The decision by Marco Rubio to seek the Republican presidential nomination is audacious. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the first-term senator from Florida. As the current occupant of the White House attests, a thin political resume is no barrier to the highest office in the land when you have charisma and a compelling biography.
But Rubio needs to answer fundamental questions about the global leadership role he envisions for the United States. There’s not a lot to go on right now. In announcing his candidacy, Rubio devoted only a single paragraph to foreign policy, in which he pledged to accept “the mantle of global leadership.” He also promised to take a tougher line on Iran, Russia, and China; to invest more in the U.S. military; and to reverse “the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world.”
Beyond these hints, the most comprehensive summary of Rubio’s worldview is three years old—and appears strikingly similar to that of the Obama administration.
In a 2012 speech, Rubio championed a centrist internationalism, lauding the World War II generation—as President Obama often does—for its enlightened leadership in building the great postwar international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The United States had established these bodies “not to assert narrow national interests,” he noted, but “to spread peace and prosperity.” And that strategy had worked.
International cooperation is even more important today, the senator continued:
I always start by reminding people that what happens all over the world is our business. Every aspect of our lives is directly impacted by global events….. In this new century, more than ever before, America should work with our capable allies in finding solutions to our global problems. Not because America has gotten weaker, but because our partners have gotten stronger…. Our greatest successes have always occurred in partnership with other like-minded nations.
As I wrote at the time: Senator Rubio, meet President Obama.
To be sure, Rubio tried to put daylight between himself and the president, pointing to a lack of U.S. leadership:
So yes, global problems do require international coalitions. On that point this administration is correct. But effective international coalitions don’t form themselves. They need to be instigated and led, and more often than not, they can only be instigated and led by us. And that is what this administration doesn’t understand.
Senator Rubio went on to lament the “absurd and often appalling results” of multilateral cooperation, particularly when “bad actors” are allowed to act as spoilers within international organizations that require consensus-building. In his view, the administration had demonstrated an “overreliance on institutions, global institutions.”
In fact, the Obama administration has since 2009 taken precisely the sort of pragmatic approach that Rubio supports. It has repeatedly turned to flexible multilateral coalitions for decisive action among likeminded partners, even while relying on the standing capacity and legitimacy of global institutions.
The senator’s effort to portray the White House as wedded to utopian idealism may play well with the Republican base, but it’s inaccurate. And it should not distract the press and the public from asking probing questions about how Rubio would grapple with the most difficult policy challenges. Here are three questions he needs to answer:
How would your policy on humanitarian intervention differ from Obama’s?
Senator Rubio vocally supported intervention and regime change in Libya in March 2011, advocating Senate authorization to use U.S. military force as part of “an allied coalition” to remove dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. More recently, the senator has sought to deflect blame for the Libya debacle, arguing that: “The situation in Libya was also predictable, and I warned about that…. That conflict with Qaddafi took too long…. I wanted to engage but engage decisively.” In fact, as Daniel Larison writes in the American Conservative, there is no evidence to support his claims that he warned that the Libyan intervention might go awry.
More recently, Rubio has taken hawkish positions on both Syria and Iraq, criticizing President Obama for a lack of “decisive” action to end atrocities committed both by Bashar al-Assad and extremists. “If I was in charge,” the senator told ABC News in June 2013, “we never would have gotten to this point [in Syria]. We would have identified elements that we could have worked with. We would have made sure those elements, not the al Qaeda elements, were the best armed, best equipped and best trained.”In an August 2014 piece in Time, he declared: “The United States is right to intervene in Iraq to provide humanitarian assistance to persecuted religious minorities,” but he reiterated that Obama should have acted earlier to prevent the Syrian conflict from destabilizing the region.
What Rubio has never done is made a compelling case that arming the rebels would have worked, nor explained what he would do given where we are now. After more than a decade of military misadventures in the broader Middle East, the American public needs honesty from presidential candidates, not cheap rhetoric. Rubio should spell out clear criteria for humanitarian intervention. He should specifically explain what type of military force he is prepared to use to save the lives of foreigners and whether he is prepared to go it alone when (as in Syria) the UN Security Council is blocked. And when he does use force, is he prepared to engage the United States in nation-building efforts in the aftermath?
What is your position on IMF reform?
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Rubio has a golden opportunity to restore U.S. global financial leadership. In 2010, the Obama administration negotiated a historic international deal to adjust the governance and voting weight within the IMF to reflect the growing economic might of major emerging economies, including China. Congress, however, failed to pass the implementing legislation, thanks to resistance from the GOP. This undermines the credibility of the Fund and the stability of the global economy on which U.S. businesses and citizens depend. Moreover, it threatens U.S. influence globally. As Ted Truman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics observes, other countries are prepared to create alternative global financial arrangements that meet their needs, from the BRICS development bank and contingency reserve fund to China’s new Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. Will Rubio use his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to encourage his GOP colleagues to approve IMF reform before it is too late? Or will he be cowed by Tea Party stalwarts who speciously depict the Fund as a threat to U.S. sovereignty?
Why do you now deny that climate change is occurring?
Of all of Rubio’s foreign policy positions, the senator’s refusal to admit that the Earth is warming, and doing so from human activity, is most disturbing. The world’s leading climate scientists are nearly unanimous in concluding that climate change is real, that its main causes are anthropogenic, and that the consequences for human life will be catastrophic without major changes to the current steady state scenario.
Here is what Rubio had to say about the matter in an ABC interview in May 2014:
I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate. Our climate is always changing.
Beyond his apparent confusion between “climate” and “weather,” Rubio’s claims appear to contradict statementshe made in 2007 while in the Florida state legislature, when he acknowledged the reality of climate change. The following year, as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Buzzfeed reports, “he presided over a vote directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to create rules for limiting carbon emissions.” Rubio’s campaign conversion to climate denial is not only cynical but also mind-boggling for a senator from Florida, widely considered the U.S. state most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. (By 2060, Miami could see the sea level could rise as much as two feet, according to one recent estimate.) Eight years ago, Rubio outlined his vision for a clean energy future for the United States. Today he seems determined to stick his head in the sand as the world struggles with an existential threat.
The senator is correct that effective international cooperation requires U.S. leadership. The challenge of climate change in particular needs dramatic global action spearheaded by the United States. It does not bode well that a serious presidential candidate is unwilling even to acknowledge the hand of humanity in global warming.