Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona
A vital attribute of any aspiring presidential candidate is the capacity to understand international affairs and carry out sound foreign policy that ensures domestic security through international stability. The president must play an active and positive role in the international community if he or she is to fulfill the position’s duties laid out in Article II of the Constitution. The particular complexities of the world today — from Vladimir Putin’s revanchism to the rise of the Islamic State — have made foreign affairs a defining issue in the 2016 election.
Among the pool of presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the only bona fide diplomat. She is counting on the depth of her foreign affairs résumé to carry her past her main contender for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. However, experience means little in and of itself. Holding office, regardless of performance, does not necessarily confer expertise. Mrs. Clinton’s mixed track record as Senator and Secretary of State has more than one major stain. Her vote in favor of invading Iraq has had profound consequences, and her role in toppling Libya’s leader Moammar Gadhafi spawned a failed state, creating an environment conducive to the 2011 embassy attack in Benghazi.
In contrast, Mr. Sanders has no apparent international experience (or committed foreign policy advisers, for that matter); he does not serve on either the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee or its Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. He has been criticized repeatedly for not commenting more forcefully on foreign affairs, and continues to be scrutinized for not being specific enough when he has offered his views. Now that the primary season has ensued in dramatic fashion, the fundamental question remains: What is Mr. Sanders’ view on foreign affairs?
His foreign policy exemplifies judicious pragmatism, especially when contrasted with Mrs. Clinton’s militarism, hubristic belief in American exceptionalism, undermining of international law and state sovereignty, support for dubious insurgencies, and overall statecraft-centered realist approach to foreign affairs. Mr. Sanders’ worldview is underpinned by a progressive outlook that stresses the opposite, with diplomacy and multilateralism standing above spearheaded military force. Mr. Sanders’ work on veterans’ issues during his time on the Committee for Veterans Affairs has certainly shaped his views on the use of force, having made him more intimately aware of the grave costs of poor foreign policy and military adventurism. Arizona Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has duly noted Mr. Sanders’ “record for advocacy.”
Failed diplomacy, violation of state sovereignty through regime change, economic exploitation, and deliberate aggression have culminated in disaster for the United States and its relations with other countries over the last quarter century. Mr. Sanders is no hawk, but he understands and accepts the fact that carefully calculated and implemented military force must remain an option in the face of humanitarian crises, clear national security threats, and when the parameters of the use of force are well-defined. Even though he voted to authorize the use of air force in Yugoslavia, Syria, and Afghanistan, he emphatically rejected the invasion of Grenada, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the demands of Senate hawks and Mrs. Clinton for the deployment of US ground forces in Syria.
Despite his lack of international experience at the highest levels, Mr. Sanders has expressed his perceptive pragmatism through domestic diplomacy as far back as the 1980s when he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He solicited major powers to engage in disarmament efforts and called on others to rectify domestic injustices such as apartheid and human rights abuses. He ardently opposed the Reagan administration’s arming of the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, which aimed to overthrow the democratically elected government of Daniel Ortega. He has articulated his foreign economic policy from Capitol Hill whenever he has voted in opposition to free trade agreements and manipulative business practices that benefit transnational corporations at the expense of the working class. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the 2015 Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are just a few of the major agreements that have made his rejections list.
Mr. Sanders is committed to utilizing the tools of political and economic diplomacy as well as honest dialogue to resolve international impasses. He supports the nuclear deal sealed last year between the major world powers and Iran, stating that it is “imperative that we do everything we can to reach a diplomatic solution and avoid never-ending war in the Middle East.” Extending these views to Russia, he has said, “I would prefer to deal with the complicated issue in a measured way: serious international discussions about how we proceed, but force, force should be the last option that we use.”
In the end, what does this mean for the direction in which a President Sanders would take the country’s foreign policy? By stressing an honest acknowledgment of our historical mistakes, quagmires, and increasingly limited capacity to act unilaterally without increased political, financial, and human consequences, the foreign policy of a Sanders administration would be marked by a principled and idealistic pragmatism that acknowledges the realities of the international system. The United States would not revert to isolationism; he does not deny the country’s critical role in the world. However, it would not continue on its worn-out path of costly and tragic interventionism, either. Instead, the US would be as engaged as ever — stressing multilateral diplomacy, fair trade policies over those dictated by corporations, humanitarianism over nativism, and environmental sustainability over environmentally damaging business practices.
As the Clinton and Sanders campaigns continue to criticize each other’s foreign policy views, the fact remains that the former’s touted foreign policy has been marred by disappointments and that the latter actually does have a sound foreign policy. He may not emphasize it as much as he should, but it has been there nevertheless. Mr. Sanders has commented and acted on most, if not all, major international issues involving the United States since the 1980s. To criticize him as having little knowledge of foreign affairs is disingenuous. To criticize him for having taken no action on foreign policy amounts to the same. His voting history reveals his foreign policy, and the result of the recent Iowa caucus is the first sign that the American electorate is taking notice.
Plamen Mavrov is a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University, where he majored in International Affairs and Political Science.