Marco Rubio, the fresh-faced junior senator from Florida who has surged over the past month to fourth place in a still-crowded Republican presidential primary field, self-consciously tries to seize the mantle of Ronald Reagan with sunny foreign-policy bluster. But on even cursory examination, the senator’s words contain many confident cliches but far fewer details and believable explanations.
“[The Democrats] say that the United States has had its days in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith,” Ronald Reagan said during his July 1980 address to the Republican National Convention. “My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.” That inspiration is precisely what Senator Rubio is attempting to resurrect 35 years later in his own bid for the White House. In fact, Rubio’s announcement speech in front of Miami’s Freedom Tower was as much Reaganesque as it was Churchillian: “I am more [confident] than ever that despite our troubles we have it within our power to make our time another American Century.” For Marco Rubio, it’s July 1980 all over again. Hammering the weaknesses of the presiding Democratic administration on the world stage, using words and phrases like “withdrawal,” “appeasement,” and “retreat,” campaigning on a message that the United States can get its superpower mojo back under his leadership—Rubio no doubt fancies himself as a younger, 21st-century version of the GOP icon.
The message is simple and powerful, and it resonates with many establishment Republicans: no multi-generational conflict or problem in the world is too difficult for the United States to tackle. And America is indeed an exceptional nation; no other country in the world today boasts a $17 trillion economy, the diplomatic influence to assemble a 60-member anti-ISIL coalition within a couple of weeks, or a military strong enough to overthrow a decades-long dictatorship in the span of less than a month (see Iraq in 2003).
But being exceptional also means knowing when to restrain yourself, and being smart about the use of military and economic power, treating diverse problems like China’s expansion in the South China Sea and Iran’s attempt to acquire a nuclear weapons capability with solutions that are equally diverse. If Rubio’s past statements and policy prescriptions are any indication of his broader thinking, restraint is not something he thinks should be in the U.S. lexicon.
The only way to protect America in a world that is falling apart, according to Rubio, is to demonstrate the strength, determination, and “leadership” that a superpower like the United States is destined to provide. Exhibit leadership, and everything will be alright. Or, as Rubio himself wrote in an essay for Foreign Affairs, “the world is at its safest when America is at its strongest.” Failing to follow through on America’s responsibilities and duties as the gatekeeper of the global commons is simply not an option: “Retrenchment and retreat are not our destiny.”
These are indeed powerful words. But, in the end, they are just words. What is missing from Rubio’s doctrine are the specifics of how he plans to actually put his talking points into action.
The very critical questions that foreign policy and national security experts in Washington ask themselves every day are glossed over in Rubio’s campaign speeches and press statements. How, for instance, would the unilateral nullification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action be a better way of preventing Iran from speeding towards a nuclear weapon than a diplomatic agreement that requires Tehran to admit IAEA inspectors throughout its nuclear facilities for the next 25 years?
Beyond statements that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a bad man who heads a horrible regime and that the next U.S. President should “reimpose the sanctions and back them up with a credible threat of military force,” we don’t get an answer. Nor do Americans (including GOP primary voters) get a reason for why the international community would blindly agree to renew the very economic sanctions that they just relaxed. Instead, all we get is a simple statement: “It will then be left to the next President to return us to a position of American strength and re-impose sanctions on this despicable regime.”
The same generalities plague Rubio’s very reasonable call “to properly fund and modernize our military” and increase investments in the U.S. intelligence community. During a major foreign policy address at the Council on Foreign Relations this past spring, Rubio outlined his approach to defense spending by demanding a repeal of the sequester. “Adequately funding the military will allow us not only to grow our forces, but also to modernize them, which in turn will allow us to remain on the cutting edge in every arena before us.” The rhetoric sounds great, but how he would convince Congress to pass a law that would undo bipartisan, mandatory spending cuts is anyone’s guess. A president can only do so much; bending the entire U.S. Congress to his will on the most critical power that the legislature holds is all but impossible in a system of divided government.
Rubio likes to consider himself something of a foreign policy and national security wonk. He often cites his time as a member of the Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees to showcase the depth and breadth of his grasp on the intricacies of the world—and to support the policies he says are needed to resolve international crises. His speeches thus far have not lived up to those standards.
To be fair, reliance on talking points on the stump is not exclusive to Marco Rubio—a presidential candidate will rarely keep the crowds excited by rehashing the history of automatic budget cuts. The Florida senator, however, is someone who frequently reminds voters that he has all of the classified information available to him as a sitting member of the Intelligence Committee, and uses that implied credibility to make sweeping statements about the world. You would expect Rubio to offer more than your average candidate, and to in turn be held to higher standards.
Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm, and a freelance researcher. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and The Diplomat.