Marco Rubio Talks to the Hudson Institute About China, Ukraine, Iran

This week, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined Hudson Institute scholar Walter Russell Mead to discuss ongoing protests in China and Iran, the future of the war in Ukraine, and other pressing foreign policy issues.

Watch the interview here.

On the ongoing protests in China and Iran:

“[The protests in] Iran and China have different catalysts behind them, but there are two things they have in common. These are people that live in repressive societies where your ability to express yourself and your ability to redress grievances with those in power are very, very limited.

“That’s certainly the case in China, where the Communist Party places itself above all else. Its grip on power is its number one priority before anything else. And in the case of Iran, we have a country where the power resides in the hands of a clerical regime—a facade of a republic of elected officials with a board of supervisors that are a bunch of religious clerics—and a population that, frankly, doesn’t reflect those clerical views.

“The people in Iran are part of an ancient Persian culture that was rich in the arts, rich in tradition. In fact, Iran was a very cosmopolitan place up until 1979. And in many ways, it still retains many of those concepts. I don’t know of any place on Earth where the people who have the power and the people of the country are more different than Iran.

“The catalysts behind the protests are different. In the case of Iran, there are a lot of individual grievances, from economic suffering and the challenges that people are facing on a daily basis to the fact that women there want certain rights that are not being recognized. And there is no way for people who are upset about the economy, or who are upset about how women are treated, to get that to change without protest. It’s the only outlet they have at this point.

“I’m not arguing that we’re there yet, but there are a lot of interesting similarities between the conditions in Iran today under the Ayatollah and some of the basic ingredients that were present in Iran in the late 1970s. The Shah invested very heavily in conventional capabilities to position himself as the regional power militarily, and he did so at the expense of both the ability of his forces to repress [dissent] and [provide for] some of the more basic needs the country had at that time.

“The same is true in Iran now. They’ve spent the bulk of their national treasure on being able to project power in the region, through support of terrorism and proxies, but left unmet some very basic societal needs at home.

“In the case of China, it’s a country that’s going on its third year of COVID-zero policies, where they are literally locking people in homes and barricading streets. All human beings are going to resist that. Everywhere in the world where these policies have been instituted, people have fought back. Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand—you name me a place, and people pushed back.

“The difference, obviously, is that China has the repressive capability to crack down on this. They have a system in place. I think it would be a mistake for us to think that people there are seeking the overthrow of the government. And I think it’s absurd for the Chinese [authorities] to think that…. I think what you have in China is very simple. You have people that don’t want to be locked up in their homes, want to be able to go to school and want to go to work, and a regime that isn’t going to tolerate them speaking out and is going to crack down on it.

“Sometimes discontent has the ability of escalating, and the Chinese worry a lot about it. They’ve long worried about it. It’s a big country with a lot of people, and a lot of different ethnic areas as well that they’re concerned about. And they spent a lot of time, money, thought, and energy on how they could quell discontent in society, forcefully if necessary.”

On the future of the war in Ukraine:

“Neither side in this battle can achieve victory as they have defined it. In the case of Ukraine, at least publicly, their definition of victory is to drive the Russians out past their border back into Russia and recapture everything, including Crimea. They militarily do not have the capability to do that. The Russian definition of victory is to gain control over a substantial part of the eastern part of that country and hold on to Crimea. They don’t have the military capability to do that.

“You’ve seen the Russians already retrench to what they feel are more defensible lines. But even there, they’re going to struggle. The depletion of both fighting forces and materiel that they have experienced is quite substantial. The Russians at this point, at least conventionally, are in no position to invade any country, not to mention expand their hold on Ukraine. I think what Putin’s counting on is for the support of the West to Ukraine to begin to wane.

“The suffering of the people of Ukraine will continue to grow as the Russians inflict damage on their electric grid. And the winter will change the battlefield in favor of the Russians. I think Putin ultimately will be able to defend himself if he can at least hold on, not just to Crimea, but to all of the Donbas region, and basically solidify that as outside the realm of Ukrainian sovereignty. He won’t state that publicly, but I think that’s his long-term goal.

“I think for Ukraine, the real long-term goal is probably to drive the Russians back to the pre-February lines. In some ways, those goals are similar to one another. But what’s happening now is both sides continue to try to make gains necessary to strengthen their hand in an eventual negotiation, so that there comes a question about funding.

“On the one hand, signaling that our support for Ukraine could somehow waver would in many ways strengthen Putin’s approach to this. It’s one of the things he’s counting on, because if we do it, the Europeans most certainly will do it, since they already face critical shortages of some of the materials they need, and their own publics are starting to speak out against it.

