Marco Rubio’s foreign policy isn’t quite ready for prime time. A pair of recent speeches by the Florida Republican, who’s widely considered to be preparing a presidential bid for 2016, reveals a less-than-stirring approach to global affairs, indicating that Rubio hasn’t quite decided how far he’ll go this way and that in the Republican civil war, as least as far as it applies overseas.
Just as the GOP is divided on domestic policy between Tea Party radicals and more centrist, pro–Big Business and Chamber of Commerce types, on foreign policy it’s split between interventionist, neoconservative hawks and non-interventionist, libertarian Ron Paul types, with plenty of establishment centrists in the mix, too. Rubio, speaking first at the American Enterprise Institute in November and then, yesterday, at the august venue of London’s Chatham House, is tilting, at least a little, toward the interventionists and hawks. During his November 20 speech to AEI, for instance, Rubio painted a picture of conflicts overseas that seem complex and which resist American involvement, adding, in regard to the isolationist, non-interventionist wing of the GOP:
And they have created an opening for voices that have long desired to disengage and isolate America from the world. Their rhetoric is more careful than the isolationists of the past. But their actions speak clearly. On issue after issue, these voices have used the increasing uncertainty abroad and the economic insecurity at home to argue that it’s best for America to stay on the sidelines.
Still, Rubio hedged his bets, implying that he’s neither hawk nor dove himself:
Meanwhile, at home, foreign policy is too often covered in simplistic terms. Many only recognize two points of view: “doves”, who seek to isolate us from the world, participating in global events only when there is a direct physical threat to the safety of our homeland; and “hawks”, who believe we should use our mighty military strength to intervene in response to practically every crisis.
In the rest of the speech, Rubio threw in some token criticisms of the Obama administration, suggesting that the White House is presiding over a global decline in American power and influence around the world. Instead, Rubio held up the United States as—what else?—the exceptional nation without whose global leadership the forces of “darkness” will prevail. He concluded:
And so I ask you: if America stops leading, who will fill the vacuum we leave behind? Is there a candidate nation for this role that can offer the security and benevolence that America can? Is there any other nation we can trust to spread the values of liberty and peace and democracy? There is not.
In contrast, Rubio’s widely publicized Chatham House speech was far less political, far more modest in scope, and mostly filled with pabulum about the eternal important of Anglo-American relations. He threw in references to GOP icons such as Churchill and Thatcher, naturally. But he was oddly concerned about explaining to the British establishment audience why exactly the United States seemed so reluctant to get involved now in world and regional conflicts. He said:
We send billions of dollars in aid to people around the world, and in turn we watch as they celebrate our tragedies and burn our flag. And we mourn the murder of four of our diplomats in Benghazi, the very city in which we intervened to prevent mass murder.
Yet, in the rest of the speech, Rubio rarely took a stand on anything of importance, at least if it smelled of controversy. The one exception: he reiterated his opposition to and suspicion of the US-Iran deal that’s being negotiated:
I am personally skeptical of the interim agreement that the P5+1 have concluded with Iran. I am convinced that Iran’s ultimate goal for these negotiations has been to achieve relief from the pressure of international sanctions, while retaining the option of developing a nuclear weapon. This model has been used by others in the past, such as North Korea, to successfully exploit talks to create the time and space to go nuclear.
Rubio did venture into a few foreign-policy minefields, calling on the West to take stronger measures to bring Ukraine into the Western camp and out of Russia’s orbit, and he called for NATO to intensify its collective engagement with the rest of the world, citing NATO-led wars in Afghanistan, Libya, and Kosovo. On NATO, Rubio said:
We need to explore ways that NATO can prepare for its future missions. For instance, despite the sacrifices borne by many allies in Afghanistan, our militaries gained valuable experience in coalition warfare. We should determine how these capabilities can continue to be relevant in the future.
And on Ukraine:
In particular, the United States needs to continue to work closely with the EU to bring Ukraine into the Western fold. We should all be concerned about the Ukrainian government’s recent decision to bow to Russian pressure and not sign an association agreement or free trade pact with the EU. Our thoughts are with the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have taken to the streets to express concern about the future of their country.
And, of course, Rubio threw in some lines about the need for more defense spending.
But overall Rubio has yet to draw a sharp contrast between his vision for foreign policy and that of either the Obama administration or the rest of the Republican field.
Read Eric Alterman on why American foreign policy can be so difficult to understand.