Bernie Sanders’s Paradoxical Foreign Policy

The senator derides the very ingredient needed to achieve his vision: American power

Sen. Bernie Sanders / Getty

In April 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) launched a bid for the presidency. Five months later, the senator added, for the first time, a section on foreign policy to his campaign website. What happened in the interim? Did Sanders not realize that the president is commander in chief, and that the job description includes handling international issues? Even afterward, Sanders and his campaign avoided foreign policy like the plague, always pivoting to discuss income inequality and corrupt "millionaires and billionaires."

This time around, Sanders is making foreign policy one of his principal focuses. After listening to critics deride his ignorance of and disinterest in global affairs, the senator hired his own Ben Rhodes, a writer with little relevant experience to advise him on foreign policy. Sanders then delivered two major speeches on foreign policy—one in 2017, the other last year. He also spearheaded the push for legislation to end American support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Even before Sanders launched a second campaign for the White House on Tuesday, he emerged as a prominent voice on foreign affairs, outlining a progressive vision for America's role in the world.

Given Sanders's newfound interest, Peter Beinart argues in a new article in the Atlantic that, unlike in 2016, the senator may distinguish himself from other Democratic candidates in 2020 because of his progressive views on foreign policy, not because of his democratic socialist views on domestic matters. "Sanders doesn't just talk about foreign policy more," Beinart writes. "He talks about it in a more radical way."

Beinart notes that the other senators running for the Democratic nomination are no hawks, and hold standard left-wing views on most matters of foreign policy. But "what distinguishes Sanders is the same quality that distinguished him on domestic policy in 2016: his willingness to cross red lines that have long defined the boundaries of acceptable opinion."

Beinart gives examples of Sanders's "radical" views but does not say the more important point: the senator's positions are not just extreme, but also misguided. And, more importantly, they rest on a paradox that renders them meaningless.

"Foreign policy is about whether we continue to champion the values of freedom, democracy, and justice, values which have been a beacon of hope for people throughout the world, or whether we support undemocratic, repressive regimes, which torture, jail, and deny basic rights to their citizens," Sanders said in 2017. He echoed the same theme the following year. "On one hand, we see a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy," he said. "On the other side, we see a movement toward strengthening democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice."

Many foreign-policy hawks would actually agree with Sanders's dichotomy, and the need to counter authoritarianism in the name of freedom. But in the same speeches, Sanders pilloried America's defense budget as too high, stressed that the United States must not be dominant on the world stage, and championed the United Nations for "for promoting a vision of a different world." These ideas may sound nice, but, taken in context, they contradict any notion of protecting liberty and democracy abroad. This is the great paradox of progressive foreign policy: the one factor that is, and has been, most effective at promoting liberal values—American power in all of its forms, military and otherwise—is what Sanders and other progressives despise as the root of so many of the world's problems.

It is no coincidence that democracy spread to more places than ever before during the time of unchallenged American supremacy after the Cold War. And it is no coincidence that since America became an active, interventionist superpower, well over one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. A world order backed by American power allowed capitalism and liberal values to flourish in places never before imagined. America's effect goes beyond any military intervention or aid program. Indeed, the world's waterways are open for free navigation because of the U.S. Navy. International organizations that Sanders so values function in large part because of generous American funding. And people everywhere who have Samsung Galaxy smartphones can thank the United States for maintaining thousands of troops in South Korea to deter a North Korean attack. To this last point, Sanders's repeated calls for a world in which dialogue and peaceful resolutions rule the day dangerously misread human nature and what has prevented war historically. Great powers need to preserve peace through deterrence and other means. The great thing about American dominance is that the world's superpower also seeks to build a better world, one in which human rights are protected, prosperity can spread, and liberal political norms can take root.

The problem is that Sanders does not believe America is a moral country. He only sees the mistakes, and is happy to describe American foreign policy in a way that would make Berkeley's faculty blush. "We cannot speak with the moral authority the world needs," Sanders said, "if we do not struggle to achieve the ideal we are holding out for others." Sanders believes the American economy is immoral, and also believes American foreign policy is a form of malignant imperialism. He refuses to call on Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro to step down from power, fearing American intervention, and sees Washington's support for Israel as the most evil of sins. How can Sanders support all the good that American power brings if America itself is so bad?

These problems are not confined to Sanders or other like-minded progressives, which is where Beinart is dangerously wrong. Sanders's views on foreign policy are becoming mainstream, just like his views on domestic policy. Democrats have adopted the senator's hostility toward Israel and aversion to exercising American power abroad. Every military action is an endless war, every firm stance against an adversary goes too far because it may lead to escalation. The energy of the Democratic Party is trending further to the left, and at a certain point, Sanders may be considered the party's mainstream, authoritative voice.

"I can tell you very happily, and I think any objective observer would confirm what I'm saying, is that in the last year and half or so, the Democratic Party has moved in a far more progressive direction than they were before I ran for president," Sanders told CNN last year. That is a scary thought, especially when it comes to matters of war and peace.