Sanders’ great leap inward: What his rejection of Obama’s worldview means for U.S. foreign policy

bernie sanders

Bernie Sanders may have had no foreign policy advisers until this week, but he can justly claim to have proposed one of the boldest and radical foreign policy ideas of the 2016 presidential campaign. In what he describes as the most important speech of his campaign—on Democratic Socialism at Georgetown University in November 2015—Sanders called on the United States to fight terrorism in the same way it waged the Cold War. He said: “We must create an organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century” and we must “expand our coalition to include Russia and members of the Arab League.”

NATO was created in 1949 to give the United States a way to forward-deploy its forces so they would immediately be entangled in a war if the Soviets attacked Western Europe. The most important feature of NATO was the mutual defense clause, whereby an attack on one would be treated as an attack on all. In a new NATO to fight terrorism, the United States could find itself having to deploy tens of thousands of troops throughout the Middle East to fight ISIS. The United States may even be treaty-bound to use its troops to fight alongside Russia in Chechnya. 

If that sounds very unlike Bernie Sanders, it’s because it is. It is clear from the speech that Sanders had very little idea what NATO actually is or why it was founded. He was looking for a way to pass the burden of fighting terrorism on to other nations, particularly Muslim nations. Lacking any clear idea as to how to do this, a formal treaty must have seemed as good a way as any. Sanders would surely say that he meant an alliance without a mutual defense pact and without the United States taking the lead. But such an organization currently exists—it is called the counter-ISIS coalition. Presidents Bush and Obama also both sought ways to deepen cooperation with Russia and Arab countries on terrorism without a formal NATO-style alliance, which led to the situation Sanders decries. In any event, the new NATO served its purpose. Sanders could later claim to have given a speech on foreign policy. The specifics of the idea went un-scrutinized.

Mind the gap

Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy remains a mystery because he has said so little about it. Unlike Donald Trump, who has been vocal about his foreign policy views for many decades, Sanders has focused his message on inequality and the nefarious influence of big money in politics. Recently though, he has begun to come out of his shell. He regularly invokes his opposition to the Iraq War in an effort to negate Hillary Clinton’s superior experience in foreign policy. Sanders clearly hopes that this vote will enable him to win over many Barack Obama supporters who remain suspicious of Clinton. In recent weeks, some foreign policy experts have sketched out how Sanders could build on Obama’s foreign policy legacy and distinguish himself from Clinton.

Sanders-Obama is the real foreign policy fault-line in the Democratic Party.

The conventional wisdom of the foreign policy debate in the Democratic Party sees an Obama wing that is skeptical of military intervention and a Clinton wing that is more willing to use American power overseas. This is a paradigm that Sanders would certainly endorse and hope to capitalize on but it is not an apt description of the 2016 divide. There is a reason why Obama has come close to endorsing Clinton and has left no doubt that he sees her as his true heir. The gap between Sanders and Obama is much greater than between Clinton and Obama. Obama is an avowed globalist who looked outward, even as he was campaigning in Iowa in 2007. Sanders is a liberal nationalist who looks inward, not just in his rhetoric but in his policy.

A Sanders nomination would be a striking repudiation not just of Clinton but of Obama’s worldview and message. Sanders-Obama is the real foreign policy fault-line in the Democratic Party.

Obama 2008: Looking outward

Obama’s 2008 campaign is now shrouded in mythology. He is often described as unlikely a candidate as Sanders. Forgotten is the fact that weeks after he started, he secured the support of major donors and dozens of foreign policy experts. He was always the favorite of a particular part of the establishment. He was young but he had thought about the world and America’s role in it. In 2005, he hired Samantha Power to be his foreign policy adviser in the Senate. His 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope” had a chapter on foreign policy that culled ideas from think tank row.

