Bernie Sanders Lays Out His Foreign Policy Vision

Yesterday Bernie Sanders gave a speech on foreign policy at Westminster College in Missouri. Here is what Stephen Miles wrote about it at The Nation:

…today Sanders finally delivered the speech many of us have been hoping to hear, from him or anyone else, for quite some time. In laying out a principled and bold progressive vision for recentering U.S. foreign policy at the core of a progressive platform, Senator Sanders has given voice to those of us who have always believed that our values don’t simply stop at the water’s edge.

I agree with Miles in part. Sanders did lay out a principled progressive vision for U.S. foreign policy—one that attacked our dependence on military solutions and global income inequality, while pointing to the need to address climate change and support democratic values. He also acknowledged that we face different kinds of threats today that require different solutions. He specifically talked about terrorism, Russian interference in democratic processes, and North Korea.

Where I disagreed with Miles’ assessment is in his suggestion that we haven’t heard this kind of progressive foreign policy vision articulated before. For example, regular readers here might react the way I did to hearing Sanders articulate this as a primary principle to guide our foreign policy:

The goal is not for the United States to dominate the world. Nor, on the other hand, is our goal to withdraw from the international community and shirk our responsibilities under the banner of “America First.” Our goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance. This is better for our security, better for global stability, and better for facilitating the international cooperation necessary to meet shared challenges.

That is a theme that infused President Obama’s foreign policy, starting with his speech in Cairo in 2009.

For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

In discussing both the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement, Sanders built on this theme of engagement via partnership as the cornerstone to an effective foreign policy.

This statement from Sanders also sounded pretty familiar:

We must rethink the old Washington mindset that judges “seriousness” according to the willingness to use force. One of the key misapprehensions of this mindset is the idea that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.

Yes, military force is sometimes necessary, but always — always — as the last resort.

Here is how President Obama talked about that during an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:

“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

Where Sanders veered from Obama’s foreign policy principles was that, while the former president preferred the more nuanced approach of rejecting the “global war on terror” in favor of fighting organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda, Sanders was typically somewhat bombastic.

But, I also want to be clear about something else: As an organizing framework, the Global War on Terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership.

Sanders went on to excoriate the tactics used in the “global war on terror” without offering any alternatives.

In the end, much of Sanders foreign policy vision is very similar to what was espoused by Obama. In that sense, it was the opposite of what we are witnessing today from Trump, but very much like what we saw during the previous administration.

The one thing I noticed that was completely missing from Sanders’s speech was any discussion of the one foreign policy issue that drove much of his agenda during the 2016 presidential primary: trade. It was not mentioned at all. Given that trade agreements have been credited with the rather dramatic decrease we’ve seen over the last couple of decades in extreme global poverty, it would have been an important topic to address the questions Sanders outlined at the beginning of his speech.

At a time of exploding technology and wealth, how do we move away from a world of war, terrorism and massive levels of poverty into a world of peace and economic security for all? How do we move toward a global community in which people have the decent jobs, food, clean water, education, health care and housing they need? These are, admittedly, not easy issues to deal with, but they are questions we cannot afford to ignore.

The absence of any discussion of trade raises the question of whether or not Sanders views that as a domestic issue rather than one that impacts foreign policy. But there is no other issue that, as Miles stated, demonstrates more powerfully that our values don’t stop at the water’s edge than trade.

Overall, at a time when the current president is threatening everything progressives hold dear, the vision laid out by Sanders was a good reminder of the alternative. For that, we can be grateful. But in much the same way that the senator tends to approach other issues, this speech was long on vision and short on actual solutions to the challenges we face. Perhaps the time for that is later. But that is the speech I’ll be hoping to hear.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.