What foreign trip revealed about Mitt Romney's world view, gaffes aside

Mitt Romney wraps up a seven-day trip overseas. His immediate audience was abroad, but his message – self-reliance and private enterprise build better countries – was for American voters.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Warsaw Library in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, July 31.

Set aside the missteps in London, Jerusalem, and Warsaw that grabbed the daily headlines, and what stands out from Mitt Romney’s seven-day overseas trip are the glimmers of a world view that should help American voters make their presidential choice in November.

Private enterprise, small government, and cultural attributes that include self-reliance are the hallmarks of a nation’s success and prosperity, according to Mr. Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. In extolling those virtues while overseas, he made clear that his intended audience was American voters.

As he spoke at each stop, Romney’s objective was to differentiate himself from President Obama and one of his core messages: that whether the issue is job creation or health care or education, government is part of the solution, not the problem.

Romney unfurled his message, one way or another, at each stop: in London, by vaunting the role his business-world experience played in his turnaround of the struggling 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and in Jerusalem, by using a speech to donors to underscore the role that “culture” and national qualities such as economic freedom, self-reliance, and a strong work ethic play in determining a nation's success.

But it was in a speech in the Polish capital of Warsaw Tuesday that Romney laid out his clearest vision of the path he believes the United States should take to address its economic challenges.

“Today, as some wonder about the way forward out of economic recession and fiscal crisis, the answer is to ‘Look to Poland,’ ” Romney told his audience at Warsaw University Library. “The world should pay close attention to the transformation of Poland’s economy,” he added. “A march toward economic liberty and smaller government has meant a march toward higher living standards, a stronger military that defends liberty at home and abroad, and an important and growing role on the international stage.”

Poland is the rare European country that has avoided a recession during the global economic downturn. Its economy grew by more than 4 percent last year, as other European economies shrank, some considerably.

Yet even as Romney laid out his message of private enterprise free of government restraints, some experts in the countries he visited countered that the former venture capitalist glossed over the important role that government has played in their home states. In Israel, for example, some analysts noted that their country has universal health care with some of the features of the US health-care law that Romney says he would reverse.

Others noted that government has played a key role in Israel’s strong record of business startups, and that the Israeli military in particular is a central factor in Israel’s tradition of innovative product development.

Romney’s most controversial claim in laying out his world view was his assertion in Jerusalem that “culture” determines a nation’s success. Romney surrogates got busy shortly after his speech, reassuring voters that the presidential candidate did not mean to confer cultural inferiority on any country.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a Romney foreign policy adviser and the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, said Tuesday that Romney was talking about the kind of government that free people choose for themselves, and not about cultural differences.

“I am sure that Governor Romney was not talking about difference in cultures, or difference in anybody [being] superior or inferior,” Senator McCain said at a press conference in Florida. “What he was saying, though, is that the Israelis have had a government with less regulation, lower taxes, which has allowed them to have a strong and prosperous economy,” he said. The Palestinians, he added, have not been “blessed” with that kind of government.

But Romney was clear in his speech Monday in Jerusalem that he does think it is “culture” – a word he used repeatedly – that determines a nation’s success. In citing specific cases of differing results in neighboring countries – Israel and the Palestinians, the US and Mexico, Chile and Ecuador – Romney left little room for doubt that, in his view, cultural predilections are a determining factor in a nation's economic success and its global leadership.

In many ways, Romney’s Jerusalem and Warsaw speeches echoed a view he laid out earlier this year. In a speech in Chicago in March, he made the same reference to “culture” as what has separated countries like the US and Mexico in terms of prosperity and world standing. His overseas trip was largely meant to spell out for Americans his view of what has made America great, and what America must reclaim to continue that greatness.

As he said in his earlier Chicago speech, and as he hinted on his overseas stops, “This November we face an important decision…. This election is going to be about principle,” he said. “Our economic freedom will be on the ballot. And I intend to offer the American people a choice.” 

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