No ignoring geopolitics—why a foreign policy centered on transnational threats isn’t enough

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Delivering the 2017 Green Foundation Lecture last Thursday, senator and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was not the first to invoke the spirit of Winston Churchill. Seven decades prior, the former British prime minister had used the address to warn of an Iron Curtain across Europe, helping prepare the United States for a new global struggle against the Soviet Union.

Sanders, however, outlined a foreign policy lacking any mention of the resurgent geopolitical rivalries set to define the coming decades, raising serious questions as to whether his foreign policy vision can sustain the rules-based international order that the United States has built and defended, and which Sanders himself praises.

Can’t we all get along?

International cooperation around shared global threats, or “transnational threats” as they came to be commonly called in the 1990s, stands at the center of Sanders’ worldview. Stressing issues of climate change, inequality, and terrorism, the speech concentrated on a set of challenges that, theoretically, all countries can come together to address.

Sanders’ focus on these threats is not unique. The early Obama administration sought to frame global challenges around similar themes, as seen in his 2009 United Nations speech. However, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea forced the specter of geopolitical competition back to the fore of U.S. foreign policy.

Fundamentally, this emphasis on shared challenges mistakes the past 25 years of post-Cold War peace for the normal condition in human affairs, rather than the brief, exceptional moment that it was. The significant power gap between the United States and any putative rival led to a geopolitical holiday that enabled states to focus on cooperating around shared threats.

The geopolitical gap

The focus on transnational threats permeated Sanders’ remarks. The senator championed the centrality of “freedom, democracy and justice” in U.S. foreign policy, in contrast to “undemocratic, repressive regimes, which torture, jail and deny basic rights to their citizens.” Absent, however, was recognition of the geopolitical consequences.

While willing to declare—in an aside directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin—that “in the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win,” Sander’s strategy for how to win remained incomplete at best.

The senator seeks to “not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe.” This commitment to reinforcing democracy at home and abroad reflects an admirable—and necessary—component of a strategy to counter authoritarian regimes; there is a reason why the Color Revolutions of the 2000s unnerved the Putin regime and why Russia invaded Ukraine over an association agreement with the EU.

Nevertheless, though Sanders may be correct that “inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable,” his charge that they must be “fought in the same way” reveals a foundational misunderstanding of the authoritarian challenge. Underlying this approach is the same transnational logic that styles authoritarianism as a shared threat around which all peoples will rally, rather than a state-based threat to U.S. security. Putin may be an oligarch and an autocrat, but that does not mean the Russian people do not support him.

One hand tied behind our back

This undercuts Sanders’ critique of the U.S. global security role. Critical of the defense budget, he is quick to conflate the entirety of U.S. military activities with “the use of American military power [that] has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm”—i.e. interventions in the Middle East. However, this framing obscures the crucial deterrent role that American military power has played, in conjunction with that of allies and partners, outside that region—particularly in maintaining stability in Europe and East Asia.

No one will object to Sanders’ declaration that “dialogue and debate are far preferable to bombs, poison gas, and war,” But he ultimately presents the American public with a false choice: a military-centric foreign policy that will inevitably lead to more Iraq Wars or a diplomacy-centric foreign policy that can resolve all problems.

Diplomacy and development are indispensable tools of U.S. power—and in need of bolstering. Nonetheless, in confining the U.S. military record to a series of failed interventions in the Middle East, Sanders crafts a narrative that ignores the essential function of maintaining sufficient force to deter aggression. In endorsing U.S. leadership of “the struggle to defend and expand a rules-based international order where law, not might, makes right,” he appears to fail to consider the historical reality that authoritarian powers, not the United States, most often pursue their aims by force and coercion. The recent cases of Russian intervention in Ukraine and Chinese actions in the South China Sea are glaring examples.

Incomplete history

This aversion to recognizing the role of the military appears to extend beyond criticism of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like President Donald Trump at the United Nations, Sanders extols the lack of a “major European war since World War II” as a genuine achievement of American foreign policy. Yet, when it comes to the source of that sustained peace, the senator praised solely the economic assistance of the Marshall Plan.

Recognizing the central role of the Marshall Plan is uncontroversial; nevertheless, as Bruce Jones and I have argued, the Marshall Plan was a fundamental pillar of postwar transatlantic peace and prosperity because it was paired with the security arrangement of NATO. For U.S. strategists, the core lesson of World War II was the imperative of intertwining economic and security arrangements as the best guard against conflict and poverty, a moral absent from Sanders’ narrative.

The absence of NATO in this history—as well as only a passing mention of the transatlantic alliance in Sanders’ remarks—deserves scrutiny. Not only did the speech come in the wake of Trump’s failure to reassure U.S. allies at the U.N. General Assembly, but in Sanders’ own speech the senator noted: “[M]any Americans are questioning the value of the United Nations, of the transatlantic alliance, and other multilateral organizations.” Sanders heralded the United Nations as “one of the most important organizations for promoting a vision of a different world,” but made no case for the transatlantic alliance.

A future for liberal internationalists?

Though less than a year after Trump’s election, Sanders’ speech reflects a growing debate around the future of foreign policy within the Democratic Party. However, any strategy capable of assuming the legacy Churchill established 71 years ago—of defending against authoritarianism and aggression—must appreciate the geopolitical dimension of the challenge ahead.

A successful strategy sees the preservation of security, economics, and democracy as innately intertwined. To pursue one without the others is futile; and to engage in this newly competitive world without all the tools of statecraft—diplomacy, development, and the select use of force—is a recipe for a foreign policy that is hobbled from the start.