Election 2020

Berned Beyond Recognition: How Sanders’s Rise Changes U.S. Foreign Policy

After Iowa, Bernie Sanders’s progressive views will shape America’s approach to the world for a long time, especially on trade.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to the media after boarding a plane at the Des Moines International Airport on Feb. 4.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to the media after boarding a plane at the Des Moines International Airport on Feb. 4. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s long past time for Democrats to stop pretending that Bernie Sanders is an aberration and his ultra-progressive brand of politics is going to go away. That’s one lesson to take from the Vermont senator’s decisive conquest—messy though it was—of the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the chaos of the Iowa caucuses this week as the 2020 campaign formally got underway.

We’ll talk in a moment about the insurgent Pete Buttigieg, the come-from-nowhere wunderkind who was vying with Sanders for victory in Iowa with only partial results announced Tuesday night, following a major failure in the tallying of votes on Monday. But the powerful performance of Sanders and his fellow progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in Iowa—while Biden trailed well behind—was evidence that some things probably won’t be the same come November, no matter who wins the Oval Office. One of those things is U.S. foreign policy. We are in a new era for both parties: the post-post-Cold War era.

What has changed? First, the Washington Consensus is mostly dead. This is the Reaganomics-lite that a generation of Democratic centrists, beginning with Bill Clinton in 1992, embraced and practiced after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the debunking of command economics. The Washington Consensus prescribed free trade, budget discipline, privatization, and deregulation. But over the years economists who have endorsed this approach have come to admit that they badly underestimated the effects that “hyperglobalization” would have in devastating America’s industrial middle class

The result was that many Democrats, or independent voters who tend Democratic, felt ignored by their party as it facilely endorsed globalization and Wall Street deregulation with scant attention paid to middle-class support, education and job retraining, and other policies designed to ameliorate the loss of industry to overseas competition. Many of these disaffected voters later supported Donald Trump.

“Free trade has become toxic for both parties, and the Trump victory in 2016 brought that message home for those who hadn’t grasped it already,” said David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who has documented the impact of the “China shock” on American workers. “The fact that blue-collar workers, union workers, manufacturing workers, have effectively switched parties tells you that the Democratic embrace of globalization and the ‘bridge to the 21st century [in Bill Clinton’s words] was seemingly a bridge too far.”

Four years ago, this simmering anger within the traditional Democratic base yielded up a new star, Sanders, who for decades before had been seen by the party establishment as a wild-haired fringe socialist (he’s not even technically a Democrat) who spoke to mostly empty rooms but who now found that his bold, uncompromising progressivism was resonating big time. It still does. So Democrats should finally learn the lesson that Hillary Clinton so abysmally failed to take on board in 2016: To her everlasting regret, Clinton gave short shrift to Sanders’s influence and ideas in the general election—despite nearly losing to him in the primaries—and found herself stunned by Trump, who adopted some of the same ideas.

No Democratic front-runner can afford to forget that again, especially when it comes to trade.

One of the answers put forward by both Sanders and Warren is to launch their own brand of trade war, imposing tariffs on countries that don’t respect workers’ rights or support measures to reduce climate change. “We need to fundamentally rethink our trade policies and move to fair trade rather than just unfettered free trade,” Sanders told the Daily Beast in an 2018 interview in which he admitted that “Trump is identifying a problem.” Since then, Sanders has called Trump’s trade war with China “totally irrational,” but he also told CNN that the use of tariffs “is one tool that is available. … You’re looking at somebody, by the way, who helped lead the effort against permanent normal trade relations with China and [the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA].” Sanders was also the only senator running in the 2020 race who voted against Trump’s NAFTA replacement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), saying, “USMCA will make climate change worse.” Warren, who like Sanders voted against another major Barack Obama-era trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has also supported the use of tariffs, telling CNN in 2018 that they “are one part of reworking our trade policy overall.” 

Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has taken a more centrist position on trade than either Sanders or Warren, and he has far less of a track record, but even he has suggested that he would use “a strategy that would include the tariffs as leverage.”

