United States presidential primaries can hardly be called sensible foreign policy discourses. As is common in America’s two-party system, candidates seem to be rushing headlong to appear more partisan than their competitors. On the rare occasion where the intense loyalty contests of primaries intersect with international policy, the result is rarely a nuanced argument. Democrats have been racing towards non-intervention recently, whereas Republicans have defended activist military policies around the globe.
Any novel argument from a politician, therefore, piques the interest of foreign policy watchers around the globe. When that politician is Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont and self-proclaimed Democratic socialist, analysts take close note.
Sanders, who lost the 2016 Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton, has never been known as a foreign policy aficionado. He came to prominence first as one the longest-serving Independent senators, and later for his extreme leftist domestic policies, including socialized healthcare and progressive labor programs. In fact, many Democrats were concerned that Sanders appeared to be too lax on foreign policy, instead pushing for Clinton, the former Secretary of State, to be nominated.
In a pair of speeches given since his 2016 Democratic primary loss, Sanders has argued for an active foreign policy focused on the idea of a shared form of justice. In his 2017 speech to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Sanders pushed for policies based on what he called “a common humanity”. “Dialogue should be taking place between people throughout the world at the grassroots level” Sanders remarked. “[It] cannot only be take place between foreign ministers or diplomats at the United Nations.”
A little over a year later, Sanders again spoke of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, calling for resolutions to “economic, social, and environmental” problems through foreign policy. Sanders wandered into uncharted waters for a Democrat, calling for an active response at home and abroad in support of intervention in states with authoritarian regimes. Citing the election of President Donald Trump as a catalyst for the rapid deterioration of democracy in states like Turkey, the Philippines, and Brazil, Sanders expressed concern over the future of a global society where some the world’s most powerful states are beholden to the whims of an oppressive leader.
In many respects, Sanders’ position is rational for a Democrat. His ideas are somewhere between liberal and cosmopolitan, and his foreign policy methods are decidedly centrist. He shies away from the militaristic tendencies of Republicans, but also avoids the radical nationalism or aggressive movement towards a suprastate, both positions popular among “new Left” politicians. Instead Sanders takes an approach similar to President Barrack Obama, the last broadly successful Democrat: he is in favor of military action when necessary, but also trusts in the power of international governing bodies led by the United State to regulate. Military action is not advocated per se, but Sanders emphasizes the gravity and necessity of change. He takes an approach that runs counter to his potential opponent in the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump, but is not so radically leftist to scare away potential voters.
Despite his seemingly moderate position, Sanders’ rationale differs from the norm. Instead of focusing on an “America First” platform, where the United States uses foreign policy as a weapon to achieve its goals, Sanders instead believes that his policy is in service of the global society. He singles out climate change, economic inequality, and lack of democratic engagement as pervasive issues on the global stage, and his policy expresses his belief that United States alone can lead reform.
The progression of his two speeches seem to represent a marked change in how Sanders approaches foreign policy. In his 2017 address, Sanders explicitly said that “The goal is not for the United States to dominate the world” nor that the United States should withdraw completely from global affairs. Instead, he argued that the United States should aim for “global engagement based on partnership… [because it was] better for [United States] security, better for global stability, and better for facilitating the international cooperation necessary to meet shared challenges.”
Sanders took a different tone at Johns Hopkins. Instead of the role of a passive team player, Sanders advocated for a strong United States whose role it was to facilitate global agreements in favor of democracy. “In the struggle to preserve and expand democracy, our job is to fight back against the coordinated effort [to dismantle the liberal global order]”. For Sanders, this is a two-pronged effort; at home, Sanders intends to unseat who he sees as the progenitor of the wave of illiberalism, Donald Trump, while abroad he intends to fight the injustices of dictatorship.
Although Sanders hasn’t elaborated on what a potential response to leaders such as Mohammad bin Salman and Viktor Orban, it would likely be a continuation of the plans already in place: sanctions, reprimands, and rarely, war. It remains to be seen how the independent Sanders would change traditional foreign policy – perhaps he may act like a cosmopolitan Donald Trump, and run the military from the Oval Office, or perhaps he would be a more “hands-off” president. It remains to be seen.
Sanders’ cosmopolitan foreign policy proposal appears ultimately indistinguishable from his centrist colleagues’ approaches. While it certainly earns interest and praise from foreign policy-minded individuals, it may not appease his leftist base. Given that the upcoming presidential election was a probably a catalyst for Sanders’ stark change in policy – and that he’s flanked by candidates both more liberal and more centrist than he is – perhaps his policy shift may be insufficient to secure a Democratic nomination.
Regardless, Sanders’ proposal offers a new way forward for liberal politicians. Many Democrats have decried how national security has been vilified in more liberal sects of the part, but want to distinguish themselves from Republicans, who they see as “warmongers” at times. It poses a real quandary. But in perhaps one of the strangest turns of policy, one of the most liberal politicians may have found the path forward for centrists.