Politics & Policy

Rubio on U.S. Power

Why American engagement and leadership remain essential to world order.

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.

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.

Balance-of-power diplomacy, dictated by raisons d’état, is often held up as the antithesis of an idealist foreign policy. That is the argument of such histories of American foreign policy as Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy (1994) and Peter Rodman’s More Precious than Peace (1994).

Rubio, informed by Kagan’s work, believes that realist foreign policies can and should be founded on idealist principles. The problem is whether a majority of the people can be drawn to support the realist policy. And, as Rubio has argued, that is a matter of leadership, and “public judgment.”

The greatest test for Rubio’s emerging vision of foreign policy is still the Arab Spring. It is certainly true, as Rubio said at Brookings, that “The expansion and success of political and economic freedom is critical to our interests in every region of the world.”

The question, however, is how best to achieve the success of free institutions. Rubio believes that “because governments that rule by the consent of the governed must be responsive to the material needs and demands of their people, they are less likely to engage in costly confrontations that harm their economies and deprive their people of the opportunity to improve their circumstances.”

The years ahead will show whether the Muslim world can manage to make democracy work. On the one hand you have the argument Rubio has made, that the desire to satisfy people’s economic needs will give the Muslim world’s new leaders a stake in democratic institutions. This view was buttressed by Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Wall Street Journal recently, when he argued that the sometimes violent factionalism of government by assemblies can produce stable democratic institutions, as indeed happened in our own history. On the other hand is the fact that democracy attends upon the acceptance of democratic values such as compromise, rule of law, and self-reliance — values woefully lacking in Muslim societies.

Here we arrive at the intersection of domestic and foreign policy. How can we champion political and economic freedom abroad when our own democracy often seems incapable of escaping the tantalizing clutches of the entitlement state? The Democratic party has abandoned the free-society New Left philosophy of the 1990s and seems increasingly committed to forging a coalition of rent-seekers bent on confiscating the property of others for their own benefit, in the name of “social justice.” That is the essence of Obama’s agenda, and of his political strategy. Hence Rubio’s insight that maintaining our influence abroad will require us to “confront and solve the pressing domestic challenges of our time.”

The most remarkable thing about Rubio’s emerging foreign-policy vision is its hopefulness. He is essentially an optimist, always willing to see the glass half full.

Paradoxically, that’s part of what makes him a realist when it comes to the imperative of American leadership abroad. The world isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than it would have been without us. And it could be much better still — but it won’t be without us.

— Mario Loyola is a former foreign-policy counsel to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Mario Loyola is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program of Florida International University, and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.


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