“The flip side of it is that we live in a republic, and in Europe, they are all democracies. The people of those countries are saying to themselves: ‘We have a lot of problems here at home that we need to deal with. We can’t continue to write $60 billion checks every six months. We’re on the Ukrainians’ side. We wish them the best. But we can’t continue to do it.’

“I think there’s still strong support for Ukraine. But I think it would be a mistake to conclude that we can continue to get the votes necessary for $30, $40, $50 billion in aid every four or five months or six months. I think every time politicians go to the well on that, it’s going to get harder and harder and harder to get the votes. And we may see the first sort of indication of that in the new Congress. I’m sure [the new members] have heard from their constituents a lot, ‘Why are we spending all this money on someone else’s war?’”

On what’s missing from America’s Iran policy:

“The mistake the administration is making, in my view, is in trying to resurrect a nuclear deal that was a bad idea when it was first constructed and today is obsolete. The world looks very different than it did when the deal was struck, and Iran is behaving very differently.

“Since that time, Iranian officials have been caught actively trying to hire people to assassinate former government leaders in the homeland of the United States. That in and of itself should be the end of the negotiation. Iran has openly violated UN resolutions by sharing missiles and drones, selling UAVs to the Russians, and exporting rocket systems, which they continue to do. The Iranians have also continued to increase their enrichment capability, and they’re doing it because they think it’s ratcheting up pressure on the West to cut a deal with them.

“The timeline they face is that at some point, if they are in violation of these UN mandates, there’s going to be automatic snapback sanctions put in place that the Europeans will have to be a part of as well. They’re on the clock in regards to that. And then they have a domestic group inside the country that basically doesn’t want there to be a deal….

“You have a group in Iran—including the president, who’s elected, and that’s the person people blame when the economy is doing poorly—that desperately wants sanctions relief, because they just want some economic improvement so that they’ll be reelected.

“The flip side of it is you’ve got individuals within the margin of the legislative body that have pushed laws that are binding on what these negotiators can give in on, because they don’t think there should be [a deal]. These are groups that want Iran to retain the right to a nuclear capability.

“The ultimate decision-maker about whether they’re going to develop a weapon is the clerical leader, the Ayatollah, and his successor. My prediction is that Iran will eventually conclude that they want to be a nuclear-capable power. They may never test a weapon, but they’ve already proven they can enrich. They’ve already proven they have the missiles that could potentially deliver a nuclear device in the region. All they’re missing is a design.

“If you have those elements in place, you are, in essence, a nuclear power, whether you have [missiles] in the stockpile or not. Iran is already at that threshold. Our question now needs to be, what can we do to mitigate the risk that it poses? What can we do to deter them from using these systems in a conflict? And what can we do to act to inflict pain and punishment on them for their continued sponsorship of terrorism around the region?

“We make a mistake when we think that when we deal with Iran, we are dealing with some Western power or some traditional country. We’re not. We’re dealing with a clerical regime whose view of government is very different than ours. They view the Ayatollah not just as the supreme leader of the country, but as the supreme leader of all Shia Muslims, and [they see] an obligation to be the world power in that regard.

“Part of that equation, in my view, will be having a nuclear weapon or a nuclear capability that makes them immune to foreign action against them. They say: ‘Gaddafi is dead because he didn’t have a weapon. Saddam Hussein was executed because he didn’t have a weapon. And the best way to make sure no one can come after you is to have what Kim Jong-un has in North Korea, and that’s a weapon. If Kim Jong-un didn’t have a nuclear weapon, they would have taken him out a long time ago. We’re not going to let that ever happen to us.’

“In the short term, [the Iranians have protected themselves] by developing conventional capabilities and [raising] the threat of developing a nuclear capability. But it is my view they’re already at that threshold. And now we need to invest in things like missile defense and inflicting pain on them for the sponsorship of terrorism through proxies in the region and around the world.”

On how the U.S. can compete economically with China:

“It’s a mistake to view trade agreements as the only vehicle by which we can compete. I would start domestically and work outwards. What we’re missing is a strategic view, because we’re still transitioning away from a post-Cold War belief that once a country became rich and prosperous, they would become a democracy, follow the rules, and become like us.

“China has proven that it is possible to become more prosperous economically without adhering to the rules. They will certainly avail themselves of all of the benefits of the rules-based system, but they always want to skirt or ignore the responsibilities of that system. For us [to compete] as a country, it begins by recognizing that simply having more American companies doing business in China is not not only not going to change China, it actually will allow China to eventually own companies just like those—and even more efficient ones—and kick the American companies out….

