Home/Daniel Larison/Rubio’s Warped Understandings of International Engagement and “Retreat”

Rubio’s Warped Understandings of International Engagement and “Retreat”

Marco Rubio is very worried about U.S. “retreat”:

“Every single time that nations have retreated from the world, every single time this nation has retreated from the world, we have paid for it in the long run,” Rubio said. “We have paid for it dearly.”

The article doesn’t say if Rubio gave any examples of what these “retreats” were, or how it ended up costing the U.S. in the long run. As a general statement about the history of U.S. foreign policy, it’s false, but of course it’s intended to mislead. What Rubio thinks of as “retreat” usually isn’t retreat at all, but rather a refusal to become even more deeply entangled in foreign conflicts and the internal affairs of other states. If the U.S. chooses not to become involved in another country’s civil war, chooses not to interfere in others’ internal affairs, chooses to stop sending aid money to particular countries, or chooses not to bomb another country, that doesn’t signal “retreat” from the world or represent a lack of “engagement.” It can mean that the U.S. is engaging with the rest of the world in another way, or it can simply mean that the U.S. isn’t willing to assume the costs and obligations of the policy that the person complaining about “retreat” prefers. Rubio keeps trying to narrow the definitionof what international engagement means so that only he and like-minded hawks qualify as supporters of “engagement.” Most other Americans end up being labeled as supporters of varying degrees of “retreat.”

What does Rubio’s opposition to “retreat” mean in practice? While he insists in the speech that “we can’t solve every humanitarian crisis on the planet, we can’t be involved in every dispute, every civil war and every conflict,” that still leaves room for intervening in a very large number of crises and conflicts. Since he has been in the Senate, Rubio has made a point of getting on the more hawkish or assertive side of every foreign policy debate. Thus far, there is no high-profile conflict in the last three years that he hasn’t wanted the U.S. to enter in some fashion, whether it is through direct military action in Libya or providing arms in Syria. Rubio may say that he doesn’t want the U.S. to be involved in “every civil war and every conflict,” but he still wants the U.S. involved in quite a few, so I’m not sure how it’s any consolation that he isn’t demanding U.S. involvement in every single one.

Rubio’s Brookings speech suggests that he has great difficulty imagining the U.S. taking a backseat role to other states under any circumstances. On Syria, he said:

The most powerful and influential nation in the world cannot ask smaller, more vulnerable nations to take risks while we stand on the sidelines. We have to lead because the rewards for effective leadership are so great.

Rubio takes for granted that exercising “leadership” is always good for the U.S., and this sort of “leadership” doesn’t allow regional states to assume most of the responsibilities for regional problems, so it is hard to imagine a conflict or crisis in which Rubio thinks it would be appropriate for the U.S. to be on the “sidelines.”

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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