Election 2020

Biden Likely to Embrace Some of Sanders’s Foreign-Policy Ideas, Especially After the Pandemic

The former vice president’s team is already in touch with the Sanders camp about a unified platform, operatives say.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders on a debate stage in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina on Feb. 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images

With Joe Biden emerging as the unchallenged Democratic candidate for U.S. president in 2020, his foreign-policy team is tasked with ironing out a campaign platform amid a pandemic that has turned the 2020 presidential race on its head.

But mainly they need to deal with the Bernie factor—a broad set of progressive stances including those on foreign policy championed by Biden’s just-departed chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The former vice president will need to pay more than lip service if he is to win over most of the party base.

The coronavirus pandemic, which hastened Sanders’s decision to leave the race on Wednesday, has also changed the calculus on foreign policy. Douglas Wilson, a former top foreign-policy advisor to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign who now supports Biden, believes for a time Sanders didn’t have a significant impact on Democratic foreign policy in the elections, but that all changed when the coronavirus swept the globe.

“Before this pandemic, I don’t think he was moving the needle that much on foreign-policy issues, but with the pandemic I think a lot of the issues that he talked about are issues that are going to come to the fore in both domestic and foreign policy,” he said. “The pandemic has provided a new lens through which to look at national security and foreign-policy issues,” he added, as Beltway insiders increasingly debate the knock-on national security effects of health care and income inequality.

On the whole, Biden’s ascent to presumptive nominee signals a victory for the centrist school of foreign policy, battered and bruised after three years under President Donald Trump and pressured from the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But Biden’s team, mindful of what happened to nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, is also more likely than ever to bring into the fold progressive ideas—and former campaign advisors—on foreign policy from Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and other progressive party figures as he eyes the general election, according to interviews with eight experts and foreign-policy campaign advisors to Biden and his former Democratic rivals. 

“I think that the Biden team is going to go out of its way to make sure all of those views are aired and there’s an inclusive process,” Wilson said. “I think they’re going to do this for a number of reasons: for reasons of unity, for reasons of wanting to put their money where their mouth is in terms of inclusion, and for reasons of understanding that if they don’t, there are going to be rifts in the party that don’t need to be there.” 

Several foreign-policy experts who advise Biden’s campaign on a volunteer basis said they have been in contact with Sanders’s advisors about ironing out a unified platform on foreign policy, though the discussions are early and informal at this stage. 

Even in defeat, Sanders had an impact on important foreign-policy issues for the Democratic Party, according to several of the volunteer advisors and other experts. This includes opening a debate on conditioning aid to Israel, the United States’ closest Middle East ally; pushing for cuts in defense spending; and driving forward the debate on congressional war powers authority in response to the United States’ controversial support for the Saudi-backed coalition fighting in Yemen. They point out that the progressive wing of the party won’t disappear off Biden’s radar just because Sanders ended his presidential bid. 

“It’s clear there’s a new progressive foreign-policy discussion happening. Bernie has led on that, but there have been other members of Congress, such as Ro Khanna, Chris Murphy, Ilhan Omar,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign-policy advisor in the Senate and then on the campaign, citing three progressive Democratic lawmakers. “That’s something that, now as the nominee and hopefully as president, Biden will need to engage with, and I’m confident he and his team will. It’s not to say he will change his views overnight, certainly not, but at least recognition that this is a part of the new progressive coalition, a broader set of organizations and ideas about foreign policy.”

Wonky foreign-policy issues such as war powers authorities and U.S. aid to Israel aren’t at the forefront of the election conversations. But inside the Beltway, debates over these issues reflect a growing rift and internal fight between the progressive and centrist arms of the Democratic Party. 

Biden, a centrist stalwart, has stuck to his guns on some of the traditional foreign-policy priorities that defined the Democratic Party for decades. On some issues, the Sanders wing of the party likely won’t cause Biden to budge. “There are some positions that are likely to disappoint progressives, including his insistence on the need to maintain special forces in the Middle East as part of an ongoing war on terrorism, according to Stephen Wertheim, a co-founder of the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“I don’t think that is a credible plan to end the forever war,” he said. “I’m nervous about an election in which the Democratic nominee is able to be credibility portrayed as on the side of endless war against Donald Trump.”

But in other cases, Biden has already signaled support for newer progressive foreign-policy ideas. He publicly supported the War Powers Resolution backed by Sanders that would have ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen—and opened up a heated legal debate about the president’s constitutional authority to direct military operations without a congressional green light. That initiative also eventually earned the backing of Democratic leadership and center-left members of Congress, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith.

“I’m hoping [Biden] will be willing to adopt the effort to restore the constitutional balance with regard to war-making authority,” Duss said. “There are very encouraging signs that [Biden advisors] are listening and want to be engaged in the conversation to make the platform stronger, to make the party stronger, and the country stronger.”

The influence of Sanders and the progressive left of the party has also been seen in a push to slash the Department of Defense’s budget, which has ballooned to $738 billion during the Trump administration after deficit fights and sequestration kept down military spending for much of the past decade. But with the spread of the novel coronavirus shuttering businesses across the United States, leading nearly 17 million Americans to file for unemployment over the past three weeks—with ripple effects set to carry into the defense industry—top Democrats say chatter about leaning out the Pentagon budget will pick up as lawmakers examine the military’s wish lists. 

“I think those conversations will accelerate, because, economically, we’re not coming out of this for a while,” Smith, the Armed Services chairman, said on Tuesday. “Even in the best-case scenario, this is going to have a profound economic impact on us.”

“A new Biden administration is not only going to have to think anew because of what we’ve learned, but because of Bernie and how his core supporters were looking at foreign policy and the U.S. role in the world,” said Jim Townsend, a former deputy secretary of defense for Europe under the Obama administration. “It will not be rejected out of hand. I just feel as certain as I’m sitting here, that if the Biden administration is elected, progressive ideas are going to be there on the table.”

Unlike bitter rivalries between candidates’ camps in past primaries—such as the 2008 primary between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton—there’s a different atmosphere among Democratic foreign-policy experts in 2020 to rally against Trump, experts and campaign advisors say.

“Among all the campaigns, there really was a camaraderie and shared alarm over Trump and shared seriousness about national security issues that’s created some unity,” said Andrew Albertson, head of Foreign Policy for America, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

That might not apply to the rest of the campaign world—particularly for Sanders’s army of grassroots supporters who are bitterly disappointed in the Democratic establishment. In the hours after Sanders left the race, tensions between the insurgent Vermont senator and the former vice president spilled out into the open—even if they didn’t play out on the foreign-policy side.

“Bernie was too kind to go after Biden, but it’s coming,” tweeted Briahna Joy Gray, former press secretary for the Sanders campaign. “Either Dem leadership cares more abt maintaining a corporate status quo than getting rid of Trump, or they’re planning to replace Joe – adopting a pretty fast and loose relationship w/ representative Democracy. Lose lose.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch