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November 24, 2012

Speaking of Sen Marco Rubio...
Posted by David Shorr

640px-Marco_Rubio_by_Gage_SkidmoreNow that Marco Rubio has kicked off his 2016 bid by discoursing with GQ about our planet's, er, genesis and getting better acquainted with Republicans in Iowa,* this seems like a good time to look back at Sen. Rubio's big foreign policy speech at Brookings last April. I have to admit, it really is better than most of what the Republicans offered this cycle. But then, scoring a high grade on that curve is nothing to brag about; Republicans in 2012 were really low-achievers when it comes to foreign policy substance.

I was interested to see Rubio talk about President Obama's efforts to get other international players to help in addressing shared challenges. Together with Nina Hachigian, I've been highlighting this push as a significant driver of current policy. Nina and I sketched what we call the "Responsibility Doctrine" in the September issue of Foreign Service Journal (a fuller exposition will appear in the next Washington Quarterly). So Marco Rubio distinguished himself by refraining from the worst caricatures of Obama foreign policy and engaging with its real substance (sort of).

Actually, Rubio begins by setting aside his differences with Obama and drawing on Bob Kagan's World America Made for a bipartisan case for American international leadership and against turning inward. Back when Kagan's argument appeared in New Republic article form, I wrote a post here at DA saying that Bob was indeed offering the outline of a bipartisan consensus, but that more bridgebuilding was probably still needed from the Republican side. Rubio's speech showed the same blindspot: the need for America to obtain -- rather than presume or demand -- the support of other nations.

As a rhetorical device, Rubio runs through the arguments he's had repeatedly with those who think America should step back, for a change, and let others deal with the world's problems. After explaining that there isn't a candidate to take our place as a global leader, Rubio addresses the idea of greater sharing of responsibility, which is worth quoting at length:

Finally, I'll be asked, if we still have to lead, can’t we at least be equal partners with someone else? In fact, shouldn’t we rely on other nations to carry more of the burden? After all, we all know that they resent us telling them what to do, right?

In this new century, more than ever before, America should work with our capable allies in finding solutions to global problems. Not because America has gotten weaker, but because our partners have grown stronger.  It's worth pointing out, by the way that is not a new idea for us. Our greatest successes have always occurred in partnership with other like-minded nations. America has acted unilaterally in the past - and I believe it should continue to do so in the future -- when necessity requires.  But our preferred option since the U.S. became a global leader has been to work with others to achieve our goals.

So yes, 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.

By my reading, the speech is simply a more sophisticated version of the same lame critique Republicans have tried to make for the last four years. There is an entire genre of statements about "what this administration (or president) doesn't understand" that in fact describe the administration's exact approach. Heck, sometimes Obama's critics have cribbed fully detailed policy prescriptions from what he was already doing. This administration is well aware that most coalitions need to be instigated and/or led by the United States. One of President Obama's most impressive successes, as Nina and I argue, has been to spread responsibility for that leadership -- or at least contributions to the common effort -- more widely. 

So let me paraphrase. This is what Sen. Rubio doesn't understand. The real challenge for foreign policy is to somehow induce countries to join efforts when they are less than willing. It isn't only America's allies or the like-minded whose help we need. Economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran would be impossible without the support of China and Russia (and oh by the way, American allies like Japan and Korea are too dependent on Iranian energy imports to halt them completely).

From what we hear, Republicans are busy these days taking stock of the rethinking they need in order to regain credibility. I offer the above thoughts for that agenda.

*As a patriotic former Iowa caucus-goer, I would never suggest that it's too early for presidential apirants to start working retail in Iowa. In fact, there's no such thing as "too early."

Photo: Gage Skidmore

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