Romney at CGI 2012: It’s All About Free Enterprise

On the third and final day of the Clinton Global Initiative, the presidential candidates took to the main stage of the Metropolitan Ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan to sound off on foreign policy and aid. The two speeches – only a few hours apart – could not have been more different in tone, focus and scope. In this post, UN Dispatch analyzes Mitt Romney’s speech on foreign aid policy.

Following a friendly introduction from Bill Clinton, Romney began his speech with a joke “If we’ve learned anything in this election, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a lot of good,” referring to Bill Clinton’s widely acclaimed speech at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month. Romney then launched into a rare speech about his objectives and vision for American foreign aid. Picking up on the statistic mentioned by Hillary Clinton yesterday that only 18% of financial flows into developing countries come from foreign aid (as opposed to 70% a few decades ago), Romney said “if somehow foreign aid can really leverage these massive investments by the private sector, it may be able to exponentially expand the ability to not only care for those who are suffering but change their lives on a permanent basis.”

“Free enterprise” at the heart of a “new approach”….

The theme around which Romney’s speech revolved was the concept of “free enterprise”, which he mentioned at least eight times in the 15 minute speech. Throughout, Romney extolled the virtues of free enterprise which “has done more to bless humanity than any other economic system”, has been responsible for lifting the standard of living, health and education outcomes in the Western world since it was embraced in the 1800s, and is the foundation of American prosperity. Romney articulated three objectives for American foreign aid: 1, alleviating humanitarian needs, through initiatives such as PEPFAR, which provides life-saving medication to people suffering from HIV/AIDS; 2, that American foreign aid should be focused on fostering American strategic diplomatic, military and economic interests; and, 3, that foreign aid “should elevate and bring about lasting change in communities and nations,” something he believes needs “much more attention” than it has received in the Obama administration.

Romney said he would “lay out a new approach for a new era”, that would focus on “the promotion of work and the fostering of free enterprise.” He spoke of the man who remains a powerful symbol of the Arab Spring –  the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi who lit himself on fire in protest in January 2011 –  saying that all this man wanted to do was “work.” “Work build self-esteem. It transforms minds from fantasy and fanaticism to reality and grounding,” said Romney, adding that “nothing we can do as a nation will change lives more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America’s own economy, and that is that free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation.”

… which sounds a lot like the current approach

Romney called for the establishment of “Prosperity Pacts”, loosely defined as partnerships with the private sector, which will identify barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurship and entrepreneurialism. “In exchange for removing those barriers and opening their markets to US investment and trade, developing nations will receive US assistance packages focused on developing institutions of liberty – the rule of law, property rights,” explained Romney. What’s interesting about this supposedly “new approach for a new era” is that it calls for what has already been in place in American foreign aid policy for some time now. Supporting the establishment of enduring democratic institutions has been at the heart of development policy for years – in fact, the American government’s Millenium Challenge Corporation (established under George W. Bush) does exactly this: “MCC forms partnerships with some of the world’s poorest countries, but only those committed to good governance, economic freedom, and investments in their citizens.”

Romney added some level of detail to this particular policy angle, saying “We’ll focus on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Microfinance has been an effective tool but we have to expand SMEs that are too large for microfinance and too small for traditional banking.” For at least the last seven or eight years, USAID has been developing and implementing initiatives do just that in the developing world – even focusing specifically on women-owned SMEs. What Romney described in his speech is a reiteration of existing foreign aid policies, with minor rhetorical adjustments about the value of work and free enterprise.

Trade and Aid

“A temporary aid package can give an economy a boost,” Romney added, “but it can’t sustain an economy for the long term because at some point the money runs out. But an assistance program that helps unleash free enterprise can create enduring prosperity.” These are principles that are not only already at work in American foreign aid policy, but also more broadly in development initiatives across the world. Moving from relations of dependency to fostering sustainable development is not a new orthodoxy – not in US policy, not in international development. The idea of coupling aid with trade and private investment and partnerships “to empower individuals, encourage innovators and reward entrepreneurs” has been embraced by aid and development actors for some time, including, as described above, by America’s primary channel for foreign aid, USAID. Tom Murphy over at A View from the Cave has further analysis about the gaps in Romney’s speech.

In the final part of his speech Romney took a jab at the Obama administration saying that over a half a million manufacturing jobs had been lost in the last four years, a trend which Romney said he intended to “reverse” by ensuring that “trade works for America. I want to negotiate new trade agreements […] any nation willing to play by the rules of free and fair trade can participate in a new community committed to these principles,” he added. This raises some questions about what Romney actually views as the objectives of foreign aid. Opening foreign markets to US exports is not necessarily the most obvious policy prescription if the objective is to create wealth and jobs abroad. Of course, trade that works for America is a desirable outcome, but speaking –  as Romney did –  of making US trading partners little more than dumping grounds for US exports is a dangerous amalgamation of policies.

In a campaign where foreign policy seems to only register has a concern when violence flares up in the Middle East, Mitt Romney’s CGI speech shed superficial light on what his adminstration would do differently in foreign aid policy than the Obama administration.

Photo credit: Clinton Global Initiative on Flickr.