In April 2007, a full 18 months before the election, Obama gave a revealing interview to The New York Times‘ David Brooks in which he spoke about the influence that American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had on his foreign policy. Niebuhr was a seminal figure in U.S. diplomatic thinking during the Cold War and is credited with developing the most sophisticated critique of American idealism. Obama said that Niebuhr provided:

“the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away…the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Some of these themes would reappear in his extraordinary speech in Oslo in 2010 on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama spoke about reviving American leadership and presenting a new face to the world. In his announcement speech in Springfield in 2007, Obama said “ultimate victory against our enemies will come only by rebuilding our alliances and exporting those ideals that bring hope and opportunity to millions around the globe.” In his acceptance speech in Chicago, he spoke to “those watching tonight from beyond our shores”. “Our stories are singular,” he said, “but our destiny is shared and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”

Obama’s challenge in office, and the challenge of progressives after the Iraq War, was to develop a foreign policy that remained faithful to his internationalist ideals while resisting calls for large-scale military interventions. In this, his record was mixed. The Middle East stands out as a major failure but he had successes elsewhere. He helped rescue the international financial system, he deepened U.S. engagement in Asia, he negotiated several trade deals, and he secured a controversial nuclear deal with Iran. Throughout, he articulated a case for a liberal brand of American exceptionalism and for continued U.S. global leadership. 

Sanders 2016: Drawing inward

That is now at risk, not just by the prospect of a Trump presidency but also from within the Democratic primary. Sanders has had remarkable success with a campaign message that is entirely inwardly focused. Read his speeches, whether at Georgetown or on the stump, and you will see a sharp change of tone from Obama of 2008. Gone are the passages on a new era of American global leadership. Gone are the messages for people beyond these shores. Gone is the optimism about America’s global role. Gone too is the sense that the United States, flawed as it is, has a positive and indispensable role to play in upholding the international order.

Rhetorically, Sanders is deeply pessimistic about the United States and its role in the world. For Sanders, America is not getting better—it’s getting worse, including on Obama’s watch. And, woe betide those who think that America can be any more successful abroad. In his Georgetown speech, he said that the first element of his foreign policy would be an acknowledgement of how America gets it wrong so frequently. In addition to the Iraq War, he mentioned the toppling of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, of Goulart in Brazil in 1964, and of Allende in Chile in 1973.

[Sanders] offered no examples of how the United States has made the world a better place.

Apart from the ham-fisted description of NATO, he offered no examples of how the United States has made the world a better place. The toppling of foreign leaders is not, for him, even partially balanced out by successes in promoting democracy in Chile in 1987 or in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, or in Indonesia in 1998. He did not mention the Kosovo intervention in 1999, which he actually supported at the time. The speech was not without irony however. Sanders organized the domestic section, on democratic socialism, around Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union speech but made no mention of FDR’s heroic—and frequently risky—efforts to win the war and the post-war world.

As the campaign has progressed, Sanders has been pressed on what he would do if he were to be elected president. He said in a February Democratic debate that the “key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be no, we cannot continue to do it alone, we need to work in coalition.” The very idea that a Democratic candidate could make the unilateralist charge against Obama, one of the most multilateral presidents in modern American history, is itself remarkable and rather implausible.

The very idea that a Democratic candidate could make the unilateralist charge against Obama, one of the most multilateral presidents in modern American history, is itself remarkable and rather implausible.

But this has not deterred Sanders. He has repeatedly argued that the Obama administration has not done enough to get Muslim nations to fight ISIS. At Georgetown he declared, “We need a commitment from these [Muslim] countries that the fight against ISIS takes precedence over the religious and ideological differences that hamper the kind of cooperation we desperately need.” Quite how Sanders would accomplish this was left unsaid. The reason ISIS is difficult to defeat is because Muslim nations see other challenges, particularly the sectarian struggle with Iran, as a much greater threat to their vital interests.

