The following is a transcript from Sen. Marco Rubio’s address at the Heritage Foundation on the occasion of the release of a new Heritage report, “Winning the New Cold War with China.”
A lot has changed in the last year, in two ways. I think China has obviously gotten more aggressive, more transparent about what they’re trying to do in the world. And there’s a growing bipartisan consensus that something needs to happen about it. But I still think this needs a lot more framework. And what I mean by that is that it’s really easy to stand in front of cameras and say, “I’m going to be tough on China,” but I think it has to tie in to why. Why does it matter? So that you can do it in a way that’s smart and intelligent and actually serves the national interest.
I think the best way to do that is to start talking about how we got to this point where we are now. I think that requires us to go back not just 20 years, 50 years, but really throughout the course of human history, at least parts of it that have been recorded. If you think about the history of mankind on the earth, with probably the exception of the 100 years or so of [classical] Greece, every society was basically a place that said there’s no such thing as individual rights. It’s a totally foreign concept, the notion of individual rights. Largely, the rights were whatever those who governed you said they were. There was in most civilizations, even the greatest of empires of antiquity, very little reason to be optimistic or to be creative because creativity was not rewarded. What was rewarded was compliance.
That really started changing about 200 years ago in the West, and particularly in America. This country was founded on the belief that every human being had rights, that those rights were not the rights granted to you by the government, but that they were the rights that were provided to you by your creator, and that the job of the government was to protect them. That belief was truly ahistoric. There was no precedent for it. In fact, while it borrowed from the Greeks, it wasn’t entirely identical to [the Greek theory of liberty]. It advanced from that point.
America was a nation born in a world full of empires who had the power to crush this infant republic in the crib. But it survived. And it didn’t just survive, it continued to move forward and develop. In each generation, it got closer to living and fulfilling the ideals of its founding. That’s why slavery and America could not coexist. Slavery has existed for thousands of years. Virtually every society in human history had elements of it. It ended in America not because we were invaded by the French or the British, and they imposed the end of slavery, but because Americans ended it. And they ended it because a country founded on the belief that every human being had God-given rights and slavery could not coexist.
In addition, we continued to progress economically. We industrialized. People from all over the world came here to start a better life because they believed they were created for a better purpose than what they were able to achieve in their native land. We were also blessed with natural resources, and we industrialized to help build our economy. And it led us to two European wars that America was very reluctant to get into. If Japan had not attacked us, and Germany had not declared war, it’s not clear how long it would have taken for America to get involved in [World War Two]. America was reluctant, and there was a pretty substantial segment of our population and prominent leaders who were traveling the country arguing against getting involved. But we did. And we helped save the world from Nazism and Imperial Japan, from a return to those dark ages.
What emerged from that is two things. One, America, the preeminent power, the leading nation in a coalition of nations that believed we never wanted to have a war like that again. We never wanted to be threatened by totalitarianism. And we wanted a world that respected things like individual rights and the dignity of all people. But the other thing that emerged was an adversary in the Soviet Union that wanted to impose communism, which runs counter to everything that we talked about. I was born into that era. I lived and grew up in that era. And I remember my first year of college as the Cold War came to an end.
It was really a stunning moment. All these assumptions, all the pillars upon which geopolitics had been built, all the things that I had known the world to look like and be, just collapsed overnight. It was unprecedented, unpredictable, something no one could have foreseen. And from that people concluded that that was the end of history, that now every country in the world was going to be a liberal free enterprise economy. Everyone was going to look like America. Communism was vanquished. Human nature had permanently been changed, and people would no longer ever again want or try to impose their will on others through tyranny and so forth.
The problem is human nature doesn’t change. We made all kinds of assumptions on that basis. We decided that at this point, the existence of the nation-state was not as big a deal. Our economy was no longer about the well-being of the nation-state. It was about this global market. It sounds stupid today, but I’m telling you, plenty of professors around the world would tell people two countries with McDonald’s have never gone to war. That has obviously now changed. But the point is that those are the kinds of thinking that were out there, that somehow by tying nations together through economics and trade, you could fulfill what the League of Nations could never do, what the United Nations could never do. You could get countries to forget the existence of placehood. You could get people to forget the nation-state, and you could cause them to instead view themselves as citizens of the world and consumers in this global economy, in which everybody was a winner and no one was a loser.
