The Rubio Doctrine

The potential veep contender makes a decidedly non-Romneyesque statement on foreign policy.

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.

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The Strategic Vacuum

The global economy is in trouble -- if political and business leaders don't stop substituting short-term tactical responses for real, substantive reform.

Today's surprise macroeconomic indicators, be it Britain slipping back into recession or America's large decline in durable goods orders, speak to the unusual challenges facing advanced economies. Yet, way too many of today's policy approaches to the problems at hand are tactically oriented. Rather than confronting the challenges comprehensively and setting a long-term destination, they are short-term responses designed simply to right a leaning ship. Aimed at achieving equilibrium just long enough for everyone to catch their breath, they deliver a tranquility that has repeatedly proved temporary, reversible, and therefore fundamentally elusive.

There are good reasons for this policymaking approach, and to be fair, it has worked in the past. Yet circumstances are fundamentally different today. So what appears tactically smart to some may well end up strategically shortsighted for all.

The recurrent inclination to opt for the tactical rather than the strategic solution to the current mess is evident in Europe and the United States -- and it is visible in both the public and the private sectors. Facing their biggest debt crisis in modern history, European government officials have muddled along for more than two years. Through a series of small steps -- be it the financial bailout of three peripheral economies or the massive liquidity injections by the European Central Bank -- they have done enough to avoid a catastrophe, but not nearly enough to leave the crisis firmly and decisively behind.

This type of behavior is also evident in the United States, though it's somewhat less dramatic. Led primarily, if not exclusively, by the Federal Reserve, officials have taken steps to stabilize the economic situation and encourage a gradual healing. The Fed, however, has not been sufficiently supported by other government entities possessing better policy tools to lift impediments to growth, including the reform of housing and housing finance, labor retraining and retooling, education reform, and public finances. As a result, the economy is yet to attain the escape velocity needed to dramatically lower long-term unemployment and restore the United States on the path of sustained growth and medium-term fiscal sustainability.

The same can be said of the international monetary system. Reacting to mounting pressures, advanced economies have agreed to small steps that reflect the ongoing global realignments. Yet measured against the unambiguous shift in the balance of power between the advanced countries and emerging economies, the changes are way too limited, be it on voting and representation at multilateral institutions or how their heads are selected. As a result, these institutions lack legitimacy and credibility at the very time they are needed to facilitate international policy coordination and improve the functioning of a stumbling global economy.

The private sector has not been immune to this type of tactical behavior. In the last couple of years, companies have shown unusual resistance to making long-term commitments. Rather than invest and hire for future business, they have repeatedly opted instead to wait. In the process, they have accumulated huge cash balances on their balance sheets at a time when interest rates are so low as to imply a loss in real purchasing power.

This dominance of tactical mindsets is not irrational. It reflects the trio of an "unusually uncertain" outlook, powerful short-term incentives, and highly polarized politics.

Coming out of the global financial crisis, advanced economies have experienced a series of unthinkable scenarios that speak to deep structural transformations and a murky future. They range from the failure of economies to recover "normally" from the Great Recession to the persistence of unacceptably high unemployment; from the loss of AAA ratings in France and the United States to a government-debt restructuring in Europe (notably Greece); and from the remarkable resilience of emerging economies to concerns about the integrity of the eurozone.

These unthinkable scenarios are a reflection of two major, multiyear forces, and they add up to a historic realignment of the global economy. First, a deleveraging requirement in advanced economies after years of excessive indebtedness, lax borrowing standards, and an unreasonable sense of credit entitlement; and second, a development breakout phase in systemically important emerging economies such Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia.

To be handled in an orderly fashion, these major structural changes must be met with proper reforms at the national, regional, and global levels. But instead -- whether because of tight election cycles, quarterly earning calls, or inadequate coordination -- too many policymakers and companies have been incentivized to choose short-term approaches that, essentially, kick the can down the road.

Unusually polarized political setups in the United States and Europe have made things worse. Moreover, politicians have been inclined to opt for quick, catchy headline measures, rather than more comprehensive and durable reform packages. Indeed, it should come as no great surprise that politicians of different persuasions find it very difficult to iterate to a common analysis of the ailments in advanced economies and a common solution. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that companies prefer to stand on the sidelines and wait for greater clarity about the outlook.

In the old days, this way of proceeding was less risky as most advanced countries tended to operate in a predominantly cyclical -- that is to say, a more structurally stable -- world. Accordingly, tactical responses could prove satisfactory or, for the most part, at least neutral; and, accordingly, the private sector was much less hesitant about engaging energetically in national economies, acting as the locomotive for growth and helping link economies globally.

Today, advanced economies no longer live in an overwhelmingly cyclical world. They are navigating major structural and secular changes. They require comprehensive policy responses to overcome the twin problems of too little growth and too much debt; and they must adapt to the rapid developments of emerging economies and their consequences for the functioning of the global system. Until this materializes properly, the private sector's engagement will prove insufficient to provide the powerful creation of jobs that is so desperately needed.

Conditions on the ground call for a rapid pivot from tactical to strategic. Realistically and unfortunately, this may well require the sense of another impending crisis before leaders in advanced countries truly grasp the urgency and importance of this transition. But in one sense, we may already be creating the conditions for just that eventuality -- because, in the meantime, what appears tactically smart today may well end up tomorrow looking strategically shortsighted.

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