Advisors to the centrist Democrats in the race, mainly Biden, say the party establishment has already adjusted its views. In an interview, a senior Biden advisor pointed to the former vice president’s recent essay in Foreign Affairs, “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” in which Biden writes: “As president, I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world.” Yet Biden’s approach rests largely on fixing the problems created by Trump—words like “restore” and “reaffirm” feature prominently in the essay—and there is little detail on what is new.

The Biden team disputes the notion that the 77-year-old candidate, who has served in Washington as senator and vice president for nearly 50 years (since 1973), doesn’t have new ideas. “There is plenty of fresh vision when it comes to putting the defense of democracy at the heart of our foreign policy, putting labor and environment leaders at the table from the start in negotiating trade agreements, or immediately convening a climate summit not just to rejoin Paris but to build on it,” said one senior advisor to Biden.

Biden gets plaudits from some Democrats for fresh thinking, in particular his call for investment in research and development, education, and innovation as a way to out-compete China. Many of Biden’s other ideas, however, are short on specifics. In his essay, Biden writes that “picking up the pieces will be an enormous task,” but he doesn’t say much about the new puzzle they will fit into. He makes a point of pledging that, in his first year in office, “the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” But that idea began with Woodrow Wilson and has been a tenet of post-Cold War Democratic Party thinking since then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s “Community of Democracies” was inaugurated in Warsaw in 2000. 

The rise of Sanders in the Democratic Party—along with that of Warren—to some degree mirrors the rise of Trump inside the Republican Party. Both are outsiders who brazenly called their party’s failures to account; both found adherents who had come to believe that their political parties had betrayed them over free trade, and no longer represented them. Trump spoke of getting “better” deals from the world; Sanders, getting “fairer” deals. Their messages resonated with party bases that rejected the old paradigm of free trade and the Washington Consensus, which both mainstream Democrats and Republicans had endorsed to differing degrees in the aftermath of the Cold War, when no one questioned that capitalism reigned supreme. Both candidates rejected traditional trade deals such as NAFTA and the TPP. 

This alignment of views is also evident when it comes to the idea of aggressively promoting American values around the world; neither the Trumpist neo-isolationists nor the Sanders anti-imperialists want anything to do with that since the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sanders, like Warren, would treat U.S. allies much better than Trump has, but it would be only a kinder, gentler neo-isolationism, with both candidates seeking to dramatically pare down the U.S. presence in the world and pull troops out from as many places as possible, especially Afghanistan and the Middle East. 

Asked how a President Sanders would be different from that of Clinton or Obama, Sanders foreign-policy advisor Matt Duss told Foreign Policy: “Bernie understands that if we really want to change the ingrained habits of the Washington foreign-policy establishment and bring an end to our endless wars, we need a movement that will pressure that establishment, and that’s what we’re working to build.” Duss added that only Sanders “has really diagnosed the main challenges to our democracy like rising authoritarianism and how authoritarianism feeds off of corruption, inequality, and oligarchy.”

Buttigieg, though he differs sharply from Sanders and Warren on domestic issues like health care, has taken a foreign-policy stance that tends to align more with them than with Biden on climate change, challenging authoritarianism, and bolstering the rights of U.S. workers.

Mieke Eoyang, the vice president for national security at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said both progressives and establishment stalwarts in the party are united when it comes to one transcendent goal: beating Trump. “I think that there’s tremendous consensus across the party that undoing the damage done by Trump with our allies and to our standing in the world is job number one,” Eoyang said. “I think that’s why you see things like Warren’s plan to reinvigorate the State Department.”

But she said a deeper problem remains inside the party: the reliance on an old, established foreign-policy elite, as well as the lack of expertise by an up-and-coming generation. “To the extent candidates rely on people with expertise to build their foreign policies, those experts have succeeded in the existing systems,” Eoyang said. “People who question the systems often don’t have the expertise to propose credible reforms and are thus dismissed as naive. It’s not like you’re going to see people rushing to create a ‘Department of Peace’ or turn foreign policy over to a ‘global grassroots movement,’ as Sanders suggests.” 

So the way forward remains vague, she said. “It’s just no one can articulate what that is, so there is no consensus for it.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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