Yesterday, Marco Rubio gave a wide-ranging speech about American foreign policy that aimed to move past the simplistic labels he feels dominate too much public discussion of the subject. The reaction to his speech illustrated the need to deliver those remarks in the first place. Over at the Daily Beast, Josh Rogin interviewed Rubio to ask some follow-up questions about his new foreign-policy vision, and the resulting article is a good example of the mindset Rubio is trying to get the press out of.
The Rubio approach, a balanced foreign policy based on various tools, matches closely with what Hillary Clinton set forth as secretary of state in her vision of “smart power,” which was based on the idea that defense, diplomacy, and development should be equal pillars of U.S foreign policy. Rubio acknowledged the similarities but said he would be able to succeed where Clinton and the rest of the Obama team failed to follow through.
Yet as Rubio pointed out to Rogin, that’s not at all what animated Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. Clinton had a policy based on photo-ops and frequent-flyer miles. The State Department under her direction was a mess, diplomacy faltered, and America’s standing in the world receded. In one case, in Libya, Clinton’s mismanagement and issue-superficiality proved to be a sign of dangerous incompetence.
Aware that she might want to run for president and thus didn’t want to take any chances, she was the perfect secretary of state for an administration yearning to be a bystander on the world stage. Any credible application of “smart power” would be, almost by definition, a departure from Clinton’s policy. (The line of questioning hints at the confusion Clinton was able to sow simply by spouting slogans that sounded good.) Rubio sought to correct this characterization:
“Maybe tactically Hillary gave lip service to that. In terms of how she executed foreign policy, that’s certainly not the case,” Rubio told The Daily Beast. “Tactically speaking, we’re talking about smart power engagement. But what is our strategy at the end of the day? Our strategic aims are the security and well-being of the American people and beyond that the spread of liberty, prosperity, and human rights around the world.”
This may seem like a bit of a diversion, but only if seen through the lens of a senator challenging the policies of a former secretary of state. In reality, it’s one prospective 2016 presidential candidate contrasting himself with the other party’s likely nominee. And that’s one reason Rubio is being watched so carefully: in a speech like this, he is expected to separate himself from the pack–of both parties.
Rand Paul has emerged as a the candidate to espouse caution on intervention. Chris Christie has boisterously declared himself standing athwart Paul’s more libertarian approach, and Scott Walker has done so more quietly but remains closer to Christie. If Paul Ryan runs, he appears to be on the Christie side of the divide as well.
So as the two sides call each other hawks and doves, isolationists and warmongers, Rubio seeks to do two things simultaneously: find a middle ground that will differentiate himself from the candidates who have already jumped headlong into the foreign-policy-in-2016 debate, and also bring the party together into some coherent blend that will emphasize the common aims and purposes, not the distinctions.
The latter is important because if Clinton is the nominee, the GOP will have to decide where the contrast is–a task made more difficult by the fact that, as the Daily Beast interview shows, reporters just spit back clichéd slogans spouted by Clinton as if merely by declaring something she has done it.
Rubio has an advantage, however. During his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has been widely praised by his peers on both sides of the aisle for his diligence, patience, hard work, and refusal to grandstand. It paradoxically works against him when reporters on deadline show the need for headline-friendly slogans instead of nuanced analysis. But in the long term, Rubio’s fluency on the issues is likely to serve him well with a public that elected a president who had nothing but slogans, after which voters might be looking for someone with a bit more interest in world affairs than the current occupant of the White House.