Whether he wins the Democratic nomination or not, Bernie Sanders has reframed the domestic debate within the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole. Ideas that were virtually unimaginable even a decade ago – guaranteed healthcare, free college, doubling the minimum wage, seriously taking on climate change, and taxing the rich to invest in America – are now not only part of mainstream debate, but accepted by large numbers of Americans and at least rhetorically by most Democrats.
His differences from Joe Biden on foreign policy—be it in regard to the war in Iraq, the plight of Palestinians and Yemenis, the national sovereignty of Latin American nations, and the global effort against climate change—are literal life and death issues for millions around the globe.
And yet, what about foreign policy? Here, Bernie’s ability to reframe the debate has been far less pronounced. In some respects, he has hardly moved the needle. This is not unimportant. A Bernie foreign policy would make the world a far better place. His differences from Joe Biden on foreign policy—be it in regard to the war in Iraq, the plight of Palestinians and Yemenis, the national sovereignty of Latin American nations, and the global effort against climate change—are literal life and death issues for millions around the globe. There is no hyperbole in the suggestion that brave members of the American military and thousands of innocent civilians around the world will face a far more dangerous world under Joe Biden than under Bernie Sanders.
Although the 2016 and 2020 elections have focused largely on domestic issues, Bernie’s inability to frame the debate on foreign policy is not because he has shied away from the topic. This is not because Bernie lacks experience in this area or because foreign affairs are not important to him. Not only does his involvement with international issues date back to the early moments of his political career, but his understanding of domestic politics has always been intimately connected to his broader view of the world and the place of the United States in it. Decency and dignity at home and abroad are intertwined for Sanders and part of his broader project and that of the millions he has inspired.
Finally, and this is important, his inability to shift the foreign policy debate is not because he is overly radical in this area. His foreign policy is “radical” in the same sort of way that universal healthcare and free education are – it seems impossible until it happens or becomes part of the public debate, and then it becomes common sense. Most Americans are not in favor of military adventurism. Indeed, Donald Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton’s support for the war in Iraq were immensely useful for him politically. Attacks that will surely be levelled at Joe Biden as well.
And yet, although there is nothing outrageously radical about Sanders’s foreign agenda, especially when one drills down into the specifics of how he might handle the Middle East or North Korea, he has nonetheless had difficulty in shifting the debate precisely because the divide between him and the rest of the candidates is so vast. The gap is in some ways starker than on domestic issues, especially since the other candidates were forced to move toward Bernie on topics such as healthcare and the minimum wage. We have yet to see such movement in the foreign policy arena.
What separates Bernie Sanders’s foreign agenda is less the nitty gritty of particular policies than the broader vision and set of assumptions he works from. Bernie Sanders is the first major candidate in modern US history to reject US military and economic hegemony as (a) a guiding force for American security abroad and economic prosperity at home; (b) or who sees US dominance as a generally benevolent force that defends US interests while making the world a safer, more democratic, place. Sanders departure from this orthodoxy represent a profound difference, perhaps a greater ideological leap than his advocacy of universal healthcare or free higher education at first seemed. All other candidates unquestioningly assume US hegemony as a fact of life, that the US must lead with its military to prevent world chaos, and that doing so will insure American prosperity while benefitting the rest of the world. It would serve Sanders well to remind voters of this gap as he debates Joe Biden.
Sanders’s own recognition that foreign policy is important, and that a Sanders presidency would represent a major departure from establishment orthodoxy, may help explain why he has not backed down when pushed on decades-old comments and relationships with the likes of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua. It matters. He recognizes the importance of revisiting history for not only getting people to understand how his global vision differs from that of other candidates, but to think about the United States’ role in the world in fundamentally different ways.
This is not new territory for Sanders. He has consistently fought to limit US military and economic hegemony since the 1970s, and has done so through two complementary methods. First, he has been a consistent critic of US foreign aggression, whether it be full-scale wars in Vietnam or Iraq, CIA-supported coups in Iran, Chile, and Central America, military aid for repressive regimes, or a range of attempts to undermine governments throughout the world. This separates him from all candidates, and particularly Joe Biden. Put another way, Sanders revisits what many consider to be “ancient history” to remind us – or teach many of us for the first time -- that the United States has often opposed democratic impulses throughout the world. This history lesson also serves to expose the fact that US efforts at regime change have had disastrous consequences for millions of people at home and abroad. Massive military spending blocks US domestic investment while leaving other countries destroyed. In places like Central America, the effects of recent foreign interference—supported by the Obama/Biden administration—have been the mass migration of undocumented immigrants into the US.
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Second, Sanders’s efforts to oppose and reframe US foreign policy have also come in the form of grass-roots, people-to-people, diplomatic efforts that have been less about expressing vocal opposition to particular acts of aggression than seeking to end things like the Cold War through the slow grind of citizen diplomacy. The basic idea of these efforts was that by encouraging and facilitating face-to-face meetings between ordinary citizens, political barriers between people and governments would break down. The “communist enemy” would be humanized (as opposed to demonized), people would be seen independently from their governments, and the potential for conflict or even nuclear war would be greatly reduced. In this sense, for Sanders, the question has always been less about whether a foreign government was “good or bad,” but whether the US government has a right to intervene, destroy another nation’s government, and create chaos for an entire people in the process. Grass-roots diplomacy was a way to limit Cold War aggression and in the coming years, it could hold the key to rallying people around the globe to combat climate change.
