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Rubio on U.S. Power
Why American engagement and leadership remain essential to world order.

Marco Rubio at the Brookings Institution, April 25, 2012

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Senator Marco Rubio seems to relish tackling the difficult dilemmas of American foreign policy. As I wrote in NR earlier this year (“Strategy and Principle,” February 20), he tries hard to reconcile realism with Americans’ deep-rooted idealism, not always an easy task.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution last week, he returned to this theme, articulating an expansive vision of American foreign policy. His speech showed both his trademark optimism and an increasingly sophisticated sense of history and strategy.

A major recent influence, as Rubio freely explains, has been Robert Kagan’s new book, The World America Made. Kagan argues that every international system going back to Roman times has revolved around its preeminent power. If that nation’s standing declines, the system falls. Kagan seeks to refute the popular supposition that America can retreat from the world without the international system collapsing.

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American interests have shaped that system. But the reason it has become an international system is that large swaths of the world share America’s aspirations: prosperity and democracy in a stable world. American interests — free trade, freedom of the seas, entrenched democratic institutions across the globe — are also global interests. History suggests that if America retreats from defending those interests, no other nation or coalition of nations is likely to be able to defend them. And, argues Kagan, the consequences could be dire.

That powerful idea is part of the foundation for Senator Rubio’s vision of engagement in the world. Rubio believes that American leadership is indispensable, but he is at the same time an internationalist. In his Brookings speech he maintained that we have a chance to make the world a better place. “As Americans we cannot make that happen by ourselves,” he conceded. “But the world cannot make it happen without us.”

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, peace through strength — and diplomacy. But, in Rubio’s view, diplomacy doesn’t mean bowing to international organizations where the lowest common denominator can kill collective action. Diplomacy means American leadership. “Effective international coalitions don’t form themselves,” Rubio said. “They need to be instigated and led, and more often than not, they can only be instigated and led by us.”

That is true not just globally but also regionally. “Everywhere we look,” Rubio told his Brookings audience, “we are presented with opportunities for American leadership to help shape a better world in this new century. We have to view these opportunities within the context of the fact that in every region of the world, other countries look apprehensively on the growing influence of newly emerging powers in their midst, and look to the U.S. to counterbalance them.”

That is the essential strategic insight into the current situation in East Asia. Virtually all the countries on China’s periphery look to the U.S. to counterbalance its rise. But doing so requires actively defending international norms of long-standing and widespread acceptance, such as freedom of the seas. That means being willing to confront the Chinese navy in the Yellow Sea when China seeks to exclude our navy from its “Exclusive Economic Zone” under the Law of the Sea treaty. And at first blush, Americans may not understand why we need to be confrontational at all.



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