It has become fashionable to suggest there is little difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney over the main international challenges facing the US and its allies, and that few real changes in American foreign policy will occur should the Republican win. Such assessments are dangerously shortsighted.

Romney’s approach is underpinned by delusional nostalgia for the 1980s, a harking back to the cold war era when the US believed it led the world in facing down the “evil empire” (Soviet Union), when entire continents were divided into tame client nations and rogue states, and when western (meaning American) values were promoted as a nonpareil paradigm for all to follow.

Like most conservative Republicans, Romney’s No 1 hero is Ronald Reagan, president from 1981-1989. His philosophy draws heavily on the Gipper. Hence his headline theme of “A new American century”, his insistence on the US’s unique international leadership role and belief in the country as a moral beacon offering a superior guiding light to the world - the “shining city on a hill” of Reagan’s 1976 speech that launched the so-called Reagan revolution.

Evidently relishing the role of Reagan retread, Romney has been busily colouring in the world map to the simplistic, neo-imperial, design favoured by his late mentor. Hence Putin’s Russia is resurrected as a prime foe. “Russia is a destabilising force on the world stage. It needs to be tempered,” Romney says Despite recent attempts at moderation, the Romney doctrine also posits confrontation over co-operation with China, a communist rival whose economy will outgrow the US by the end of the decade. It is thus a fitting heir to the “evil empire”. Tariff wars over Chinese imports may be just the start.

Romney appears to see the western Pacific as a whole new cold war-style conflict zone. Reprising the rogue state theme, Romney promises a tougher line on Iran’s nuclear activities. He says he will arm Syria’s rebels. He threatens a virtual blockade of North Korea; vows to avenge war crimes allegedly of Sudan’s leadership; and warns the Palestinians that any attempt to assert their statehood without Israel’s agreement will bring heavy penalties.

This will be underwritten by a big expansion of defence spending, again echoing Reagan’s 1980s. To achieve this end and ignoring record federal debt, Romney plans to add $2tn over the next decade to the Pentagon’s already enormous $711bn annual budget. At the same time, he proposes a supra-national, worldwide, Reagan Economic Zone (sic), to extend the benefits of free enterprise. Rarely have guns and butter been so blatantly linked.

Obama is more prosaic, pledging a prolongation of his pragmatic-aspirational foreign policy that characterised his first term and disappointed many supporters - tight focus on the Afghanistan-Pakistan withdrawal, action against Al Qaeda, careful management of the Arab spring and Iran dossiers, new emphasis on Asia and denuclearisation. Martin Indyk and others wrote in Foreign Affairs: “The Obama approach has been informed by a realistic overarching sense of the US role in the world ... The tone has been neither that of American triumphalism and exceptionalism nor one of American decline. On balance, this approach has been effective.”

By arrangement with the Guardian

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