Given how much grief Sanders has recently received for having been involved in grass-roots diplomatic efforts during the Cold War, it is important to remember that when (for example) he travelled to the Soviet Union in 1988 to establish a sister city partnership with Yaroslavl, his actions were firmly in the mainstream of how American city officials attempted to use municipal power to shape foreign policy. Evoking JFK’s famous lines about “our most basic common link,” these were hardly radical programs.
In fact, they were commonplace across the nation – and were encouraged by Ronald Reagan himself. By the late 1980s dozens of cities had established sister city relationships with Soviet and Soviet Bloc cities. In 1971, Tempe, Arizona started a program with Skopje, Yugoslavia (now Macedonia), becoming the first American city to cross the Iron Curtain. Two years later Seattle and Tashkent formed the first partnership between an American and Soviet city. Relationships between cities rarely thought of as progressive, like Jacksonville and its Russian sister Murmansk, were increasingly common. In Houston, the oil services industry’s global center, businessmen were downright giddy at the prospect of forging connections with their sister of Baku, the capital of the oil rich Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. And so on.
Although Sanders and Burlington were a bit behind the times on claiming a sister city in the Soviet Union, they were no stranger to the broader phenomenon. In 1984, Sanders led Burlington into an agreement with Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. And by the late 1980s over 80 US cities had sister cities in Nicaragua. In the context of Reagan’s support for the Contras and their attempts to terrorize Nicaraguans and overthrow their democratically elected government, establishing a sister relationship was an overtly political act. And so too were the declarations by more than 500 US congregations of “sanctuary” for Central American refugees fleeing US-backed violence. Indeed, these kinds of movements, of which Sanders-era Burlington was firmly in the mainstream of were the template for more recent “sanctuary city” laws that have provided the frontline of defense against the most horrific of Donald Trump’s policies.
This points us towards what has been missing in much of the recent brouhaha surrounding Bernie’s engagement with communist countries during the Cold War. To begin, it’s crucial to stress that such efforts were an inseparable part of American political life by the 1980s. More than that, they often had quite varied political meanings, with some making the softer-humanitarian statement that we are all humans regardless of the orientation of our government, while others sent sharper messages that the US government should not demonize other nations, much less wreak havoc on their economies and political systems.
Bernie’s engagement around these issues was clearly on the more political end of the spectrum, though his post-trip press conference to Yaroslavl was less a ringing endorsement of the Soviet Union than an attempt to keep communication channels open across the Iron Curtain and thereby reduce the chance of nuclear apocalypse. Even in the case of Nicaragua (and Cuba), where his experience, involvement, and knowledge were much deeper, his solidarity – like so many progressives during this period -- was rooted not so much in any deep affinity for a particular leader or government as it was in notions of self-determination and anti-interventionism that insisted the United States should leave the domestic politics of other countries alone. This sentiment should feel familiar to the mainstream of the Democratic Party and national media that has expanded so much energy on the ways that Russia may have interfered in our 2016 election. Indeed, during the 1980s when he was Mayor of Burlington, Sanders explicitly noted he was not concerned with whether the Sandinista government was “good or bad,” but whether the Reagan administration had the right to destroy a country just because it didn’t like its government.
Here, again, Sanders was well within the progressive mainstream. By establishing friendships with Nicaraguans or sending material aid to communities devastated by US-backed armed forces, Americans sought to stop Reagan’s attempt to isolate Nicaragua internationally and overthrow a government supported by the majority of Nicaraguans. Although it is perfectly reasonable to define such a stance (as Sanders has) as anti-imperialist, it was generally not an anti-imperialism that supported a particular political party, leader, government, or even set of policies. Indeed, for all sorts of reasons, including the very real difficulty of travelling to Cuba, the Soviet Union, and (even) Nicaragua, most people in the United States knew very little about what was happening on the ground in countries that were undergoing profound changes. Rather, it was a loose anti-interventionism that sought to curtail US military aid to the region and give Central Americans a fighting chance. Such acts are part of a longstanding practice by ordinary citizens to intervene in US foreign policies that remain stubbornly under the control of Washington insiders who assume US hegemony and military aggression represent the path forward.
In this respect, the foreign policy advocated by Sanders is unafraid of global engagement. To be sure, he is skeptical of aggressive uses of American power that either undermine democracy or limit a people’s right to self-determination. Such skepticism comes from knowledge rooted in a sophisticated reckoning with history that recognizes that when US leaders have trampled on democratic impulses in other countries they have also undermined American interests. This vision represents a dramatic departure from Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but it is neither isolationist nor radical in the sense of being outside mainstream American politics. Rather, it represents a democratic path forward that – like universal healthcare – most Americans support even as the political establishment rejects. It represents a foreign policy where the US does not lead by throwing around its military and economic might to the misfortune of Americans and others across the globe, but works in collaboration to create a more democratic and just world.