The reason for the larger-than-normal swarm of live-tweeting journos and telephoto lenses packing the Brookings Institution's Falk Auditorium for Sen. Marco Rubio's foreign-policy speech on Wednesday, April 25, was, of course, the rampant speculation that the young rising star from Florida is on Mitt Romney's shortlist as a vice presidential nominee. But if those in the crowd were expecting Rubio to audition for the role of partisan attack dog, they likely came away disappointed. If anything, the primary target of the speech was not the president, but the increasingly isolationist rhetoric of some members of Rubio's own Republican Party. This included some digs at positions held by his potential running mate.
Billed as a "major" foreign-policy address (though as Time's Michael Crowley points out, you never seem to hear about "minor" foreign-policy addresses), the speech was a robust and full-throated defense of an activist U.S. foreign policy and the oft-evoked but somewhat nebulous concept of American "leadership" in the world. This is a bit surprising given Rubio's political pedigree. When the senator was elected to the U.S. Senate as part of the 2010 Republican sweep, he was generally associated with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party and is still often referred to that way, though his relatively moderate views on immigration have alienated some former supporters.
In his foreign-policy views, though, Rubio seems to share more affinity with the neoconservatism of John McCain or even George W. Bush than the isolationism of fellow class of 2010 members like Kentucky's Rand Paul. He took aim at these tendencies right off the bat, noting that he believes he often has more in common with Democrats like Robert Casey and Robert Menendez, or independent Joe Lieberman -- who introduced him today -- than some Senate Republicans.
"I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," he said.
Rubio's foreign-policy views have evidently been recently shaped by a reading of Robert Kagan's The World America Made, a much-discussed refutation of the now-popular notion of American decline. He cited the author and Brookings scholar, who was sitting in the front row, repeatedly throughout the speech. (As a Romney advisor who has penned bedside reading for President Barack Obama, Kagan could plausibly claim to be the most prominently cited writer in Washington right now.) Rubio repeatedly echoed Kagan's arguments for the necessity of U.S. involvement in solving international crises.
In Syria, for example, Rubio supports "equipping the opposition with food, medicine, communications tools, and potentially weapons." This, he said, "will not only weaken Iran -- it will ultimately increase our ability to influence the political environment of a post-Assad Syria." He grumbled that his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seem "so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they have lost sight of the advantages of it." He also noted that "many of my loyal supporters were highly critical of my decision to call for a more active U.S. role in Libya."
At times, Rubio's speech could have served as a critique of the Romney campaign's foreign-policy statements. Whereas the inevitable Republican nominee has suggested that "it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid," Rubio defended the utility of aid, saying, "In every region of the world, we should always search for ways to use U.S. aid and humanitarian assistance to strengthen our influence" and cited the Bush administration's work on AIDS in Africa as an example.