Home/Daniel Larison/Rubio’s Warped Understanding of International Engagement

Rubio’s Warped Understanding of International Engagement

At one point during his Brookings foreign policy speech, Marco Rubio makes a series of statements that seem to be written to infuriate almost everyone:

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”.

I disagree because all around us we see the human face of America’s influence in the world. It actually begins with not just our government, but our people. Millions of people have been the catalyst of democratic change in their own countries. But they never would have been able to connect with each other if an American had not invented Twitter.

The atrocities of Joseph Kony would still be largely unknown. But in fact, millions now know because an American filmmaker made a short film about it and then distributed it on another American invention YouTube.

This is all rather insulting. The first part is insulting to non-interventionists and many internationalists alike. International engagement cannot be reduced to armed ideological crusading, and refusing to make everyone else’s conflicts our own is not a refusal to engage with the rest of the world. Throughout the speech, however, Rubio uses “engagement” as a euphemism for using force or otherwise interfering in other nations’ affairs. Not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy doesn’t require complete disengagement from the world. On the contrary, the foreign policy tradition with which this view is associated takes for granted that the U.S. can and should maintain good relations and engage in commerce with all nations if possible. Rubio actually says at one point, “I always start by reminding people that what happens all over the world is our business.” No, it isn’t! It is insufferably arrogant and irresponsible to assume that this is true.

Dissidents and protesters have used many other means of communication in the past. The samizdat wasn’t invented by an American. As we have been seeing in the last year, these online tools can be used for organizing protests and publicizing regime crimes, and they can also be and are used to assist regimes in identifying political opponents and smothering dissent. It’s also not true that Kony’s atrocities would still be “largely unknown” without YouTube. They might still be “largely unknown” to millions of Americans who are already generally oblivious about what goes on in the world, but in Uganda, where Kony’s atrocities are obviously quite well-known, the response to Kony2012 has mostly been one of anger and frustration at the video’s errors and oversimplifications. What millions now “know” about the LRA is in many respects inaccurate or flat-out wrong, which is hardly an improvement over continued ignorance. One of Rubio’s basic assumptions, which is that the rest of the world is heavily dependent on the U.S., shines through here in all its obnoxious condescension.

Update: Michael Brendan Dougherty marvels at how recent foreign policy debacles have made no impression on Rubio:

Rubio’s speech is a remarkable political document. It shows that some Senators have learned nothing from the past decade.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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