As our nation debates the future of America’s role in the world, we should ask ourselves: Which principles do we want guiding this debate? After all, foreign policy cannot be simply about tactics. It must also be strategic, with a clear set of principles that guide us in applying our influence.
I believe we should look to those principles that our nation is uniquely capable of promoting — principles that have made our nation the greatest force for good the world has ever seen. These are the principles of liberty, human rights, and the enduring pursuit of peace for all mankind.
These ideals are reflected in our young nation’s legacy to date, including a crumbled wall in Berlin; millions of Afghan children — including many girls — who are now able to attend school for the first time; and vibrant democratic allies and trading partners such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea.
Unfortunately, our legacy is changing. The current administration has failed to show the leadership abroad that so many countries have come to depend on — and upon which our own security and prosperity depend. Instead of having a principled foreign policy, these days America often appears to lack a clear vision for our role in the world.
We must correct our course, guided by clear strategic principles that reflect the realities of the world we live in today.
As for the tools we use, we have many at our disposal. In most cases, the decisive use of diplomacy, foreign assistance, and economic power is the most effective way to further our interests and stop problems before they spiral into crises.
Our uses of these methods should vastly outnumber our uses of force. But force used with clear, achievable objectives must always remain a part of our foreign-policy toolbox. While we always prefer peace over conflict, sometimes our enemies choose differently.
And as we deal with the many challenges facing our nation and our world, we must never lose sight of our highest priority: the safety of the American people. To this end, there is no more important use of our influence and power than to prevent rogue regimes and terrorist groups from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
That is why, in the current nuclear negotiations with Iran, we must maintain an unwavering position of strength and always remember that Iran’s goal at the negotiating table has never been to maintain peace, but rather to win relief from sanctions without making irreversible concessions.
However, our foreign policy should not be limited solely to standing up to our enemies; it must also include standing side by side with our friends. Look no further than Latin America to see examples of the benefits of rewarding our friends. America’s support for our democratic allies in Colombia and Mexico has given us two examples of how patience and principles pay off.
We need to build on this progress by considering a new security agreement for the Western Hemisphere that expands cooperation among our security forces. This would enable us to better focus our efforts to stop illicit trafficking in narcotics, weapons, and human beings in the hemisphere.
And just as previous free-trade agreements have eased the flow of commerce and brought mutual prosperity, we must continue expanding free and fair trade. This will create job opportunities for our own people and will have a profound impact in combating poverty abroad. Concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership with our Latin American and Asian partners and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe should both be top priorities, given their potential for reinvigorating our alliances in key regions and spreading economic opportunity at home.
These lessons regarding the importance of cooperation in the economic sphere apply in other ways as well to Asia, where the bedrock of our interest in furthering peace, security, and liberty is our alliances with democratic governments.
America can tout real success stories in the Asian region. Japan is a perennial reminder of how democracy and free enterprise can transform a foreign power from a dangerous adversary into a lasting friend. Now the Abe government is examining ways in which Japan can use its military outside of narrow self-defense missions, and we should wholeheartedly support these efforts.
As China rises and becomes increasingly assertive, our goal should be not to “contain” that nation but rather to ensure that its rise remains peaceful. But doing so requires taking a firm stand when the Chinese people’s rights are violated, as they too commonly are today.
All this should be part of a broader initiative to maintain our legacy as the world’s leading defender of human rights. For all the progress we have made in promoting the dignity of every man, woman, and child, there are still outrageous human-rights abuses occurring in many parts of the world, including our own communities. We have a duty to combat these abuses.
We must also allocate our foreign aid in a careful and targeted manner that puts the American taxpayer first by demanding greater accountability and results that align with our values and our interests.
But there is also another gift we can offer for the cause of human rights, and that is the spread of liberty. As we have seen in many places, the light of liberty can drive away the darkness of oppression and tyranny. It can illuminate the potential of a nation. It can brighten the stability of a region. It can reveal the hope of a lasting peace.
Every American can agree that the light of peace and liberty would benefit our world. But who will spread it if not America? There is no other nation that can. And that is why, despite the challenges we face here at home, America must continue to hold this torch. America must continue to lead the way.
— Marco Rubio is the junior senator from Florida. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered on Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute. Watch the original speech here.