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Bernie vs. the Washington Consensus

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders showed his commitment to a sharp break from the foreign policy platforms of both the Democratic and Republican establishments.

Bernie Sanders speaking at an event in Phoenix, Arizona on July 18, 2015. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia

Bernie Sanders inspired millions with his forceful support for redistribution and public goods. But while in his earlier days the senator had a laudable history of opposing significant aspects of Washington foreign policy — from the Cuba blockade to the Vietnam War — during the 2016 primary he largely accepted the bulk of Barack Obama’s hawkish national security strategy.

Which is why his foreign policy speech yesterday at Westminster College was so hotly anticipated. Would Sanders use the opportunity to take an approach more akin to that of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn?

As it happens, Sanders used the opportunity to do just that, sketching out a vision that sharply rejects decades of Washington consensus on foreign policy.

Anyone looking for hard policy specifics in the speech will be disappointed — that’s evidently not what Sanders was going for. Instead of explaining exactly how he would combat terrorism or what number he would like to pare the military budget to, Sanders outlined a broad vision that hinted at possible policy proposals.

The result is that if Sanders does run for president in 2020 — which, let’s be honest, he shows signs of intending to do — he will most likely be running on a foreign policy platform that breaks sharply not just from the Republican and Democratic establishments, but from his own 2016 primary campaign as well.

Breaking from the Consensus

Perhaps most significantly, Sanders used his speech to rebuke not just the neoconservative worldview, but some of the core precepts of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus, like the concept of American exceptionalism and the projection of “toughness” through a willingness to use force.

“Blustery threats of force, while they might make a few columnists happy, can often signal weakness as much as strength, diminishing US deterrence, credibility, and security in the process,” he said in a thinly veiled dig at Trump, currently in the midst of an unnecessary contest of brinkmanship with the North Korean dictator.

Going further, Sanders declare the death of the concept of a US “benevolent global hegemony” — a notion embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike and often used to justify meddling in foreign countries. Events like the Iraq War, he said, “have utterly discredited that vision.”

In a rather remarkable section of his speech, Sanders went further than just about any mainstream US policymaker in rattling off a list of the US government’s past misdeeds — some of which, he noted, the US public would probably be aghast to learn about for the first time. To justify his point that intervention and force are the wrong approach, he cited events like the Iraq and Vietnam wars as well as the 1973 military coup in Chile. He particularly stressed the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government, engineered by both the US and British governments, which, as he noted, ultimately resulted in the country’s 1979 revolution and the anti-American hostility the US contends with today.

“What would Iran look like today if their democratic government had not been overthrown?” he asked the audience. “What consequences are we still living with today?”

That stands in stark contrast to other progressive political leaders’ foreign policy rhetoric. Compare Sanders’s words here to Obama’s 2012-era claim that the US was “the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” the sole nation tasked with the responsibility of “shaping the global institutions of the twentieth century to meet the challenges of the twenty-first.” Or compare it to Clinton’s campaign remarks last year, in which she explained that US exceptionalism was the “one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way” and spoke of “America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress.” Sanders appears to be deliberately avoiding such glib sloganeering in favor of a more complex message.

To that end, Sanders also used the speech to strongly repudiate the “war on terror,” the foundational structure of US foreign policy through the Bush, Obama, and now Trump years. “The global war on terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership,” he said, arguing that it allowed “a few thousand violent extremists to dictate policy” and gave terrorists what they wanted: namely, US depletion of its manpower and resources on pointless conflicts that further fostered resentment among foreign populations.

This, too, represents a significant break from the two-party foreign policy orthodoxy. While Democrats have long criticized the conduct of the war on terror, they’ve largely offered only tweaks rather than a full repudiation of its core assumptions, promising simply to prosecute the war better and smarter than the Republicans.

Clinton’s 2016 platform laid out a thin plan to “defeat ISIS on the battlefield,” while in 2008 Obama insisted that, contrary to the words of Bush and McCain, “the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was,” promising instead that he would be “taking the fight to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” On the campaign trail, Sanders himself supported airstrikes against ISIS, backed Obama’s decision to send special forces to Syria, and insisted he would continue drone warfare — all measures he appeared to obliquely criticize in yesterday’s speech.

