If there was any doubt that Bernie Sanders is gearing up for another run for the presidency, his speech today in Fulton, Missouri removed it. Sanders appeared at the very spot where Winston Churchill pronounced in 1946 that Stalin was creating an iron curtain in Europe. Sanders, however, enunciated a more emollient message than the British prime minister, laying out the framework for a progressive foreign policy around the globe. He took some shots at Trump, but his real target was the Democratic establishment. Will he be able to push the Democratic party to the left on foreign affairs, just as he has on healthcare?
Sanders reached into the old toolkit of the left, emphasising climate change, human rights and ‘outrageous income and wealth inequality’. But in some ways, his suspicion of Washington’s actions abroad also meant that he sounded like Trump, or at least the Trump of the campaign trail who targeted the Republican establishment by espousing a more modest role for America abroad. According to Sanders, `Far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm. Yes, it is reasonably easy to engineer the overthrow of a government. It is far harder, however, to know the long-term impact that that action will have.’ Sanders dredged up America’s sins during the cold war. The bill of indictment was a familiar one, ranging from intervention in Iran, together with the British, in 1953 to topple Mossadegh’s regime to meddling in Chile in 1973, not to mention Vietnam and Iraq.
Like Trump, Sanders dismissed the idea that America could singlehandedly set wrong aright abroad. Instead, he said `Some in Washington continue to argue that “benevolent global hegemony” should be the goal of our foreign policy, that the US, by virtue of its extraordinary military power, should stand astride the world and reshape it to its liking. I would argue that the events of the past two decades — particularly the disastrous Iraq war and the instability and destruction it has brought to the region — have utterly discredited that vision.’ The use of military force should be a ‘last resort,’ he added.
This is the sort of thing that Jeremy Corbyn might deliver in his sleep. But Sanders parted company with him (and Trump) in his indictment of Russia. He declared, `Today I say to Mr. Putin: we will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world. In fact, our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia. In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.’
Winning is something that Trump said would occur so often that Americans would get sick of it. But so far there’s been precious little of it. Kim Jong-un, the portly pariah of Pyongyang, is apparently gearing up to fire off another ICBM, which will undoubtedly prompt Trump to issue a new fusillade of tweets condemning Rocket Man. Iran seems to be unbowed by Trump’s threats to upend the nuclear deal and the Europeans are indicating they won’t follow in Washington’s footsteps.
If Trump does mire Washington in a land war in Asia or engages in hostilities with Iran, then Sanders’ hand will be immensely strengthened. For now, he has put the Democratic party on edge, signalling that the dominance of the liberal hawks such as former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power will not go unchallenged. In the new EOT (Era of Trump), it is no longer unthinkable that a bilious and cantankerous former socialist mayor from Vermont turned Senator could win the presidency in 2020, once more upending American foreign policy. For the foreign policy solons yearning for a restoration of the old order, the sight of Sanders inveighing against American global hegemony in Fulton, Missouri can only come as a rude shock.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of The National Interest