Mitt Romney’s sense of service to the country is bigger than his ego.
Therefore, we all saw what we saw on Tuesday night — Romney returned for a second meeting with Trump and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to discuss, presumably among other things, Romney becoming the next US secretary of state. Romney, who refused to endorse Trump in the general election, also had kind words to say in the lobby of Trump Tower about the president-elect, months after he labeled Trump a ‘fraud’ in an extraordinary broadside against Trump in the contest for the Republican nomination.
In the last 36 hours, Romney has been thoroughly mocked for it in the media and by comics.
But we also know that, by every measure, Romney has acted in every public capacity as a man of honor, integrity, ethics and character. No one would say that about Trump.
Moreover, the United States has an incoming president who will, for the first time in American history, receive on-the-job training. Priebus, for all his skills, has no experience in government, which is almost equally bizarre for a White House chief of staff. Steve Bannon, the chief strategist to the president, is the former CEO of the hard-right Breitbart News, which is frankly terrifying to just about everyone.
But the inexperience also extends to Trump’s immediate foreign policy staff in the West Wing. Mike Flynn, the retired lieutenant general who will serve as national security adviser, for all his military experience and as a gifted intelligence officer, has no experience in White House politics or forming national security policy, and he carries to the job his own ethical, personal and policy issues. Neither, in any meaningful sense, does the incoming deputy national security adviser, K.T. McFarland, have genuine government experience to craft foreign policy in the 21st century.
When Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, delivered that scathing speech in March about Trump, Trump’s business and personal conduct and Trump’s inexperience to serve as US president, he was 100% right. Romney’s remarks Tuesday night didn’t exactly apologize for those prior views, which he must certainly still hold. Instead, Romney focused on the steps that Trump has taken from his election-night victory speech onward through the transition.
In short: that was then, and this is now, and the American electorate has spoken. There’s an instinct to say that we cannot ‘normalize’ what Trump represents in terms of American democracy or the constitutional separation of powers or the kind of respect for immigrants, minorities and others that should be bedrock in a healthy democracy that guarantees equal rights for everyone.
But that doesn’t change the facts. For at least the next four years, we will have to come to terms with what a Trump administration and its consequences for US foreign policy. It’s of no use to the United States if talented and qualified Republicans who opposed Trump during the campaign continue to sit on the sidelines now. The mockery that Romney has suffered isn’t unexpected, but it’s unfortunate. You can believe that Trump ran a despicable campaign, rooted in xenophobia, protectionism and nationalism (and he did), or that he is unqualified to serve as the chief executive of a vast and complicated government in a country that anchors stability across the globe (and he is).
That doesn’t mean that any of us want Trump to fail, and certainly not in a ‘big league’ kind of way that ends up with an exchange of nuclear arms or in World War III. Trump has signaled that he wants to move US foreign policy in a new direction, in some ways quite troubling, and many world leaders are understandably on edge. The world order that we’ve known since the end of the Cold War — or even since the end of World War II — may rapidly vanish.
Romney is certainly no foreign policy expert, but neither was Hillary Clinton when she accepted Barack Obama’s invitation to serve as secretary of state in 2009. Millions of Americans in 2012 were prepared to make Romney their president, and though you may disagree that Russia is the top geopolitical foe of the United States, Romney’s 2012 warnings about Russia and Russian president Vladimir Putin now seem wiser in retrospect (despite Trump’s professed admiration of Putin).
For all the heat Romney is taking over his ‘flip-flopping’ Tuesday night, the current US secretary of state, John Kerry, virtually lost the 2004 presidential election over his own inartful ‘flip-flopping’ on the Iraq war.
Neither of these, then, should prevent Romney from leading the State department or, indeed, thriving there.
In the same way, you can take some assurances that South Carolina governor Nikki Haley can be an effective ambassador to the United Nations because she’s been a relatively competent governor. Even in the aftermath of the horrific execution of African Americans in their own church, it takes an impressive kind of diplomacy to convince South Carolinians that the Confederate flag no longer needs to fly over state house grounds. It’s an issue that’s cost at least one or two governors their reelection bids. The daughter of immigrants from Punjab in India, Haley stood up to the worst of Trump’s xenophobic comments during the campaign.
Romney at State. Haley at the United Nations. Perhaps James Mattis, another retired general, at Defense. This isn’t the foreign policy team I would necessarily compile. (Has anyone even called Robert Zoellick?!) But it’s far from the worst imaginable in a Trump administration.
Imagine a world where, instead of Romney, someone as mercurial and undiplomatic as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani or former UN ambassador John Bolton winds up at Foggy Bottom. Or someone who has actually been prosecuted in the last two years for mishandling classified information, such as former CIA director David Petraeus. You can imagine how reticent rank-and-file foreign policy experts would be to serve in a Giuliani-led, Bolton-led or even a Petraeus-led State Department, and you can imagine the signals that would send to foreign leaders across the world. From day one of a Trump administration, American global leadership would be even more precarious. Crucially, in the event of a terror attack, imagine how Giuliani (or Bolton) would respond instead of the cool, measured Romney.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, as someone who lives and works in downtown Washington, I would feel vastly safer knowing Romney is at that table when the Trump administration makes such life-and-death decisions.
Trump’s election, I’ve argued, will accelerate the shift from an American-dominated unipolar world to a multipolar world. Romney will not necessarily reverse that.
It’s also true that foreign policy is formulated in the White House, not at the State Department, and many good public servants have been sidelined at State in the past. Dean Rusk was John F. Kennedy’s second choice and never fully gained his trust. William P. Rogers was virtually a ghost in the Nixon administration, given that Henry Kissinger played such a formative role in world affairs. More recently, Colin Powell found himself outmaneuvered at every turn by Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and other hawkish neoconservatives in the first term of George W. Bush’s administration. Trump might easily do the same to Romney (just as Richard Nixon did to Romney’s father, a well-respected business leader and former Michigan governor, when he appointed him as HUD secretary).
But that humiliation is a risk worth taking for Romney, above all for the stability and credibility that he could bring to foreign affairs in the years ahead.
In that sense, we should all be rooting for Mitt.