“When you go to countries anywhere in the world, and you say to them, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this with the Chinese or buying that from the Chinese,’ they’ll say: ‘What’s the alternative? What’s the alternative to Huawei that’s affordable? What’s the alternative to Chinese new energy? What’s the alternative to China on investments like those that the Belt and Road Initiative has provided?’

“The Chinese do have some unfair advantages when they go out and market this stuff. They can bribe officials. They can invest in projects that are not cost-efficient for purposes of geopolitical reach. We, on the other hand, largely rely on the private sector to do it. The private sector, in America, is not going to develop something you can’t make money on, and they’re not going to invest in projects that don’t make a profit.

“I think we have to reorder our thinking in that regard and ask ourselves whether economic presence and economic development assistance is a tool of foreign policy or a tool of economic growth for our benefit. That is the real challenge that we still have to grapple with….

“I also think it’s a mistake to go to countries and say, ‘You’re either with them or you’re with us.’ Many of these countries do not want to be forced to pick a side. The Indians want to work with us on China. But when it comes to Russia, they’re less open to [cooperation with America], because they have historic ties to [the Russians]. The same is true for the South Koreans. They clearly are not fans of the Chinese, but they also want to calibrate what they do, because the Chinese can inflict immediate pain on their economy, and they do need the Chinese at some point as leverage against what Kim Jong-un might be willing to do.

“Australia, Japan—I think they can afford to be a little bit more aggressive, and they are willing to be, within the context of their capabilities…. We have to be strategic about how we construct these bilateral relationships.”

On recent developments in the Western Hemisphere:

“We are heading rapidly to a world that is broken up into three blocks. The first block is the democracies, the traditional allies of America and the free world. Then there is the axis of the sanctioned, countries that look for ways to create alternative mechanisms to [the American-led order], the big player there being China, and then Iran and Russia…. And then there are these developing countries all over the world, who are going to look at this and say, ‘I’m going to leverage these guys against each other to cut the best deal I can.

“‘I’m going to buy weapons from America by threatening to buy them from China, but I’m going to accept Chinese loans to build ports and Chinese economic activity, because America and the West have no alternative.’ That makes sense. And I think that many of the countries that are making those decisions are in the Western Hemisphere.

“These are developing countries that need the kind of money and the commerce that China can offer and provide, despite the long term risks it poses to their own sovereignty. But they also don’t want to break with America because all their weapon systems are American weapon systems. So they need the maintenance of them. And they prefer to have us on their side when it comes to the security guarantees, because they can’t afford to provide them for themselves.

“That’s the balancing act that’s playing out in multiple places. In Colombia, we will remain their primary defense partner. That’s their preference. But I think you’re going to see, in the new administration, much more willingness to work and do things with the Russians, with the Chinese, that they haven’t done [before]. And I think that’s going to replicate.

“You’ve seen the rise of left-wing populist leaders in multiple countries. I think it’s a mistake to conclude it’s because the region has gone left. Their left and right are different from ours. Venezuela is a great example. There really has never been a tradition of conservatism there as we define it in American politics. I think all of the parties and elements involved in Venezuelan politics have been center-left, from Marxist groups to some we would define as more socialist-democratic. That’s been their tradition, so these countries generally tend in that direction to begin with.

“What I think you have seen in election after election is an anti-incumbent rejection of the status quo. They had COVID, too. If we felt the impact economically, they felt that even more. If we think we’re feeling the impact of [the rising cost of] energy, they’re feeling it just as much, if not more so. I think there’s been a rejection of whoever was in power, and in the cases of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, and other places, those were leaders that were more aligned with the U.S….

“Americans—and I think this is true for both parties, but it is especially true of this administration and typically Democratic administrations—have a tendency to accommodate and create better relations with our adversaries or enemies or those who are not doing what we want them to do, and a tendency to be really tough on our allies and our friends, either be tough on them or ignore them.

“You see that playing out in Guatemala, where we have a pro-American president that we’re browbeating because his social agenda is more conservative, because it reflects the country. In Ecuador, we have probably the most pro-American president in Ecuador’s history. We should be bending over backwards to make the guy a success story, so that he can go back and prove that being a friend of America is good for Ecuador. Instead, he is being largely ignored.

“On the flip side of it, I anticipate we’re going to spend a lot of time trying to make nice with Maduro and maybe Brazil now as well. People pick up on these cues, and they argue that the best way to get what you want out of America is to threaten to do something with the Russians, the Chinese, or the Iranians. I think that’s really the challenge in the region.

“If I were to say what we need to do, number one is we need to care. Number two is we have to have a strategy in place in which those leaders who cooperate and partner with America have tangible benefits to that partnership, so that they can turn to their population and say, ‘Look, this is what I was able to deliver.’ And there have to be consequences for those that are not [cooperative]. Right now, we just haven’t had that in any sustained and credible way.

