to halt an aggressor against a democratic ally being diverted into more domestic programmes.
Such an attitude contrasts starkly and with the hardheaded approach of Mitt Romney proclaiming recently that “decimating the Russian military” while using just 5 per cent of the US defence budget was an “extraordinarily wise investment”. I imagine we both feel same way about how the West has allowed wishful thinking to take the place of critical analysis when it comes to Russia in recent years.
Fortunately, most senior Republicans such as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley remain staunch in their support of Ukraine in its hour of need. On this side of the Atlantic we must not make the mistake of believing that a small number with loud voices represent the mainstream of the Republican party.
In the 2012 election Mitt Romney’s choice of my friend Paul Ryan, a well-known fiscal hawk, as his running mate showed that he was serious about dealing with America’s mushrooming national debt – another subject on which he has been proved right. It might, therefore, seem inexplicable to some that, having been proved right on foreign policy and economic policy, Mitt Romney should choose to leave the political scene entirely.
The answer may lie in the current state of US politics itself. The bitter and tribal nature of contemporary American politics, which sees every issue in a binary, partisan way, is alien to a politician of Romney’s background, someone who is ideologically clear but keen to see consensus when it is demonstrably in the national interest. As another former Senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, recently put it: “when you are used to accomplishing a great deal [in private business] and when the environment is such that the real problems of our nation continue to be unaddressed, I think people like Mitt Romney decide to spend time doing other things”.
Whatever the reason for his departure, we should be grateful that people of the calibre of Mitt Romney have contributed to America’s national life through their public service. We should take the time to thank them.