Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, said Friday that he would strive for a century of American dominance, outlining proposals to strengthen the military while rejecting multilateral institutions like the United Nations when necessary.
The former Massachusetts governor also condemned the isolationist policies supported by the libertarian wing of his party in a speech delivered at The Citadel, a historic military college in South Carolina, which will hold the first presidential primary in the South early next year.
Romney's first major foreign policy speech as a candidate amounted to a show of force of sorts as he tries to position himself as the clear Republican front-runner in the White House race. Some Republicans remain reluctant to support him but Romney has resumed his place atop national polling following Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent stumbles and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's decision not to run.
"When America is strong, the world is safer," Romney said.
The hawkish policies Romney outlined are designed to confront what may be the former businessman's most glaring weakness. While he served as a Mormon missionary in France more than four decades ago, he has only limited foreign policy experience. As he says in nearly every campaign stop, he has spent most of his life in the business world.
Next year's election is likely to be dominated by domestic issues, especially the weak U.S. economic recovery from the Great Recession that has left millions of Americans without jobs. And while polls show President Barack Obama may be vulnerable to criticism about the economy, he gets considerably higher marks in polls for his handling of foreign policy.
Romney said he would make it a priority to restore a strong American economy, which in turn would strengthen U.S. foreign policy.
"This century must be an American century. In an American century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world," Romney said. "God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will."
On the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, Romney also promised a full review with military commanders but he offered no clear direction for the conflict that is growing increasingly unpopular, even among conservatives.
"I will order a full review of our transition to the Afghan military to secure that nation's sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban," Romney said near the end of his remarks, listing the Afghan war among eight priorities for his first 100 days in office. "The force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully is a decision I will make free from politics."
He also condemned the isolationist policies supported by some libertarian-leaning tea party activists who emphasize small government and deep spending cuts.
"This is America's moment. We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America's moment has passed. That is utter nonsense," Romney told about 400 people gathered at The Citadel's Mark Clark Hall, named for the U.S. general who liberated Rome in World War II.
He said other priorities for the first 100 days include rebuilding the Navy fleet, ordering aircraft carriers into the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf to help pressure Iran, and deploying a national ballistic-missile defense system. He also called for 100,000 more troops.
He warned that "powerful, determined forces" threaten the nation's freedom, including Islamic fundamentalism and "anti-American visions of regimes in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba — two of which are seeking nuclear weapons."
Romney also called for working with the United Nations when appropriate.
"But know this," he says. "While America should work with other nations, we always reserve the right to act alone to protect our vital national interests."
The hardline policies in some ways represent a return to those of the Bush administration. He announced that he had assembled a team of 22 moderate to conservative special advisers — almost all of whom held senior Bush administration positions in diplomacy, defense or intelligence — who will assist the Republican presidential hopeful "as he presents his vision for restoring American leadership in the world and securing our enduring interests and ideals abroad."
Two former Republican senators, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Jim Talent of Missouri, are included as well as Bush-era CIA chief Michael Hayden and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Yet the list doesn't include either of the two most recent Republican secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, or other key Bush administration policymakers such as two-time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The exact cost of Romney's plans is unclear, although it may be high. But any proposal to increase military spending is likely to face stiff opposition from Democrats who say the Defense Department should not be exempt from budget reductions at a time when social programs are already facing deep cuts.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney dismissed Romney's criticism of Obama's foreign policy, and pointed to comments Thursday from House Speaker John Boehner, who said he supported Obama's handing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as terrorism.
Carney said Obama's "record on foreign policy and national security policy speaks for itself. We are stronger. We are safer."