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US Development Policy


What happens in the world is America’s business, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) argued in a major foreign policy speech at Brookings this week in what sounded a lot like a vice-presidential candidate speech (even if we’re not calling it that just yet). Roll over dog-gate! Step aside mommy-gate!  There might finally be some serious comments about the U.S. role in the world in the midst of Washington’s silly season.

The campaigns and pundits will parse words and spar over policy particulars. Vice President Biden has already started. But here’s what I liked about Rubio’s speech:

1.      What happens in the rest of the world matters here. That Americans should care about the rest of the world is a no-brainer for Rubio:

The security of our cities is connected to the security of small hamlets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia. Our cost of living, the safety of our food , the value of the things we invent, make, and sell are just a few examples of everyday aspects of our lives that are directly related to events abroad and make it impossible for us to focus only on our issues here at home.

For Rubio, it’s not whether to engage, but how. And he urged bipartisan—and even multilateral—approaches in his remarks. I suspect most development aficionados would start from this same premise.

2.       Politics may be ugly, but the world is getting better. Rubio pulled from Robert Kagan’s book, The World America Made, to argue a strong and engaged America is a global good. He said American leadership helped usher in the most peaceful and prosperous age in recorded history. CGD Senior Fellow Charles Kenny could add a few talking points from his book, Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More, about global progress in health, education, civil and political rights, access to infrastructure and even access to beer—progress that has been even faster in developing countries. While Kenny gives a little more credit to the rest of the world, Kagan and Kenny take the long view (that is often lost in short-term policy debates) and I think the dose of optimism is a darn good motivator.

3.      Aid can work, but it’s about more than aid. Rubio tackled head-on the efforts to reduce the U.S. foreign aid budget during tough economic times and said Americans should be looking for ways to use U.S. aid and humanitarian assistance to export American values and advance security and economic interests. He also talked about trade in the Americas and Haiti as another tool in the U.S. global engagement arsenal. And he’s getting attention for talking about migration policy, too. CGD’s Commitment to Development Index hits the same message: aid is important, but trade, migration, investment, environment, security and technology policies influence development too.

Rubio’s speech reminded me of the points we heard from the 2008 presidential candidates (including from then-candidate Barack Obama) and in the 2008 Republican and Democratic party platforms. The irony isn’t lost on me that the first 2012 election speech to pique my development interests is still technically a non-election speech. And there is ample room for debate on what the policies might look like in practice. But I hope Rubio’s foreign policy speech is the first of many from both sides of the political aisle.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.