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.
Whereas Romney's rhetoric on Iran has mocked the Obama administration's "charm offensive" and called for "crippling" sanctions on the "suicidal regime," Rubio argued, "We should be open to negotiations with Iran," though not be satisfied if they "only lead to further negotiations."
As the son of Cuban immigrants with a long-standing interest in Latin America policy, Rubio often seems most comfortable discussing the Western Hemisphere, and indeed his speech was accompanied by an op-ed in April 25's Los Angeles Times on Latin America policy. In it, he argues for putting a higher priority on Latin America in U.S. foreign policy, and, most likely referring to China, he claims that the biggest threat to U.S. interests in the region is not the overt anti-Americanism of Hugo Chávez and his ilk but, as he said in his speech, "the efforts of some nations to replace our influence with their influence and to use protectionism and other unfair practices to pursue that aim."
Perhaps having read his Amy Myers Jaffe, Rubio argues that increasing energy cooperation in the Americas could help lower U.S. reliance on the Middle East and "create countless jobs for Americans and energy security for the world." In his speech, he also brought up the somewhat controversial notion that Iranian-backed Islamist groups are making inroads in Latin America.
But Rubio's approach is hardly the blunt, partisan approach of his fellow Floridian, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Although he expressed skepticism about the "reset" policy with Russia and suggested that the Obama team places too much importance on the U.N. Security Council and international resolutions, his speech was strikingly nonpartisan. The only time Rubio even mentioned Obama's name was to praise him for continuing Bush's work on AIDS in Africa.
In other words, if this was an audition for a VP slot, it was an unusual one. A Rubio pick would certainly bring up some uncomfortable questions for Romney about the contradictions between their platforms.
It's possible that with foreign policy likely to take on greater importance in the general election if and as the economy improves, Rubio may be making the case that he can attract moderate voters turned off by the often-bellicose rhetoric of the Republican primary. Given, however, Americans' increasing skepticism about U.S. military engagements in Afghanistan and elsewhere -- a topic Rubio touched on only briefly and vaguely in the Q&A session following the talk -- it's not clear how much of a sell national-greatness conservatism will be this time around.
It also seems possible that Rubio is merely taking advantage of his 15 minutes in the spotlight to bolster his credentials as a credible voice on foreign policy. With Republican foreign-policy elder statesmen like McCain, Richard Lugar, and, for all intents and purposes, Lieberman nearing the end of their political careers, Rubio may be vying for their type of influence within the party.
If one judges only from this speech, it also seems pretty apparent that Rubio is less interested in padding Romney's 2012 ticket than leading his own in 2016.