“Obviously, there’s a third bucket of countries in the region, which are just straight-up authoritarian. Venezuela is a complete and utter disaster. Nicaragua is a complete and utter disaster. We just don’t hear a lot about [Nicaragua] because it doesn’t have a lot of natural resources. Cuba is facing the worst economic crisis in its history because of incompetence and because Marxism simply doesn’t work. They can blame sanctions all they want, but that’s not accurate. They can trade with any country in the world. They just can’t not have an economic meltdown there [due to their socialist regime].

“And then, of course, you have Haiti, which is a societal collapse. I go into the new year really concerned about a rapid mass migration crisis out of Haiti or Cuba. We’ve already had more people leave Cuba in the last year than all of Mariel doubled. Over 2% of the population of Cuba has left or tried to leave in the last two-and-a-half years. That’s an extraordinary figure.

“The vast majority of both Haitians and Cubans are coming overland. They’re traveling to some Latin American country…and then join[ing] the trafficking networks that bring you right to the U.S. border. Many Venezuelans have made the same journey. And a lot of the Haitians, too—for example, there was a substantial number of Haitians in Chile when Chile was going through a construction boom and needed labor. They encouraged Haitians to come visa-free. Well, now the boom is over, and Haitians are stuck in Chile and don’t want to go back to Haiti and maybe have family members in America.

“But we are seeing an increased number of people coming overseas. There’s not a day that goes by now that the Coast Guard isn’t intercepting a raft of Cubans or Haitians, and some come to real tragic outcomes as well. We don’t really know how many people have died on the way over, but there’s no doubt it’s in the hundreds just in the last year.”

On the connection between the war in Ukraine and America’s position in the Indo-Pacific:

“I don’t think we should ignore the fact that the Chinese are watching very carefully how Ukraine plays out. They’ve watched it from the beginning, because they see an analogue in Taiwan. They have watched how the world has reacted to Russia and how they sanctioned Russia and have begun to take steps to insulate their own economy from similar sanctions. And…they’re looking for how long can the West sustain its pro-Ukrainian approach…. ‘Yes, the Americans can say whatever they want, but ultimately, is their population really willing to go to war and suffer economically for a small island off the coast of China?’

“Do not underestimate the damage [the war in Ukraine] has done to the Russian military capability. It has depleted their stockpiles of everything. It has exposed weaknesses in their conventional fighting forces. That comes with some level of danger, because this is a country that has tactical nuclear weapons in the stockpile and has threatened to use them to avoid humiliating defeat. But I would say that today, Russia is in no shape to pose any sort of conventional threat to Western Europe, and the notion of them invading anybody in Europe at this point now or for the foreseeable future is far-fetched.

“As we continue to help Ukraine, I think it gives us the opportunity to show we’re going to continue to be supportive of [countries unjustly attacked]. But in terms of personnel and spending, we’re going to focus on building up our Asia-Pacific presence as a deterrent to things happening in that part of the world, where, between North Korea and China threatening Taiwan, you have a much more systemic long-term risk.

“It’s not about abandoning NATO, it’s about reorienting our priorities. But I think it’s important to understand that [Europe and Asia] are interrelated in how China is perceiving [the war in Ukraine], the lessons they’re picking up from it, and also in the impact it’s had on Russia’s conventional capabilities, which will probably take a decade to rebuild.”

On how the U.S. should improve its military:

“It really all begins with strategy. You need the strategic before you can reach the tactical. So what is our military strategy? What is it that the United States defense needs are going to be for the next 50 years? And then we prioritize on the basis of that.

“Counterterrorism is still a threat, but we’re not going to be invading any countries in the Middle East anytime in the foreseeable future. Our commitment to NATO remains very strong, but the conventional threat that Russia poses to Western Europe has been substantially, at least from their capabilities, diminished because of the war in Ukraine. What are the flashpoints that could really test America over the next 50 years? They’re almost all in the Indo-Pacific region. So it’s an understanding of what it would take to prevent that from happening.

“The best way to prevent something like that from happening is to leave no doubt in the minds of the Chinese that the costs of any sort of military adventurism in the region outweigh the benefits. And that’s a tough calculus, because Xi Jinping is so personally invested in what he calls ‘reunification with Taiwan.’ It’s such a key part of his personal legacy that I fear the price they’re willing to pay is substantially high. I also think something that’s very dangerous here is that they view America as a stagnant, rapidly declining power. You sometimes begin to worry that they will underestimate our capabilities and establish a risk calculus that’s not aligned with reality.

“There’s no doubt that [inflation has] an impact [on the military budget]. That just puts even more pressure on ensuring that we’re prioritizing where we put the money. We need to continue to improve our technology and how we integrate that into warfighting. The Chinese are moving very rapidly to being the first fighting force in the history of the world that integrates big data, quantum, artificial intelligence, all of this, into a sustained warfighting effort.

“That threatens to surpass us if all we do is fund legacy programs without funding the sort of research and development necessary to [compete]. In essence, it’s almost like a 21st century version of the Maginot Line. We’re investing a lot in building up defenses towards a war that’s never going to be fought, because we didn’t realize that the opposition has figured out a way to get tanks through a forest. I worry about that.

“And then we have a real recruitment challenge. Just like we’re facing labor pressures in the economy, we’re facing labor pressures [in the military]. It’s harder than ever to recruit people to serve. We’re admitting a larger percentage of those with waivers, meaning with conditions or strikes against them that normally would disqualify them from service. And inflation impacts the ability to retain people in service…. It’s getting harder because…it’s just not as affordable.

“These are all challenges that have to be taken into account. But it begins with a strategic vision of what our defense needs are going to be, and then prioritizing spending. There’s no doubt that we’re going to need to spend more money over a sustained and predictable period of time. That’s why it’s important to have real appropriations bills, because it allows you to programmatically spend.

“But we also have to make sure that we are spending it on the right things, because today, too much of our Pentagon budget is spent on legacy programs. They have constituencies built around them, but they frankly are not part of our long-term strategy, in some cases.”

On a potential invasion of Taiwan:

“I do not believe that this decade will end without something happening to Taiwan. That ranges from a full invasion, beginning with some of these disputed islands and working inwards, all the way to a Taiwanese surrender—Taiwan concluding that they would lose a war, that America, even if they wanted to, would not be able to come to their defense in time, and therefore [saying], ‘We might as well cut a deal [with Beijing].’

“I think that’s the preference of the Chinese. Beijing’s preference is that Taiwan realizes: ‘The American people are not going to send their boys and girls off to die on behalf of Taiwan. They’re not going to lose two aircraft carriers to our new anti-ship missiles for Taiwan. No matter what they tell you, they’re not going to do it. You’re on your own. And on your own means you’re going to lose. So therefore, you might as well cut the best deal you can with us right now.’

“I think that’s the Chinese preference. But I would not underestimate what a big deal this is to them. To them, this is not about land or territory. It is about the broader vision of a unified China emerging as a great power.

“Think about what that would mean if, in fact, Taiwan is forced into the Chinese orbit. It would be the [American] equivalent of the handover of Hong Kong, which signaled the end of British influence in that region in a somewhat humiliating way. [If America lost Taiwan to Beijing], that would mean that we’ve entered a new era in human history where America is no longer the world’s most powerful country. China wanted Taiwan. China got Taiwan. America couldn’t do anything about it and had to accept it….

“That is a tipping point. And I think Xi views that as a key part of his legacy. So we’re going to face something in Taiwan between now and the end of this decade. It could be at any point before the end of this decade. I’m not saying it’s tomorrow or next week, but I do believe that oftentimes on these things, particularly when it comes to dealing with a regime like the one in China, we make a big mistake thinking we would have a lot of advance notice about what would happen. They already have positioned enough forces in the region to move fairly quickly with little notice.

“I think it’s also a mistake to believe that we have the ability to fully understand [the Chinese Communist Party’s] intent and their actions. It’s not like these guys are communicating text messages. They have good operational awareness of how to protect their deliberations. And the decisions are made by a small group of people. It’s not the kind of decision that’s being widely discussed, although you can pick up clues from some of the think tanks.

“The one thing that is kind of uncertain here is China is facing some pretty substantial domestic challenges. Their economic growth is definitely going to continue to slow for the foreseeable future, both because of demographics and global conditions. They have a substantial amount of public debt on their books. We have no full transparency, but it’s pretty clear they’ve been heavily invested in inefficient industries and real estate development. At some point, the bill for that comes due….

“They’re not going to start a war they think they run any risk of losing. If what happened to Russia happens to China and Taiwan, where they get bogged down, that’s something they can’t afford, and they’re not going to let it happen. They’re not going to do anything that undermines their internal, domestic grip on power, which some economic meltdown would. The only war they’re interested in is one that’s quick and decisive and over before there can be any foreign interference in regards to the United States.

“Once they reach that point, they’re going to be tempted to [attempt reunification]. And I think that happens before the end of this decade, one way or another, unless we can do something to extend that timeline. I’m not going to say it’s next week or next month, but I’m not going to say it’s five years from now, either.”

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