We were an unrivaled power. From the end of the Cold War up until about the early 2010s, this was a unipolar world. America was the only global superpower, the only nation capable of projecting power geopolitically, militarily, and culturally around the world. And what happens to a nation that is a unipolar power? Well, it reminds me a lot of virtually every NBA game. You could be up 30 points in the third quarter. Every NBA game, especially in the playoffs, narrows down to two points at the end of the game, no matter how much somebody is up early on. I don’t know what the psychology is behind it. I’m not a psychologist, although I guess when you serve in the Senate, you’ve got some pretty advanced studies in psychology. But my sense of it is that complacency is a human tendency.
And with it comes decadence. And with it comes the belief that everything’s going to be fine. “We don’t need to do anything. Everything always works out for the best in the end automatically, because it always has, because that’s all we’ve ever known.” That’s basically what we have today. Today we are a country where the majority of people in government, and certainly the majority of prominent people in society, have never lived in a world where America has a near-peer competitor, another country with similar power and with hostile intentions. We’ve never lived in a world like that. And much of our policies and our approach to the world to this day are built on a world that no longer exists.
And part of this decadence is we convince people they’re not citizens. “You’re not workers, you’re not your consumers. Life is about what you can afford to buy. Happiness is built on, ‘Can you buy this?’” Literally, we create holidays just to force people to buy things. We’ve spent all this money on analytics and so forth convincing people, “You really need this. You’ll never be happy, and your wife or your husband will never be happy, and your children will not be happy, and your life will not be fulfilled, if you don’t own this car or you don’t own this Peloton.” I don’t mean to pick on any of these brands. I’m just telling you that that’s what’s happened.
At the same time, we have reached this era of decadence where we’re like, “We’ve gotten so smart. We’re now so advanced as a species that things like family and faith and community and even the notion of country are no longer relevant. We don’t need those things anymore. Family is not really that important. Family is whatever you want it to be.” And we do the same with community. In fact, we live in a society that increasingly forces us into isolation from one another, not to live alongside others. We’ve attacked all of the places where people that are very different come together.
Same with faith. We’ve waged a war on faith. I don’t believe this country should ever have an official religion or be a sectarian nation. But we’ve discouraged teachings that encourage people to do things that are good for people and good for their neighbors, things like caring for the poor and the less fortunate. Things like putting others ahead of yourself, things like forgiveness, things like seeing the best in others. All these things have to come from somewhere. They’re not natural to humanity. Faith created those guardrails and those guideposts. We’ve waged war on them.
Now we wake up, as you have, as I have, as others here have, and we realize that history did not end. History was never going to end, because human nature will never change. One of the reasons why biblical stories are so uncannily applicable, over and over and over again, is because human nature is unchanged. People dress differently. They have different technology. We advance in all kinds of things. But no matter how many satellites we put in space, human nature remains unchanged. And there’s a dark side to human nature. There are failings in us as creatures that we have constructed societies and faith constructs and moral constructs to help limit, particularly when it comes to harming one another. But human nature has not changed.
We may have pretended that history was over and that the nation-state no longer mattered. But China never got that memo. China does care about the development of nation-states. They had fits and starts. They did the Great Leap Forward, which didn’t work, and millions of people died in a famine. Then they decided to wage a Cultural Revolution. But around 2006, 2007, 2008, we had this economic meltdown, and Xi Jinping, who wants to go down as one of the great leaders in China’s ancient history, decided this was the end for the West and for capitalism. “Now’s the time to move forward.” And from that point to the present day, we’ve seen an acceleration in their role.
What we’ve seen from this economic order we created, where economics was basically about what was good for the global commons, what was good for the global economy, and not necessarily what was good for the nation, is two groups really prospered. The first is multinational companies. Obviously, there’s nothing illegal about being a multinational company, but there’s a reason why the CEO of Apple was in Beijing yesterday, hailing how great a country China is and how much progress they’ve made. That is because they build and make a lot of phones there. And it’s worked out. They’ve invested a lot of money in that production capability, and they want to maintain it. They’ve done very well, and so have others. And the other is China.
