Romney and the rise of Bob Zoellick

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a fairly critical piece about Mitt Romney’s foreign policy stance.  In my column I suggested that Romney’s rhetoric was reminiscent of George W. Bush. But now Romney has made a move that is more reminiscent of George H.W. Bush, which is much more encouraging.

That move is the appointment of Robert Zoellick as the head of Romney’s national-security transition team. This is taken as a strong hint that Zoellick might be Secretary of State in a Romney administration – and he will certainly have a major influence on the senior appointments.

Zoellick has all the qualities to be an excellent Secretary of State. He is vastly experienced. He played a key role in the diplomacy that led up to the reunification of Germany, under the first President Bush. He is also steeped in economics and development. His most recent job was president of the World Bank, and he has worked at the top of the US Treasury. That is the kind of expertise that would be very useful, in responding to the euro crisis and to the rise of China.

Above all, in a modern Republican Party that has a disturbingly nationalist streak, Zoellick is a natural internationalist. Of course, he is a patriot and would work to protect and advance American interests – that is the job, after all. But he has none of the contempt for foreigners or international institutions that characterises the worst of the Republican right.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Zoellick is that he has the right enemies. The repellent John Bolton – the very epitome of swaggering nationalism – loathes Zoellick. I have seen the two clash publicly. Some had even suggested that Bolton might be Secretary of State under Romney. That would be a disaster. It is both telling and encouraging, therefore, that the paleo-conservatives in the GOP have reacted badly to news of Zoellick’s appointment.

Of course, Zoellick has not got everything right. He was the man who coined the phrase that China should become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. While that is a decent aspiration – and much preferable to the assumption of inevitable US-Chinese rivalry – it’s an idea that may prove a little too complacent, about the impact of a rising China. But that is a nuance. The instinct behind the phrase is perfectly commendable.

In fact, Zoellick is so intelligent and decent that I have sometimes wondered what he is doing in the modern Republican Party. People  who share his approach certainly feel like a dwindling minority in the GOP. Interestingly, one politician who is similar in outlook, is also regarded as a frontrunner for the vice-presidential nomination. Senator Rob Portman was a solid US Trade Representative, who is level headed and knows the world.

If Romney were to choose Portman as his running-mate, that would confirm the impression made by the appointment of Zoellick to the transition team. Beneath the pandering and the campaign cynicism, there may lurk a decent potential president.