The Foreign Policy Case for Bernie Sanders


“It’s the money in politics, stupid!” — this phrase is the 2016 version of the very successful 1992 campaign theme (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) that propelled Bill Clinton to the presidency. Other Bernie Sanders political slogans like “The United States cannot be the world’s policeman” are reminiscent of George W. Bush’s promises in 2000 that America should be a great power, but a humble power and that the American military’s purpose should be to fight and win wars, not pursue nation-building adventures. Sanders’ assertion that judgment is just as important as experience — citing his vote against the 2002 authorization of the Iraq war — is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s central message in 2008. Sanders’ foreign policy vision of acting with military restraint, pursuing diplomatic engagement, and setting clear priorities in the world while investing in the domestic foundations of American power — these are all bipartisan objectives consistent with successful politicians, including President Dwight Eisenhower and President Barack Obama. As the primaries go forward, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has a strong and compelling foreign policy case to make.

While there is growing clamor inside the Beltway and among some media for a more robust Bernie Sanders foreign policy message, foreign policy rarely matters much in primaries. But the “commander-in-chief test” remains a vital indicator for general election competitiveness. Hillary Clinton has impressive credentials — as a senator and as secretary of state, Clinton has served our country and deserves respect regardless of political affiliation. Yet for over two decades the Washington, D.C. establishment worldview has reflected the dominance of both liberal interventionist Democrats and neoconservative Republicans. As this primary race continues, Bernie Sanders has a significant opportunity to spark a long-needed discussion about how to right the ship of American foreign and national security policy. What might be the primary foreign policy argument for the Sanders movement? Several key themes stand out.

First, the premise of the Sanders campaign is that there is virtually nothing in Washington, D.C. that can really be changed without getting money out of politics. In this case, the Sanders worldview is in line with that of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who opined generally that the biggest threat to national security is the paralysis in Washington. While Gates was not speaking directly of money, it is very much at the root of this paralysis. Many Americans clearly believe that special-interest money has corrupted the democratic process, and this concern about national security is no less true today than it was when President Eisenhower warned of undue influence in his 1961 Farewell Address to the nation: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Sen. Sanders is thus correct in noting the priority and difficulty of cutting wasteful spending in the Pentagon. As he said in debating Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin: “…we have also got to take a look at the waste and inefficiencies in the Department of Defense, which is the one major agency of government that has not been able to be audited. And I have the feeling you’re going to find a lot of cost overruns there and a lot of waste and duplicative activities.”

Second, Bernie Sanders has articulated a clear understanding that the American military cannot be the world’s policeman and asserted that the United States must insist that its allies no longer remain dependent on American military power — those allies with the greatest interests in a challenge must lead, supported by the United States. This view is a logical extension of President Obama’s current approach to Russia, which has seen effective German engagement over Ukraine, and goes to the heart of the challenge in confronting the Islamic State. As Sen. Sanders said in his victory speech in New Hampshire: “In the Middle East, the United States must remain part of an international coalition sustained by nations in the region that have the means to protect themselves. Together we must, and will, destroy ISIS, but we should do it in a way that does not put our young men and women in the military into perpetual warfare in the quagmire of the Middle East.” While Sanders embraces restraint and reserves the marshalling of military power for when it is truly needed and effective, he will now need to articulate a clear sense of when he would employ military power. But already Sanders has reinforced an essential point about American military intervention — the United States must do a better job of considering unintended consequences when applying military power.

Third, Bernie Sanders’ call for major investments in the United States — in terms of higher education and infrastructure spending — are central to this foreign policy and national security discussion. While other nations are set to move past America in its traditional areas of dominance such as government support for research and development, the United States has been cutting in recent years through austerity policies, weakening its global position in the process. This is especially relevant to meeting the challenge of a rising China. These concepts, too, are consistent with the kinds of investments that the Eisenhower administration made during the Cold War with the 1956 Highway Act and the 1958 National Defense Education Act. Providing equality of access for higher education is not only a root American ideal, it is a national security issue. To succeed in the 21st century, America will need to liberate its human capital rather than continue to saddle today’s youth with decades of crushing debt. The evidence of the payoffs from these kinds of investments are clear — DARPA, the Internet, NASA, engineers and language skills — all of which unleashed the creative power that makes America great. As the1958 National Defense Education Act declared directly following the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch: “The security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. … The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from scientific principles. … It depends as well upon the discovery and development of new principles, new techniques, and new knowledge.” This was true in 1958 and it is even truer today given the diverse challenges America confronts in the 21st century.

Unquestionably, Bernie Sanders needs to do more to lay out his foreign policy vision and explain it in detail to voters, as would any insurgent candidate thrust into national success. But the basis of what he has had to say to date is revolutionary, though only in the sense that it promises to return America to the fundamentals that made it a global superpower in the first place by investing in the domestic foundations of power. There are areas in which national security might conflict with some other popular economic arguments — for example, if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement were to fail, as Sen. Sanders believes should happen, that would risk ceding major influence in a vital area of economic interests to China. Leadership will require detailing a workable alternative. But Bernie Sanders has a significant opportunity to spark a national discussion of how to right the ship of America’s place in the world. In that sense, his candidacy is even less about him than it is about these vital issues he represents.


Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University where he also directs the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics. His most recent book is America’s Search for Security: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (2014).


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore