On Wednesday, rising GOP star and potential VP nominee Senator Marco Rubio delivered a foreign policy speech and Q&A session at the Brookings Institute. Rubio set forth an overarching view of America’s role in the world, and while he is right that America remains highly relevant in world affairs, he also perpetuates the traditional identity crises of American foreign policy.
Rubio's stance can be boiled down to supporting American unilateralism through thinly veiled multilateralism – in other words, the failed foreign policy style of George W. Bush. Here's the rundown of the most important take-aways from Rubio's speech:
On Iran and the nuclear threat:“But given Iran’s history of human rights abuses, fomenting sectarian conflict and sponsorship of terrorism as a tool of state craft, the world must never allow that to happen.”
On Iran, Rubio intentionally conflates the country'snuclear and domestic policies, an inherently incorrect connection. Rubio conveniently ignores that the same critique can be made of the U.S. , given America's long history of covert actions in various parts of the world. For example, Washington funded the brand of political and radical Islam that created Al-Qaeda out of Saudi-inspired fundamentalist ideology and Pakistani-trained fighters. The U.S. has consistently committed human rights abuses, fomented sectarian conflict, and sponsored terrorism as tools of American state craft. Not to mention, both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are key U.S. allies.
On Libya, Syria, and Iran: “And I use Libya as one example. We did engage in Libya, and we engaged pretty significantly on the front, and probably for the first 17 hours, four days, and then we kind of backed off, and allowed our allies to go in and do much of the work. And ultimately, it turned out fine. My argument was not that it didn’t work out at the end. My argument is that if the U.S. had been more engaged energetically, the job would have been done sooner.”
“Forming and leading a coalition with Turkey and the Arab League Nations to assist the opposition by creating a safe haven and equipping the opposition with food, medicine, communication tools, and potentially weapons, will not only weaken Iran, it will ultimately increase our ability to influence the political environment of a post-Assad Syria.”
Rubio clearly prefers unilateralism over multilateralism, even if he pays extensive lip service to the latter in this speech. And if the Iraq war is Rubio's reference point, then that's a problem. On Libya, Rubio wanted the U.S. to take a larger role in disarming the country's militias, but he overlooks the bigger problem of the country’s political integrity and the fact that Qaddafi was the only man who knew how to hold Libya together politically. On Syria, Rubio’s conception of American leadership is not a significant departure from Bush's foreign policy style. He uses the cover of multilateralism to mask his belief in indirect U.S. interventionism via weapon supplies, a policy that ultimately failed with the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s.
On Venezuela: “The first is Venezuela and the other ALBA countries whose overt -- and their overt anti-Americanism. Now, they make a lot of noise and we can’t ignore their anti-democratic abuses or their growing closeness to Iran, but our greater challenge, really, is a second and more subtle one and that’s the effort of some nations to replace our influence with their influence and to use protectionism and unfair practices to pursue that aim.”
Rubio expresses concerns about the rise of anti-Americanism in Latin America, but does not mention Washington’s historical involvement in Latin America. Since the 19th century, the U.S. has sought to undermine and control, rather than constructively affect social processes in the region. From the first 9/11 in Chile and the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to supporting a fascist junta in Argentina and the involvement in Nicaragua, Rubio has little to stand on when questioning the anti-Americanism of Latin America. The purposeful exclusion of Cuba from the summit of the Americas in Cartagena mere days ago has demonstrated that the cynical character of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America has not changed at all.
On North America: “We need to move forward to bring both Canada and Mexico into the transpacific partnership. And fourth, we should move aggressively to form a strong energy partnership with Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and a post-Chavez Venezuela. A stable Western Hemisphere displacing an unstable Middle East and an increasingly belligerent Russia as the center of the world’s energy production would create countless jobs for Americans and energy security for the world.”
Here, Rubio makes a good point on bringing Canada and Mexico into the trans-Pacific partnership. Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s recent visit to China is a sign that Canada is finally showing a necessary, but long overdue initiative in this direction. However, with oil representing 90% of Venezuela’s exports, ‘energy security’ in the context of U.S. foreign policy likely means a political arrangement for Venezuela approaching that of pre-revolution Iran.
On the United Nations: “For example, we can’t always rely on the UN Security Council to achieve consensus on major threats to international peace and security. As we’ve seen on North Korea, on Syria, on Iran, China and Russia simply will not join that consensus when they do not perceive the problem as a threat to their narrow national interests.”
“[…] it's also been a tendency of America to not want to get engaged in the world if we don't have to. We don't really enjoy getting engaged around the world and telling people what to do. We've done so because history has called upon us to do that.”
Rubio is stuck in the persistent identity crisis of American foreign policy. Traditionally, U.S. has held itself to a higher moral standard, a belief in American exceptionalism and the moral superiority of the U.S. compared to the international community. But Iraq and Afghanistan are just two examples of how America's preocupation with spreading political and personal freedom is often counterproductive. In practice, the U.S. puts its own national interests above anything else: Among the many examples are U.S. support for Indonesian President Suharto and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, or its support for Israel.
On American Power: “He asks readers to imagine what world order might have existed from the end of World War II until the present if America -- absent American leadership. Could we say for certain that it would look anything like America’s vision of an increasingly freer and more open international system where catastrophic conflicts between great powers were avoided? Democracy and free market capitalism flourished? Where prosperity spread wider and wider, and billions of people emerged from poverty? Would it have occurred, if after the war, America had minded its own business and left the world to sort out its affairs without our leadership?”
Here, Rubio references Bob Kagan’s book, “The World America Made” and invites us to speculate on counter-factual history, a comfortable fallacy. The simple answer to Rubio's questions is yes, the world would have been fine. Civilization did not begin with America, and will not end with America; Marc Rubio would be wise to remember that.
As eloquent as Rubio is, this speech reveals that when it comes to foreign policy, he is a protégé of George W. Bush, which will be destructive for America. This is just one more reminder for Joe Biden and Barack Obama to deepen their approach as a standard for American foreign policy over the long-term.