Bernie Sanders Still Doesn’t Pass the Commander-in-Chief Test

It’s time to stop grading the Democratic front-runner’s foreign policy on a curve.

Bernie Sanders speaks at the People's Summit in Chicago on June 10, 2017. (Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders speaks at the People's Summit in Chicago on June 10, 2017. (Jim Young/AFP/Getty Images)

Pundits sizing up the emerging Democratic field are warming to the notion that Bernie Sanders has an edge when it comes to foreign policy. And it’s true that he has laid out a far more cogent vision in recent months than he did during the 2016 presidential campaign. But to say that Sanders has made personal progress in articulating his ideas does not mean he has put forward clear or comprehensive solutions for the United States.

Sanders has reprised major planks of Barack Obama-era foreign policy, overlaid with value statements on issues such as income inequality that mirror his domestic agenda. But he has failed to grapple with the most serious limitations that were laid bare during Obama’s second term. Nor does he spell out how he would respond to the dramatic shifts in the global balance of power that have manifested since Obama left office. To win the 2020 election—and, more important, to stabilize and strengthen the U.S. position in the world thereafter—Democrats will need a far more rigorous foreign-policy program than what Sanders has offered to date.

Commentators such as Peter Beinart and Jamelle Bouie have both touted Sanders as a foreign-policy force. Beinart gives Sanders credit for bucking the Democratic Party line on support for Israel and even going so far as to decry Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as authoritarian and propose cuts to U.S. military aid. He heralds Sanders’s recitation of U.S. foreign-policy stumbles in Latin America and the Middle East to argue that the Vermont senator has courageously refused to pay lip service to concepts of American exceptionalism. Beinart notes Sanders’s emphasis on “partnership, rather than dominance” and his avowed faith in the United Nations. Sanders is poised to challenge “the belief that America, as a uniquely virtuous nation, can substitute its own self-interest and moral intuition for international institutions and international law,” Beinart writes, by boldly mouthing “heresies” that “mirror the anti-exceptionalist turn among America’s young.”

But while some of Sanders’s phrasing may be new, his overall approach isn’t. Obama had a notoriously fractious relationship with Netanyahu; among his final acts in office was a precedent-defying abstention on a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements, a gesture that provoked unbridled Israeli outrage. There were also suspicions that Netanyahu’s aggressive opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement played a role in the Obama administration’s refusal to fund the full amount Israel had requested in a September 2016 military aid package. By training the focus of his ire on Netanyahu personally, Sanders continues to walk a careful line to avoid alienating mainstream Jewish voters who strongly support Israel despite misgivings about the current leadership.

Nor is Sanders’s repudiation of exceptionalism a true break from the past. While Obama claimed in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” his having to say so reflected criticisms that dogged him his entire time in office. An earlier comment that he believed in American exceptionalism just as he suspected that “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” was later compounded when an aide described his foreign-policy strategy as “leading from behind.”

The New York Times’s Bouie extols Sanders for offering “a fully formed vision for American foreign policy … that rests on the conviction that progressive politics must continue past the water’s edge.” Bouie cites a 2017 speech by Sanders at Westminster College in Missouri, the site of Winston Churchill’s historic “Iron Curtain” address, noting the links Sanders made between his socialist domestic agenda and the need for peoples around the world to rise up against authoritarianism and oligarchy. In an October 2018 lecture hosted by Johns Hopkins University, Sanders called out not just Netanyahu but also Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman as part of a rising trend of autocrats. Bouie trumpets Sanders’s aim to establish “a global order that can constrain authoritarian states and bring democratic accountability to global capitalism. It must also embrace the cooperation necessary for tackling climate change and other transnational challenges” by building, in Sanders’s words, “partnerships not just between governments, but between peoples.” Bouie heralds these as a “new set of progressive ideas” that can reinvigorate America’s reputation and influence.

Sanders’s ideas are not wrong. But nor are they new, and they fall far short of “forceful and well-defined foreign policy views” that Bouie hopes can animate a new administration. Most of the ideas that Sanders is being credited with come straight from the Obama foreign-policy playbook. Obama’s support for Arab Spring uprisings against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi were bold and controversial moves aimed at empowering people to topple authoritarian oligarchy.

As for creating a global order to cabin autocracy and press for democratic accountability and global income equality, the Obama administration invested forcefully in the United Nations and regional organizations with assertive diplomacy, an ambitious agenda of U.S.-led initiatives and enhanced financial investment. The Obama administration was the first in history to elevate international development to sit alongside defense and diplomacy as a fundamental pillar of U.S. foreign policy, advancing food security, anti-corruption, and moves to catalyze economic growth across Africa. Obama took advantage of America’s broad and deep diplomatic network to position itself as a lead convener in developing collaborative global approaches toward a raft of policy issues including international peacekeeping, nuclear disarmament, government transparency, and fighting terrorism. On climate change, while Obama missed the moment to take bold action when he enjoyed legislative majorities early in his term, he otherwise earned high marks by climate activists for helping to catalyze global consensus for action. Sanders’s emphasis on people-to-people partnerships that transcend governmental ties was also an Obama administration mainstay through leadership development programs, exchanges, and intensive engagement with civil society groups all over the world.

In the world of policy, truly novel ideas are relatively rare; sound policies very often build on past lessons and successes, ideally with more refined methods, loftier ambitions, or corrections for past shortcomings. And, as Beinart and Bouie both point out, Sanders does deserve credit simply for talking more about foreign policy than most of his counterparts on the trail, recognizing that undoing the disastrous legacy of Donald Trump is a task that must reach far beyond U.S. borders.

