Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went to the Brookings Institution today for what was billed as a major foreign policy speech. Why Brookings, and why now?

Brookings as a whole is not within the cozy club of conservative think tanks that recommend a bold, forward-leaning foreign policy rooted in American values. Some at Brookings fit that bill, especially Robert Kagan, whose book Rubio cited many times, but it is not necessarily “home” for bold internationalists such as Rubio. In delivering his speech there, I think, Rubio was making a statement that he is prepared to carry the conservative policy banner wherever he can persuade and make new allies.

And as for the topic and timing, VP sweepstakes observers will say this kind of speech improves his positioning for the No. 2 slot. To the contrary: It helps prepare him for the next go-round and cements the view, if he’s not selected as VP this time, that it was not for lack of gravitas or brainpower.

As to the speech’s substance, it was in many ways a sophisticated argument for America’s continued participation and leadership in the world. He noted both parties seem to be leaning toward less involvement in the world. (And I would add, less funding for the military.) His retort was, in essence, that we have no choice. “If we start doing less, who’s going to do more? For example, would a world order where China, at least as we know it right now, was the leading power be as benignly disposed to the political and economic aspirations of other nations as we are?” It is not out of altruism, or only out of altruism that we act, he argued; But rather it is because “no other nation or organization is willing or able to do so.” Or, I would say, would we want to have do so.

Rubio then proceeded to give a nuanced critique of Obama’s multilateralism. He asserted that “global problems do require international coalitions. On that point this administration is correct. But effective international coalitions don’t form themselves. They need to be instigated and led, and more often than not, they can only be instigated and led by us. And that is what this administration doesn’t understand. Yes, there are more countries able and willing to join efforts to meet the global challenges of our time. But experience has proven that American leadership is almost always indispensable to its success.”

He contended that we therefore should find our partners where we can and not be reduced to the lowest common denominator at the U.N. (where is is low indeed) or other international bodies: “As we’ve seen on North Korea, on Syria, on Iran, China and Russia simply will not join that consensus when they don’t perceive the problem as a threat to their narrow national interests. Instead they exercise their veto or threat of a veto to thwart effective and timely responses. The Security Council remains a valuable forum, but not an indispensable one. We can’t walk away from a problem because some members of the Security Council refuse to act.”

Rubio gave a forceful argument in support of military action, if need be, to prevent the nuclear weaponization of Iran, and he made the case for U.S. action to boot out Bashar al-Assad. “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, communications 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.”

Perhaps his most innovative policy proposal was for more robust engagement in our hemisphere. “Our goal for our own region should be pretty straightforward: a coalition of neighboring democratic nations that trade freely and live peacefully with one another.” We need to push back against the anti-American regimes (e.g. Venezuela) in the region, he argued:

First, we must be a clear and consistent advocate for freedom. To be free isn’t limited to holding elections; it’s a way of governance. And in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador, elected leaders have used their power to undermine fundamental freedoms by attacking the press, the courts and their political opponents.

Second, we need to commit to being a reliable partner as our neighbors cope with significant security challenges. Both Mexico and Colombia, they need our continued commitment to win their respective wars against criminal organizations. And we must also make it abundantly clear that we will not tolerate Iran exporting violence and terrorism to our hemisphere.

Third, we must reject protectionism and instead embrace the ultimate goal of a free trade area of the Americas. . . . We need to move forward to bring both Canada and Mexico into the Trans-Pacific 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.

As a preliminary matter, it is obvious that Rubio already has a more coherent and morally defensible view of America in the world than do the president and most every Democrat in Congress. This is not damning with faint praise. It is significant that a senator in office two years has thought so systematically about U.S. interests and responsibilities.

So if his goal was to prove his intellectual chops in somewhat less-friendly surroundings, he succeeded. Rather than see him as combatant in the VP stakes, conservatives might begin thinking of him as a leader in the conservative movement and a future presidential candidate.