When Marco Rubio arrived at the Brookings Institution yesterday to give a speech on foreign policy, the room was packed, with more than a dozen cameras pointed at the podium. Rubio, of course, is often mentioned in speculation over who Mitt Romney will choose as his running mate; some, like BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller, saw the speech as little more than an audition for the vice presidential nomination. But Rubio might just as easily have been taking the opportunity, while he has the attention of the media, to lay out ideas that are important to him, and that he’s been talking about for a long time — as Jim Antle has noted, Rubio’s position in the intra-Republican debate over foreign policy isn’t a new development.
Rubio spent a good portion of his speech praising The World America Made, a recent book by Brookings scholar Bob Kagan. One of the few Republicans at a mostly left-of-center think tank, Kagan is an adviser to Mitt Romney who, as Marvin Kalb brought up the Q&A following Rubio’s speech, has also caught the attention of Barack Obama: The president reportedly cited Kagan’s New Republic article, “The Myth of American Decline” — taken from The World America Made — as an influence on his State of the Union declaration that “anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
But while Obama accepts Kagan’s descriptive argument that American hegemony is more robust than many observers think, he clearly doesn’t accept Kagan’s prescriptive arguments about how to keep it that way. Hence Rubio’s critique of the president’s foreign policy:
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. Yes, there are more countries able and willing to join efforts to meet the global challenges of our time. But experience has proven that American leadership is almost always indispensible to their success….
For example, we can’t always rely on the UN Security Council to achieve consensus on major threats to international peace and security…. The Security Council remains a valuable forum, but not an indispensable one. We can’t walk away from a problem because some members of the Security Council refuse to act.
Later in the speech, Rubio paired his critique of the leading-from-behind ethos that follows from the White House’s emphasis on transnational institutions with his critique of Ron Paul-style anti-interventionism:
I disagree with the way in which the current administration has chosen to engage. For while there are few global problems we can solve by ourselves, there are virtually no global problems that can be solved without us. In confronting the challenges of our time, there are more nations than ever capable of contributing, but there is still only one that is capable of leading.
And I disagree with voices in my own party who argue we should not engage at all. Who warn we should heed the words of John Quincy Adams not to go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”.
Paleoconservative journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty comments, “I have never heard a prominent American pol cite John Quincy Adams’ ‘she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy’ to contradict it.” I don’t know about a politician, but I have heard that line contradicted — by Bob Kagan, writing with Bill Kristol (whom I spotted at Brookings yesterday) in their classic 1996 Foreign Affairs essay, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy”:
Conservatives these days succumb easily to the charming old metaphor of the United States as a “city on a hill.” They hark back, as George Kennan did in these pages not long ago, to the admonition of John Quincy Adams that America ought not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But why not? The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts’ content, as Americans stand by and watch. What may have been wise counsel in 1823, when America was a small, isolated power in a world of European giants, is no longer so, when America is the giant.
“Neo-Reaganite” never really caught on (perhaps unsurprisingly — it remains contested what Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy record should mean for a post-Cold War world). Kristol and Kagan’s foreign policy prescriptions — especially the endorsement of “actively promoting American principles of governance abroad” that later developed into what George W. Bush would call a forward strategy of freedom — came instead to be dubbed neoconservative (which meant something a bit different back when it was first applied to people like Kristol’s father Irving, but I digress).
The neocons are often cast as the villains of the Bush years, blamed for leading the country into a calamitous Mesopotamian misadventure. The historical record doesn’t really support this narrative. The invasion of Iraq was supported by a broad swath of the right, left, and center. The instance where president Bush followed the neocons out onto a limb against skeptical majority opinion was the troop surge, designed in part by Bob Kagan’s brother Fred. That policy rescued the war from totally unmitigated disaster; one would think that would leave its architects at least somewhat vindicated. And while the spread of American-style governance hasn’t exactly gone smoothly in recent years, the drawbacks to supporting ultimately unstable authoritarian regimes have, as Elliott Abrams argues, also been thrown into relief.
An idea isn’t necessarily bad because George W. Bush was attracted to it. The vision of American hegemony as an engine of freedom is one artifact of the Bush years that is worth defending, and good for Marco Rubio for defending it.