From both sides of the aisle, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy views have been consistently mischaracterized. A few weeks ago, Washington Post syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a piece called “The Four Foreign Policies” in which he contrasted what he called Sanders’s “pacifism” with the “unilateralism” of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the “mercantilism” of Donald Trump and the “internationalism” of Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Katrina vanden Heuvel, also a Post columnist, called him a “realist.” Others have dismissed or ridiculed Sanders as lacking any coherent national security agenda. Nineteen Clinton supporters released a letter earlier this month slamming Sanders for perceived lack of interest in global affairs.
On closer inspection, Sanders’s foreign policy views are clear, even though they defy conventional categories. In his debate with Clinton in New York, for example, Sanders articulated an alternative approach to climate change, the Middle East and multilateral alliances. He then traveled to Vatican City, where he gave a speech about global economic inequality. Before the Democratic presidential debate this month, his campaign responded to Clinton’s attack with its own letter of support signed by 20 foreign policy experts praising his foreign policy views.
These views are not pacifist, as Krauthammer argued. Sanders continues to argue for a strong military, the defeat of the Islamic State and the use of military force, albeit as a last resort. Nor are they purely “realist.” The letter circulated by members of Sanders’s foreign policy team stressed military restraint, rule-of-law-minded diplomacy and global economic justice — both as ends in themselves and as a means to strengthen U.S. national security.
Sanders did not invent this vision. He is channeling an alternative viewpoint on foreign affairs articulated by many on the progressive left for decades and outlined in Foreign Affairs magazine last summer by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In the article, Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) laid out concrete and specific policy proposals. These included increased funding for foreign aid; efforts to protect human rights and gender equality at home and abroad; renewed support for multilateral institutions; restrictions on the executive branch’s expanded power to wage war; and a strengthened socioeconomic base at home to more effectively project U.S. power.
Many of Sanders’s stated policy positions — on war and peace, diplomacy, inequality, and global crime — echo this menu of options. And Sanders’s foreign policy team includes experts on how to execute precisely such concrete initiatives. For example, Murphy, Schatz and Heinrich argue for repealing the open-ended post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in favor of an approach that keeps the U.S. military more beholden to Congress. Bill French, Sanders’s deputy foreign policy adviser, wrote a detailed paper on how to do that.
The Sanders approach is hard to categorize because it combines elements of several foreign policy perspectives: a realist aversion to unnecessary wars, a liberal concern with human rights and diplomacy, a constructivist emphasis on the pragmatic value of international morality and soft power, and a critical theorist’s rejection of such distinctions such as domestic versus international. By triangulating these positions, we can infer three distinct thematic pillars of progressive foreign policy thought that are particularly reflected in the Sanders campaign.
1. Interdependence between national security at home and security for those beyond our borders.
This view differs from the zero-sum rhetoric of Cruz and Trump. Sanders believes Americans are more secure, not less, if U.S. policy helps people abroad escape fear and deprivation. While Clinton-style liberals would broadly agree with these ambitions, Sanders would approach the goal in different ways, by helping people find safety and security primarily through nonmilitary means and by addressing what he sees as the root rather than proximate causes of global instability.
Consider Sanders’s and Clinton’s approaches to protecting civilians affected by the Syrian conflict. Both agree that the United States has a moral and a strategic reason to do more. Yet Clinton argues for no-fly zones and airstrikes, while Sanders opposes military intervention against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. At the same time, Sanders has stated that the United States “should not turn our backs on Syrian refugees.” While Clinton has set a 65,000-person cap on refugees from Syria, Sanders says there is “no magic number.” Sanders says that welcoming civilians fleeing disaster and danger will do more to delegitimize the Islamic State and Assad than sending in drones or troops.
Sanders’s remarks on Israel and Saudi Arabia similarly signal both a commitment to holding U.S. allies to international law and a different view of long-term U.S. interests in resolving conflicts. Whether it’s accurate or not, many people in Muslim-majority countries think that the United States has unfairly sided with Israel and ignored genuine Palestinian grievances. The resulting Muslim anger and anti-Americanism help groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State recruit members. Sanders thinks we can improve U.S. security and long-term interests if we change this perception by helping Palestinians and Israelis. And a majority of Americans agree with him.
For the same two reasons — moral principle and strategic interests — Sanders says he will confront U.S. allies in Muslim-majority governments who enable extremist ideologies that threaten U.S. and foreign civilians. Similarly, he consistently speaks out against drone strikes that kill large numbers of civilians — not only because he sees that as immoral but also because he thinks that it is strategically counterproductive.
None of these positions are pacifist. Sanders has said drones will remain an essential tool in the U.S. military arsenal. But he wants them used legally, effectively and only as part of legitimate wars waged as a last resort.
2. Global and local politics, and economic and political power, are deeply connected.
Sanders has made it clear that to project U.S. power abroad, the country must strengthen the moral foundations of that power with policies at home. This is precisely the approach to democracy promotion that realists prefer. Unlike realists, though, Sanders thinks beyond the state to emphasize cross-cutting threats to both domestic and global democratic institutions. He understands that soft power at home is threatened by militarism, income inequality and fear. He plans to demilitarize domestic law enforcement and global drug policy and to attend to the cross-border drivers and effects of corruption. Both positions point to his conviction that the national and the global are linked and that the key threats to America are transnational in nature.
Consider Sanders’s recent pivot from discussing domestic to global income inequality after visiting the Vatican. Pope Francis has insisted that global poverty is an international moral problem. Sanders posits that it is also a national security issue: Poverty fuels epidemics that can threaten Americans; relative deprivation fuels regional instability in places such as Yemen and Pakistan. While the average American believes that the United States should spend about 10 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid, in fact the country has historically given only about 1 percent of the budget to protecting refugees, investing in international education and health, reducing global poverty and giving humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, the federal government spends more than 20 times as much on defense. This is why Murphy, Schatz and Heinrich have called for a “New Marshal Plan” to promote human and global security abroad, an investment they say will yield returns in protecting U.S. interests at home.
That’s the position Sanders has been articulating.
3. Examine the evidence when assessing threats.
When assessing national security threats, Sanders’s priority is evaluating data and evidence. That’s visible in his network of signatories and endorsers, which includes independent foreign policy experts, including numerous scholars, rather than Beltway insiders. Sanders is talking to the kinds of people whom President George W. Bush ignored when his administration invaded Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks despite the absence of credible evidence that the nation was a threat to our own. For instance, in an election cycle when many Americans believe — quite incorrectly — that terrorism is the No. 1 threat to the nation, Sanders is not afraid to instead talk frankly about climate change as the most fundamental national security threat of our age. The Pentagon agrees.
Similarly, Sanders’s willingness to help civilians flee conflict as an alternative to no-fly zones is consistent with social science findings that the strategic and economic gains of welcoming refugees far outweigh the security risks, while the reverse can be true for military intervention in complex emergencies. His willingness to review the way we use drones is consistent with empirical evidence suggesting that the tactical gains of current drone policy do not outweigh the strategic costs: Worldwide, targeted killings are seen as unlawful and illegitimate, and evidence is mounting that they cause more terrorism than they stop.
No matter who takes office, Sanders is making room for a different kind of foreign policy agenda and vision of what it means to pursue American interests abroad.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of “ ‘Lost’ Causes.” Follow her at @charlicarpenter.
Carpenter is among those who have informally advised the Sanders campaign on national security issues, but she has not endorsed any candidate. The views in this article are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Sanders campaign.