The fact of the matter is that China is going to be a rich and powerful country. Throughout history, they have always been a rich and powerful country, with the exception of the last 150 years or so. But they have gotten richer and faster at our expense, not because of what they did, but because of what we did, because of what we allowed to happen, because of this viewpoint that we had. We decided, “What does it matter? It’s okay if all these jobs leave America. They’ll be replaced by better jobs. These jobs will pay more.” The infamous “go learn how to write code.” Well, it didn’t work out that way. People didn’t get up in their 40s and go learn how to write code. And if they did, maybe they’re being laid off right now, because all the tech companies are laying people off and collapsing their banks. But the fact of the matter is that people didn’t do it. They didn’t leave.
But what [globalization] did do is collapse their communities. It did wipe out good-paying jobs. It also wiped out all the other anchors that come with it. When a community collapses because jobs disappear, you don’t just leave people behind untethered, because they’re not just consumers. Because there’s dignity attached to work, you also destroy the PTA and the Little League, and you destroy the churches, and you destroy all those things that make community, community. And you leave people behind in despair.
But it’s also left us with a vulnerable economy. If you look at our economy today, it is basically built on two sectors, finance and services. There’s nothing wrong with finance, and there’s nothing wrong with services. The problem is that in a time of conflict, what matters more, the ability to fuel your economy or the ability to find some app that will deliver food to your house? What matters more, the ability to provide high-end services or the ability to grow your own food and produce from an industrial capacity? We also have an economy that’s dangerously consolidated, particularly in things like agriculture, but in other places as well. We have very consolidated industries in which power resides in a handful of a small number of companies. We have an unbalanced economy.
And then one of the things that Covid revealed that already existed is these very vulnerable, long supply chains. I’m not a military tactician, but I do like to read about history. And one of the failings of every campaign, one of the things Russia’s finding now, is the longer your supply chain, the more vulnerable you are. Well, we’ve learned that our supply chains are about as long as they can be, literally from the other side of the world to the other. And they’re not just far away. They happen to disproportionately reside in the hands of our geopolitical adversary, a nation that will have no problem using that as leverage against us.
The result is we confront twin challenges at the same time. The first is we have a near-peer competitor in a nation of leaders who have no memory of what it’s like to have a near-peer competitor or a near-peer adversary. And at the same time, we seek to confront it at a time of societal and cultural rot that’s dividing our nation, that’s weakening the national soul, that questions our identity.
At the end of the day, when you ask people to take on a challenge like this, you have to convince them that what they’re fighting for is worthy and special. We don’t have schools that teach people that our nation is special, that there’s anything unique about it. Quite the contrary. We’re a society that’s waging war on truth, on basic truths. Things like “gender doesn’t exist anymore,” and all of these sorts of things that are that we confront on a daily basis that are nonsensical, create the societal rot and destruction from within that makes it hard for us to unite people, much less rally behind a great cause.
I will confess, I did not read all 100 of the recommendations [in the Heritage Foundation’s “Winning the New Cold War” report]. I read the executive summary. That’s why God made executive summaries. But I do look forward to it. Our challenge is to turn these ideas into something that’s operational. But I think really the way forward begins with this, events like today, organizations like Heritage, which help us to wake up and to realize that we are not just in a competition, we’re in a conflict.
When people think of conflict, they think of war. I don’t want there to be a war. There’s never been a conventional war between two nuclear powers, so no one can tell you where that goes over the long term. Probably, it does not go to a very good place. I don’t want there to be a war. But that doesn’t mean we’re not in a conflict. We are in a conflict, a geopolitical conflict, a diplomatic conflict, a societal conflict, a technological conflict, a commercial conflict, a trade conflict, and certainly a military competition when it comes to capabilities. And we are in a conflict with a nation-state that doesn’t just seek to replace us, that doesn’t just seek to be the most powerful nation in the world, they seek to reorient the world.