Simply saying that the president can will other countries to act contrary to what they see as their vital interests is about as plausible as Trump persuading Mexico to pay for his wall. Clinton has repeatedly recognized the challenges associated with persuading Muslim countries to take on more of the anti-ISIS fight, but Sanders has just doubled down on his charge against Obama. “I’ll be dammed,” he told CNN, “if the kids of Vermont have to defend the Royal Saudi family” and take the lead in the fight against ISIS, even if is just with air power.

On economic policy, Sanders offers an even more radical departure from Obama’s legacy. Sanders has opposed all U.S. trade agreements throughout his political career, including General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In 2005, he sponsored a bill calling on the United States to withdraw from the World Trade Organization. He has called for tariffs to prevent American industry from investing in China, Vietnam, and Mexico. He was the only Democrat to vote against the Import-Export Bank and he opposed the expansion of the H1-B visa program for high-skilled workers.

He has offered no positive vision for the world economy and sees it as a zero sum game—either American workers’ win or other nations do. Obama indulged in anti-trade rhetoric, as has Clinton, in the heat of a primary campaign, but Sanders is different. He has consistently sought to disengage from the global economy—the same one that Obama did so much to save in 2009. This is no small matter. As the global economy flirts with recession and a new crisis, this time originating in China, the rest of the world is asking if America can continue to lead or if it is all tapped out.

He has consistently sought to disengage from the global economy.

A President Sanders would not try to destroy America’s alliances like Donald Trump or leave the Middle East entirely like Rand Paul. But, he would surely try to hide from the world and tend to matters at home. He will be immediately tested by allies and adversaries alike as they try to find the limits of his commitments. All presidents are tested of course—especially those, including Obama and Clinton, who promise to focus on the home front— but they usually try to respond in a resolute way to dispel the concerns. Obama sent additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009, for example. Sanders will probably resist the pressure and focus on his domestic agenda, thus exacerbating foreign crises. He would surely feel a sense of betrayal as America’s allies failed to take up what he considered to be a fair share of the burden.

America in the world?

2016 is a very different world than 2008. Then, Obama and Democrats saw a world that was full of opportunity, despite the financial crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They believed the United States could offer a new face, and a new form of leadership, to the world. When we look back on 2016, it will surely be the year when the United States and much of the rest of the world faced a choice about whether to look outward or turn inward. It is not just the Republican and Democratic primary. Britain will vote on June 23 whether to leave the European Union. Germany and much of the rest of Europe will decide whether to close its borders to refugees.

When we look back on 2016, it will surely be the year when the United States and much of the rest of the world faced a choice about whether to look outward or turn inward.

Of all these tests, the biggest by far is in the United States. Republican and Democratic foreign policy populism is different, of course. Trump and his supporters are both terrified by threats from overseas and determined to lash out as viciously as possible against anything and everything associated with them. To his great credit, Sanders has not peddled fear of the other. His supporters are not frightened by the world. But they are disappointed in it and largely agnostic about what happens outside the United States. The left used to be inherently internationalist, but today Sanders sees no opportunity to lead, only risks of becoming embroiled in someone else’s problems. Sanders will not tear down the liberal international order but he does want to avoid doing much to uphold it.

Sanders, his aspiring advisers, and much of the media have an interest in situating his foreign policy worldview within the Obama-Clinton paradigm but it is simply not consistent with what he is saying or with what he has done in the very recent past (never mind decades ago). Obama and Clinton obviously differ on some elements on U.S. foreign policy. It is not about large-scale invasions, as is commonly thought. Clinton is not about to send tens of thousands of ground troops to Syria. Rather, she tends to favor small-scale action early on in a conflict to tip the balance while Obama is extremely cautious about a slippery slope. Clinton also tends to see world politics more in terms of power politics while Obama often speaks as if we are headed toward a post-national, more global system. But this all pales in comparison to fundamental questions about whether the United States ought to be engaged in the world, not just militarily but also economically. Obama was elected on a platform of renewing American leadership in the world. He will soon find out if Democrats want to stay on the broad path he set.