Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has migrated from sorta sounding like a hawk to really sounding like a hawk over the past four years. And his big speech Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations was about as neoconservative as a foreign policy speech could get.
How neoconservative was it? He hit all of the neocon erogenous zones: bashing the Iran deal, bashing China, bashing terrorism, supporting Israel, emphasizing the need for American leadership and so forth. The full text of his speech actually capitalized the phrase “American Strength” all nine times it appeared, like it was a special status that either American Express or American Airlines was rolling out.
So if you like neoconservative foreign policy, you should be very happy with Rubio’s speech; if you don’t like it, you should be very scared.
So that was the Big Takeaway. But the other, not-completely-neocon-y notes in Rubio’s speech also stood out to me. In particular:
1) Rubio’s emphasis on foreign economic policy. In articulating why foreign policy mattered, Rubio said flat out, “The prosperity of our people now depends on their ability to interact freely and safely in the international marketplace…. Today, as never before, foreign policy is domestic policy.”
It this boilerplate? A little. But it’s boilerplate that’s been noticeably lacking from other GOP presidential candidates. Rubio used this point to support the Trans Pacific Partnership while attacking Hillary Clinton for her squeamishness regarding that trade deal.
Also interesting was Rubio’s second pillar, the protection of the American economy in a globalized world:
As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space. This includes the economic disruption caused when one country invades another, as well as the chaos caused by disruptions in chokepoints such as the South China Sea or the Strait of Hormuz.
Russia, China, Iran, or any other nation that attempts to block global commerce will know to expect a response from my administration.
This “protecting the global commons” plank makes some sense, and it’s conceptually sensible and politically smart to lump together Iranian activity in the Straits of Hormuz with Russian and Chinese cyberattacks.
What makes much less sense is the implication that either Russia or China has an interest in blocking global commerce (in fact, if you want to get technical about it, it’s the United States and European Union that are currently blocking Russia from much of the global economy). And the precise way to “use American power” seems important to flesh out.
Still, as a first principle goes, it’s OK.
2) Rubio’s approach to Russia in 2016 is somewhat more sober than Romney in 2012. Republicans are fond of claiming Romney’s strategic acumen with respect to Russia. And it’s not like Rubio thinks Vladimir Putin is a big pussycat. But when asked a softball question about Russia during the Q&A, Rubio’s take was — wait for it — sober.
He pointed out that Putin wanted Russia to be a great power on a par with China or the United States, but that this was economically impossible, particularly after the imposition of U.S.-EU sanctions. Instead, Putin’s actions in Ukraine and the rest of the near-abroad were compensating for his economic weakness.
Again, this isn’t shocking news to anyone paying attention. But given the GOP’s man-crush on Putin over the past year, it’s comforting to hear a clear-eyed, non-hyperbolic assessment of Russia’s actual strengths and weaknesses from a Republican.
3) Rubio is genuinely interested in foreign policy.
As Yahoo’s Meredith Shiner noted, “the question-and-answer session after Rubio’s address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York provided an even more interesting glimpse into the thinking of a candidate.”
The glimpse I got was of someone who was genuinely interested in foreign affairs. I didn’t agree with a ton of what he said, but his responses on Syria and Cuba suggested that he did have a clear and consistent worldview.
I wrote something about Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) a few months ago that applies to the entire GOP field, “This isn’t about whether Walker should profess a more dovish or hawkish foreign policy posture. This is whether he wants to sound like a smart hawk or a dumb hawk.”
Rubio’s a hawk — like the rest of the GOP potentials. He’s a hawk who has made the occasional gaffe. But he’s not dumb, and unlike most of the rest of the GOP field, he does not need to play catch-up on foreign affairs. And given the importance that national security will play in the GOP primary, that is a decided advantage for the senator from Florida.