For a long time, these Chinese leaders would give speeches or put out these slogans, and then they would say something completely different in English. But now we’ve got enough people translating Mandarin that we can see exactly what they mean. And they talk about, “crushing the heads of the capitalists” and “spilling the blood of those who dare to challenge China.”
Please be under no illusion. China envisions a world in which they are the world’s most powerful country, and they view America in specific and the West writ large as decadent, hollow, and in rapid decline. What they see, in this speech that I give here today, is the temper tantrums, the dying throes, of a once-great power. That’s what they see. They think America is in rapid decline. “They’re just having a temper tantrum. All the great powers have temper tantrums as they go towards their death. And that’s what’s happening now.” They fully envision a world in which China is the most powerful country.
Now if China’s government resembled the government of Belgium or Luxembourg or the Netherlands, maybe we wouldn’t be having this speech today. We probably wouldn’t be proud about it, but we would feel a lot like the Brits did when America supplanted them in the world order. But what we have here is something very different. What we have here is tyranny and a regime that does not believe in individual rights. To them, human rights is the right to do whatever your authorities tell you. Ask Jack Ma what rights billionaires have in China. They have the right to shut up and move to Indonesia for a year if they won’t. If they do that to their richest citizens, what would they do to the everyday people? I can tell you what they do. They put Uyghur Muslims in death camps. They wipe out Tibetan culture, they run over protesters and massacre them in Tiananmen Square. They have no regard for their own people.
And so does it matter that a country like that would become the world’s most powerful country? Absolutely. And this is the argument they’re actually making. As China goes around the world, and you read Xi’s translation, what he’s basically saying is, “This model of the West, of individual freedom, of human rights, of democracy, of all these sorts of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, that model doesn’t work. It’s chaos. Just turn on the news. It’s chaos. Look at Israel. Look at America. Look at France. It’s chaos. Do you see any of that in China? You should follow our model.”
It’s appealing to some because in a world that’s uncertain and unstable, security is attractive. And that’s what authoritarians always promise, security at the expense of your freedom. “Give up your freedom, give up your individual rights. And I will make sure things are secure and things are safe.” Some of them will say, “I’ll make sure things are safe, and once they are, I’ll give you back your freedom.” They never do. But that’s the model they’re sending around the world.
So we’re back to the historic norm of great power competition. And China wants to take us back to where mankind has generally lived for thousands of years, with the exception of the last 200, and that is a world where the notion that individuals have rights no longer exists. I think there are really three things that we have to focus on, and I think probably all 100 of [Heritage’s] ideas fit within one of these three categories.
Rebuilding the Things That Matter
The first, frankly, is ourselves. We have to rebuild our society from the ground up by reminding ourselves of the things that matter. Number one, America is something to be proud of. I won’t go into the long litany of it here today, but this is not just waving the flag, apple pie stuff. I think America has an incredible story to tell. I think it’s an unrivaled story, and it’s one that we should not be shy about telling. Frankly, we should not be funding schools that say the opposite. Do you have a right to criticize an American decision from time to time? Absolutely, because at the end of the day, no one’s claimed that America is perfect. I don’t claim our history is perfect. I claim it’s better than anybody else’s. That’s what I claim. And I think we have history on our side to prove it.
I think we need to reach a society where human life matters, where children are viewed as something that’s not a burden, that a child is not something that could potentially destroy and ruin your life. Why are we shocked when a poll comes out that people no longer value having children? We have a society that basically says, “If you have a child right now, your life will be destroyed. Your life will be ruined forever.” Well, why would you value child rearing if that’s the case?
Community matters. And community is not about a bunch of weirdos on an app halfway around the world. Community is about the people you live next to, about people that you have different opinions with, about people who you don’t share some views with, but you share things that are important. Your kids go to the same school, your kids play on the same team. You attend the same church. You’re part of the same organization.
It’s one of the reasons why I hate the politicization of sports. College sports, in particular, is one of the few places left in America where people that are very different from one another come together. When you inject politics into that, you’re taking away one of the last places where people that are different actually have to interact with one another.
