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Marco Rubio’s Foreign Policy

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
May 8, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

Can Senator Marco Rubio deliver the White House to the Republican party this November? Mitt Romney, now the presumptive presidential candidate, cannot win the White House without Rubio's state, Florida. His biography—a Cuban-American, flexible religiosity—once a Mormon, now a Catholic, youth—40 years old, and political orientation—a Tea Party social conservative—help explain his meteoric political rise and potential viability as a vice presidential candidate. Although his support among Florida's non-Cuban Hispanic voters is weak, his somewhat constructive, though still timid views on immigration could give Hispanic voters beyond Florida, who now favor Obama by 40 percentage points, something to support in the Republicans.

In foreign policy, Rubio is more of a hybrid. From his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio is building his standing as the darling of the neoconservative wing of his party. He projects a mix of Cheney-Rumsfeld unilateralism with a healthy dose of Clinton-Obama humanitarian conscience. On Iran, he has called for the use of military force, albeit only once sanctions and negotiations fail. On Syria, he favors arming the opposition to bring Assad down, although primarily to weaken Iran. On Israel's security, there seems to be no light between his views and those of Netanyahu's, or indeed, Obama's. He believes the United States should have led the Libya intervention earlier on, as a matter of efficiency in removing Gaddafi. He departs from the Obama administration in tone, to be sure. But on substance, at least now, his main difference relates to the value of international legitimacy, and the need, or lack thereof, for the United States to conduct its foreign policy within the constraints of institutional institutions. The United Nations or the World Trade Organization, for example, may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to advance American global interests.

Like most foreign policy gurus in both parties, Rubio believes that the United States remains the indispensable nation. The emergence of new regional powers calls for the United States to actively "counter-balance." In the Americas, Rubio's rhetoric resonates with a pre-Obama tendency to relish love and attention on our best friends and demonize the rest. Remember when President Clinton bequeathed Argentina the title of "non-NATO" ally? Rubio gives his gold star to Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. Venezuela and the other ALBA countries are undemocratic, anti-American, and soft on Iran. In a recent speech, the unnamed emerging power to be counterbalanced in the Americas wasn't Canada, it was clearly Brazil. Rubio's friends–and–enemies leitmotif for Latin America closely tracks with his base's taste for polarization on the domestic front. I still hear Latin Americans complain of too little attention from Washington. With Rubio's political rise they may soon, again, complain of too much.

Romney will present himself as the standard bearer of a muscular, comfortably unilateralist assertion of American hegemony in the Americas and globally. Rubio reinforces that message. But both misjudge the American people and the rest of the world's taste for revisiting an earlier era.

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