Sen. Marco Rubio’s speech on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution was not oversold. It deserved the designation “major” for its courage, skill and moral seriousness.
The courage came in criticizing a drift toward isolationism within the Republican Party. During the presidential primaries, Newt Gingrich’s compassionate, sophisticated policy advice to the people of Afghanistan went as follows: “You’re going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life.” Ron Paul recommended a U.S. retreat from Europe, Asia and perhaps from the states of the former Confederacy.
Rubio, in contrast, formally associated himself with the foreign policy tradition of FDR, Truman, JFK, Reagan and “both Bushes.” This is not a “neocon” conspiracy. It is a mainstream, bipartisan belief that America benefits from the spread of liberal societies, markets and ideals. Rubio argued that a U.S. retreat from global engagement would be catastrophic for America and for many other nations. He affirmed the need for multilateral solutions to global problems — while contending that coalitions are effectively formed and led only by America. “No other nation,” he said, “has the influence, relationships or reputation for seeking lasting solutions to intractable problems that the United States has.”
Many of the points Rubio made are obvious. But in a Republican Party that includes Gingrich and Paul, it is bracing and inspiring to hear foreign policy sanity embraced in public.
Rubio applied his principled internationalism to a variety of problems, including Syria. Here he pressed an effective case against a timid, foreign-policy realism. “On the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee,” he said, “I have noticed that some members are so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they have lost sight of the advantages of it.” Iran and Hezbollah would lose an ally. The security of Lebanon and Israel might improve. But Rubio also pointed out the steep downside of American abdication. “The nations of the region,” he warned, “see Syria as a test of our continued willingness to lead in the Middle East. If we prove unwilling to provide leadership, they will conclude that we are no longer a reliable security partner, and will decide to take matters into their own hands. And that means a regional arms race, the constant threat of armed conflict, and crippling fuel prices here at home due to instability.”
Rubio’s point may not be popular in some conservative or liberal circles, but it is difficult to deny. There are risks and challenges to any foreign policy intervention. But there are also risks in allowing a strategic region to be ruled by brutality or chaos. If America does not actively help shape the security environment of the Middle East, Rubio reminds us, we will live with the consequences. The miseries of the Middle East are not contained by indifference or paralysis.
Also impressive in Rubio’s speech was his understanding for the relationship between interest and morality in U.S. foreign policy. He specifically defended foreign assistance as a “cost-effective” method to “strengthen our influence, the effectiveness of our leadership.” And he singled out the fight against global AIDS as a great American achievement.
There is no large or obvious Republican constituency for American engagement in Syria or the provision of foreign aid. But Rubio may well have impressed an audience of one. Despite the compromises of the campaign, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy instincts are clearly internationalist. And Rubio — who has other vice presidential virtues — has now distinguished himself as a thoughtful internationalist.
Whatever the political repercussions, Rubio’s speech was an important moment for the Republican Party. If Marco Rubio is the future, the future is not isolationist.