I’m telling you, I live in a study on what happens when you put 100 very different people together. For all the talk and the noise that you hear out there, my colleagues don’t go around spitting on each other in the hallways. You find that one minute Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul are arguing about something, and the next minute they might be voting the same way on something. Because when you force human beings to work together from time to time, they will find common cause. And these are the things that bind together a community, not to mention other things that are important for any society, like these groups that solve problems the government never could.
And then I think faith is something that should be encouraged. Not dictated, not directed, not forced. You can’t. But encouraged. Why would we discourage a moral code? Why would we discourage some basis upon which people can determine not what’s legal or illegal, what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad? It has to come from somewhere. I assure you it does not come from human instinct. Human instinct is about self-preservation. It’s selfish. It’s a desire to get ahead at someone else’s expense. What regulates us is a moral code, and I think religion provides it. Multiple faith traditions provide it.
So that’s the first. The second is we have to reorient our economy. I’m not talking about the government owning factories and directing them. I do think that we should remain a market economy. Absolutely, 100 percent. But I ask you, what do we do in those instances in which the most efficient outcome, the market outcome, happens to be really bad for America? For example, the market says it’s cheaper to make medicine in China. There’s no doubt that from a market perspective, if I was an AI robot, I would say that is what we should do. But I’m not an AI robot. I’m a U.S. senator from Florida in the United States of America. And I think it’s a really bad idea to depend on China for our medicines, even though it’s cheaper to do it there. And so when that happens, we have to decide who serves what. Is the country the handmaid of the market, or is the market there to serve the country?
I think we have to get back to a place in which we view not just the market, but trade in general, as something that we should value to the extent that it furthers the nation. And this is not some anti-Reagan view. On the contrary, people forget Reagan took on the Japanese. We had a trade war with Japan, because they wanted to dominate personal computing and that technology sector. And it’s the reason why multiple countries in Asia today have electronics industries, because Reagan took it on. He understood the difference between fair trade and mercantilism.
Reagan also understood that there were things that are important to America’s future. There are things we have to be able to do. You can’t be a great power if you’re not an industrial power. It’s just that simple. [In World War Two,] both the Japanese and the Germans had superior technology and weaponry than the United States. You know what decided that war? That they had better planes, but we had more of them. Because for every one of our planes that got shot down, there were five more on the line ready to be produced, and they couldn’t match it. That’s what ultimately decided the war. The Second World War was won as much as anything else by industrial power. Industry looks different in the 21st century, but you can’t be a great power without industrial power.
And then I think we have to also wake up to the reality that we are in a geopolitical conflict between two very different models of human relations. One model is the China-Russia model, which offers the world what the world has had to live under for thousands of years. And the other is the values of freedom and liberty and the idea that individuals matter and have rights. And it’s messy. There’s no doubt about it. It’s a huge advantage to the authoritarians to have their societies look more orderly because they will crack heads, and they will jail people right up to the point of revolution. Here, we argue. We argue loudly. People take to the streets. It looks chaotic, but in the end, it’s a better model, to the extent, obviously, that it’s under the rule of law. And that’s one of the arguments we’re really having. It’s a civilizational conflict more than anything else.
All of this matters, because it’s not just about who’s going to be the most powerful country in the world. We are living in a hinge moment in history that will define the 21st century. When they write the book about the 21st century, it’ll be about this. And it’s hard to perceive it when you’re living through it. If you go back to other hinge moments in history, the people living at that moment probably didn’t realize it. Because you’re busy with everyday life. Things are happening, things are going on. You don’t realize, “I’m living right in the middle of history.” But we are. And every day, we make decisions that are going to determine what the future looks like. And I think that’s an important choice that we’re going to make. It’s one that we’ll be judged on for a century or longer. It will determine not just the future course of the country, but I think the state of the world.
And I think that the choice really comes down to do we want to return to the dark ages, with powers that do not believe that individual humans had rights granted to them by their Creator, or do we want to continue to live in a world where at least those nations who seek to live under the sunshine of liberty are able to do so? That is at the core of the economic, of the industrial, of the technological, of the military, of the geopolitical, of this entire conflict that we now face. That’s the conflict we face. Freedom versus totalitarianism. And it will determine what the 21st century looks like, and what life is like for those not yet born.