But where Sanders falls short, and where Democrats must step up if they are to mount a convincing foreign-policy vision, is in addressing the ways in which the Obama administration’s progressivism foundered amid internal contradictions, shifting global economic fortunes, and the harsh reality of ascendant global authoritarianism. While Sanders’s message may sound revolutionary and inspiring in contrast to the misadventures of the Trump administration, a Democratic foreign policy needs to do more than turn back the clock or dress up existing policy formulations with more radical rhetoric. To succeed, a new Democratic foreign policy must correct not just for the willful incoherence and malfeasance of Trump but also for the thoughtful, well-intended yet ultimately only partial success of the Obama administration.

In his Johns Hopkins speech, Sanders starkly described two countervailing trends: “On one hand, we see a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy. On the other side, we see a movement toward strengthening democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.” But on the fundamental question of how to ensure the triumph of the latter over the former, Sanders has no specifics. He rails against corrupt oligarchies in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Hungary but outlines no steps to undermine the stranglehold that self-dealing monarchs and moguls hold over those societies other than to say the United States must stop “defending the failed status quo of the last several decades.” His remarks evoked his onetime nemesis Hillary Clinton’s admonition to Arab monarchs in early 2011 that the region’s foundations were “sinking into the sand” and that if they failed to address the aspirations of young people their days would be numbered. Tunisia’s dictator was forced from office the following day. But the ensuing years demonstrated with devastating clarity that a repudiation of the status quo in Middle Eastern autocracies was but one starter ingredient in the recipe for reform and progress in the region. The rest of the formula remains a stubborn mystery.

The arena where Sanders has staked out clearest leadership is in his opposition to U.S. military support for the Saudi war in Yemen. While it’s easy to see that U.S. backing has fueled grinding conflict and humanitarian disaster, Sanders has not gone on to explain what would come in the wake of such a pullback or what alternative policies would best secure U.S. interests in the region. Nor does he outline a plan to contain Russian or Iranian influence from growing in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Sanders’s Johns Hopkins and Westminster speeches scarcely reference the authoritarian threats that are most proximate to the United States. These include the mushrooming influence of China both in Asia and around the world and its efforts to export an autocratic and self-serving approach to internet governance, international trade, finance, surveillance, and technological controls. While Sanders has decried Trump’s acquiescence to Russian meddling in the U.S. election, he has said nothing about how he would harden U.S. democracy against such predations. Obama, likewise, struggled with how to confront this unprecedented menace during the waning days of his administration. The challenges in terms of safeguarding U.S. elections against outside interference and domestic manipulation without impairing freedom of expression and unfettered political discourse are profound.

Sanders recitation of failed U.S. engagements in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam, and Iraq during his Westminster speech left out successful examples of U.S. intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the first Gulf War. Sanders declined to discuss what he would have done differently in Syria, where the Obama administration declined to intervene out of precisely the sort of concerns for unintended consequences that Sanders highlights. While the United States mostly sat it out, a bloody civil war raged on for years, emboldening authoritarian forces in the region and prompting a globally destabilizing refugee crisis. While rightly decrying the folly of the Iraq War, Sanders leaves out the part where, in 2011, the Obama administration finally seemed to extricate itself from the conflict only to leave a vacuum that rallied the Islamic State and forced the United States back in just a few years later. Sanders rails against authoritarianism but is silent about what he’d do to hold it in check. Without at least acknowledging the difficult questions that recent policy dilemmas raise, Sanders’s foreign-policy vision is a rosy abstraction.

Sanders’s chief foreign-policy advisor, former blogger and Senate staffer Matt Duss, tacitly acknowledges that when the bromides of academic speeches and the campaign trail meet the hard realities of the White House, even the most firmly held beliefs can be tested. Duss counts among his own chief foreign-policy mantras Obama’s 2008 campaign vow to not just end wars but to end the “mindset that got us into war in the first place.” Yet Duss concedes (borrowing the title of a memoir by Obama’s world-weary foreign-policy advisor, Ben Rhodes) that a president must “deal with the world as it is when they take office.” As for Obama’s time in the Oval Office, Duss doesn’t “ding him too hard” for his choices, which “made a great deal of sense at the time” yet led “to really problematic outcomes now, such as the decision not to investigate fully the use of torture.” Duss’s concession that the hard realities of office unavoidably temper a president’s ideals underscores the sense that Sanders’s impassioned value statements on foreign policy are just that.

Sanders’s foreign-policy pronouncements are at their most rousing when it comes to the need for mass mobilization—a movement to rise up against climate change, income equality, tax evasion, voter suppression, predatory immigration policies, and needless military spending. Public ire and activism are essential forces in terms of bringing about a world where values of inclusion, equality, respect for the environment, and human rights reign. It is in this sense that the early promise of Sanders’s message is perhaps most like that of Obama—centered on inspirational rhetoric and calculated to galvanize passions through appeals to lofty ideals. But Obama’s eight years in office were a trying testament to the limited power of words to overcome entrenched interests, fend off determined adversaries, and solve intractable conflicts. Before proclaiming Sanders the next foreign-policy oracle, analysts and voters need to pay attention not just to what he is saying but to the many essential subjects he has yet to address at all.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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