Previewing what may become his chief foreign policy rallying cry, Sanders drew a strong connection between military spending and domestic policies. “Foreign policy,” he declared, “is about US government budget priorities,” blasting Republicans who want to increase military spending while cutting core public services.

He quoted liberally from Dwight D. Eisenhower, including these words from the former president’s “Chance for Peace Speech” following Stalin’s death in 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Though he laid out no specifics or details on these points, they do hint at the kind of foreign policy Sanders may pursue in the coming years: namely, a more non-interventionist approach that puts diplomacy above unilateral action and war; a winding back of the tendency, to paraphrase Osama Bin Laden, of sending troops wherever self-proclaimed terrorists raise a piece of cloth; and a scaled-back military budget.

He also offered a hint as to what he may see as a potential solution to terrorism and other security threats. Sanders noted that foreign policy “is directly connected to economics” and charged that global wealth inequality only fuels conflict. He then talked up what he termed the “extremely radical foreign policy initiative” of the Marshall Plan, the $13 billion (or $145 billion in today’s dollars), post-WWII aid package that helped rebuild Western Europe — including the Axis powers — and helped prevent the repetition of the conditions that fostered the eruption of that war. The funding was given largely to head off the possibility of recipient countries drifting toward the Soviet Union.

“Today Germany, the country of the Holocaust, the country of Hitler’s dictatorship, is now a strong democracy and the economic engine of Europe,” Sanders said of the results. “Despite centuries of hostility, there has not been a major European war since World War II.”

Sanders isn’t the first to float the idea of a twenty-first-century Marshall Plan, apparently intended for parts of the Middle East. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, another politician who eschews two-party orthodoxy on foreign policy, endorsed the idea months ago, calling it a “prophylactic against extremism, despotism, and armed conflict.” Even Michael Flynn, Trump’s disgraced former National Security Advisor, suggested it before he fully lost his mind and succumbed to paranoid Islamophobia.

And the idea makes sense. Cold War-era US policymakers recognized the role that Germany’s post-WWI economic breakdown played in Hitler’s rise — and the role the Versailles Treaty had played in fueling that breakdown. Today, poverty, instability, social alienation, and a lack of economic opportunity exacerbate conditions that spawn jihadist movements throughout the Muslim world. So it’s promising that Sanders is proposing aid rather than more bombs.

A Word of Caution

Despite all this, there are still good reasons to keep a close eye on Sanders’s foreign policy. For one, Sanders would hardly be the first progressive politician to say the right things on foreign policy only to turn his back on his own rhetoric once in power. Just look at Obama.

Second, his address may have avoided specifics by design, but it also left a lot of unanswered questions. He mentioned the war in Afghanistan (which itself is a notable improvement given that the war went virtually unmentioned during the primary campaign), but does he plan to advocate withdrawal? He briefly mentioned drone strikes in a negative light, but is he planning to subject their use to some kind of democratic oversight, or even stop using them altogether? (Not so radical an idea: several top military authorities recognize their counterproductive nature). These are important details that will determine the value of Sanders’s words here.

Sanders deserves credit for citing US support for the abominable Saudi war in Yemen as an example of a policy that “will come back to haunt us” (and for later telling the Intercept that the country is not an American ally). But the speech made no mention of Israel or its subjugation of Palestinians, US support for which has been widely and consistently cited as a chief source fueling anti-American rage. Sanders has certainly improved on the question of Israel of late, though his stance still leaves much to be desired. His decision to leave the issue entirely out of his speech suggests he continues to be cautious in that particular area of foreign policy.

Still, Sanders’s address represents a significant repudiation of the last sixteen years of Democrat and Republican foreign policy. If he keeps it up, Sanders may help shift the foreign policy Overton window, much as Corbyn has done in the UK — and as Sanders has done on domestic issues here in the US.