Mitt Romney outlined a detailed vision for a compassionate American foreign policy that combined humanitarian aid with support for free market institutions before an audience at Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York Tuesday.
“Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America’s own economy — free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation,” Romney said.
The Republican nominee was introduced by Clinton, who just weeks earlier delivered a primetime speech at the Democratic convention savaging Romney’s economic proposals. Romney broke the tension early, however, joking about the former president’s political popularity.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this election season, a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “All I’ve got to do now is wait a couple days for that bounce.”
Romney avoided any mention of Obama at the nonpartisan event, focusing his speech instead on recent turmoil in the Middle East and how he thinks the United States could play a role in shepherding newly democratic nations into stable and free societies. In what was perhaps a subtle dig at the president, however, Romney said that recent events, including the “terrorist attack” in Libya, can make Americans “feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events.”
Then, in a passage strangely reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 remarks on how rural voters in depressed areas grow “bitter” over time, Romney described how years of dictatorship and chronic joblessness have led young Middle Eastern men to quite literally cling to guns and religion.
“Idle, humiliated by poverty, and crushed by government corruption, their frustration and anger grows,” Romney said. “In such a setting, for America to change lives, to change communities and nations in the Middle East, foreign aid must also play a role.”
To turn things around, Romney suggested a renewed effort to create prosperity abroad through small government and free market policies that echo his domestic program.
“To foster work and enterprise in the Middle East and in other developing countries, I will initiate something I’ll call ‘Prosperity Pacts,’” he said. ”Working with the private sector, the program will identify the barriers to investment, trade, and entrepreneurialism in developing nations. And, in exchange for removing those barriers and opening their markets to U.S. investment and trade, developing nations will receive U.S. assistance packages focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights.”
Romney also offered a throwback to his much derided remarks in Israel earlier this year that “culture” is the predominant cause of economic disparities between places like Israel and the Palestinian territories. But in his revamped version, he focused strictly on government policies instead of social values, using North Korea and South Korea as his test case.
“I noticed the most successful countries shared something in common: they were the freest,” Romney said. ”They protected the rights of the individual. They enforced the rule of law. And they encouraged free enterprise. They understood that economic freedom is the only force in history that has consistently lifted people out of poverty - and kept people out of poverty.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.