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The Inadequacy of Progressive Foreign Policy

Bernie Sanders's foreign policy would likely be impotent or incoherent (or both).
February 25, 2020
The Inadequacy of Progressive Foreign Policy
US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to the media following a closed-door briefing on Iran at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has started an insurgency in the Democratic partya party to which he did not even belong until the day before yesterday. The old Democratic guard (that not so long ago styled itself “New Democrats“) has returned the favor by scrambling to prevent Sanders from seizing the party’s reins and instituting a socialist takeover. Their efforts increasingly resemble the mad dash of Republican regulars in the summer of 2016 to halt Trump’s primary progress. 

The attempt to smother the socialist insurrection by exalted liberalism—initially incarnated by Joe Biden’s candidacy but as his campaign implodes and with the torch now frantically transferred to Michael Bloomberg—is in part confirmation of Sanders’s core claim: the Democratic party is ruled by a managerial-professional overclass and is ultimately beholden to a neoliberal economic agenda at odds with Democrats’ populist traditions. 

Whatever one makes of Sanders’s command-and-control economic prescriptions, it would be wrong to deny that a well-heeled elite holds the commanding heights of economic and cultural and political power. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, from Hollywood to Washington, a distinct echelon has long tilted the Democratic party, in style and substance, against the many and in favor of the few. 

Sanders’s rise in the polls and his strong performance in the early primaries has caused the Democratic elite to squirm, and understandably so. But what do they make of the Vermont Senator’s vision of America’s place in the world? Incredibly, the subject did not crop up during the most recent Democratic debate. In this parochial season, Sanders’s domestic socialism chic: Medicare for All, College for All, Housing for All, et al., resonates far more than any of his proposals for U.S. foreign policy. Sanders’s stance on international relations is a travesty. What Sanders augurs as commander-in-chief is a deliberate diminution of American power that would vitiate any claim to U.S. global leadership. For good or ill, such a dramatic repudiation of America’s role in international affairs warrants serious and sustained consideration by the establishment and the wider electorate alike.

On paper, Sanders’s minimalist foreign-policy program may not seem so radical. Some experts have cited precisely this fact to suggest that it is premature to venture even tentative conclusions about the nature of a Sanders presidency. 

Since audacious departures from the party-line on foreign policy are seldom rewarded and frequently punished, does this mean that little can be inferred about the contours of U.S. foreign policy in the event of a Sanders presidency? Far from it—Sanders is an old booster of Fidel Castro’s vicious regime as well as of the gruesome Sandinistas. The prospect of their legacy and values gaining entry to the Oval Office should be cause for alarm.

To wit, Sanders’s record and rhetoric give every indication of a distinctly progressive conception of foreign policy that, even if only partially implemented, would fundamentally revise America’s role in the world. It has been said that the powers and constraints of the U.S. Constitution render any president the Mayor of America but also the potential Emperor of the World. How would Sanders discharge this solemn responsibility? For starters, he has made categorical commitments to wind down the United States’ military involvement in the Middle East, ending the “forever wars” against jihadist terror. Such a disengagement from the region has been tried before and would set the conditions for the re-emergence of an Islamist caliphate and terrorist stronghold. 

Sanders further pledges to bring steep cuts in defense spending, necessarily restricting a great deal of America’s activism—including its humanitarian activism—beyond its shores. More troubling still, Sanders peddles the pedestrian conceit that since U.S. defense outlays outstrip those of other leading global powers, even in combination, it is inherently a cause for redress. Has Sanders contemplated the consequences of shrugging off America’s global hegemony, and its replacement by the kind of balance of power that prevailed before the end of the Cold War and even more dramatically before the Second World War? 

Should Sanders succeed in his quest to tie down the American Gulliver, the squalid terms of a new world order would be dictated in Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East in large measure by the revisionist and despotic powers of China, Russia and Iran, respectively. This is not mere speculation. In recent times, each of these regimes have been increasingly open about their illiberal designs at home and increasingly risk-prone to advance them abroad. Without the American policeman walking the beat, they can be expected to pursue their interests more aggressively still. By giving these regimes a free hand to reorder their regional environments, their neighbors will find themselves intimidated or incited. In turn, this would breed either the rapid expansion of dictatorships’ sphere of influence or arms races, violent land-grabs and eventually the outbreak of full-scale conflict.

Progressives often advocate for military sufficiency rather than military primacy without acknowledging the cost of heightened security competition that would naturally ensue. It may be said of a man who favors nationalizing health insurance in one swoop—putting the federal government in charge of a $3.8 trillion business accounting for 18% of GDP and employing 16.6 million people—that he has an extravagant faith in government. This utopianism is also reflected in his view that authoritarian aggression can be checked and human rights can be advanced strictly through diplomatic and economic initiatives. Sometimes, however, what Theodore Roosevelt called “the big stick” is required to defend American interests and American principles against hostile states and forces of global menace. Under a Sanders presidency, that vital if partial tool of American statecraft will almost certainly be withheld, to the detriment of any U.S. objective that clashes with the core interests of the Kremlin, the Chinese Communist Party or the Iranian mullahs.

Some observers have pointed to Sanders’s fierce opposition to foreign and domestic oligarchic power to cast doubt on reports that Russia’s intelligence services are seeking to shore up his bid for the Democratic nomination. As welcome as it would be to have a president who pushed back against Moscow’s vast kleptocracy that finances the Russian regime’s malign behavior at home and abroad, such measures would scarcely suffice against a state as wily and determined as the one headed by Vladimir Putin.

In the past 12 years, Putin’s Russia has aggressed against Georgia, annexed Ukrainian territory by force, filled the void in Syria, violated the sovereignty of Baltic states, and interfered in a slew of Western elections. Across three administrations, the U.S. response to these machinations has been consistently passive and deficient. The scope for American statecraft to deter and defeat Putin’s effort to restore Russian imperial grandeur is wide, and surely includes non-violent dimensions of American power and influence. But Western-oriented movements and states in Russia’s “near abroad” will require more than anti-corruption schemes from Washington to preserve their sovereignty. Lethal military assistance and security guarantees are necessary supplements to any effective containment strategy that a Sanders presidency would very likely forbid. Sanders has also voted against the Magnitsky Act in 2012 and sanctions against the Russian state in 2014 and 2017.

It is therefore reasonable to surmise that Sanders would either have to undergo a philosophical and political transformation in his attitude toward U.S. power and primacy or else bring about a global retrenchment that would accelerate and perhaps consolidate the eclipse of the Pax Americana. 

Put differently, Sanders’s term in office would almost certainly feature an incoherent foreign policy, as well as an impotent one. It would extend the uncertainty and impulsiveness that Trump has inaugurated while bringing back the feebleness and lack of resolution that were the hallmarks of the Obama administration.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.