The 2020 US Presidential Election process is currently in full swing. We have already heard multiple Democratic debates, and we’ve had primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. From the three early primary states, one man is currently leading in both delegate counts and nationwide polling, and that is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. His campaign platform of promoting Medicare for All and tuition free college, attacking the political establishment, and creating a broad range of voter coalitions — combined with his overall popularity — has pushed him into the position of clear front runner for the Democratic nomination. Throughout the Democratic debates, Sanders has performed well compared to the other Democratic candidates. With each debate, his poll numbers and fundraising have continued to increase exponentially.
A variety of issues have been debated in the recent Democratic debates. Senator Sanders, alongside other Democratic candidates, has made very clear his views on immigration, healthcare, a wealth tax, job creation and climate change. However, the topic of foreign policy has thus far not been discussed extensively in the recent debates. Some of the issues that are prominent in the debates, most notably job creation and climate change, are arguably solvable through international cooperation with other countries. On climate change, for example, it is imperative that the United States work together with international allies to tackle the issue with a liberalist approach.
In the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas, foreign policy discussions were centered around the US-Mexico relationship and climate change. But two of the topics quickly deviated into discussion of immigration policy and the prospects for American coal miners, gas and oil producers losing their jobs. However, it is understandable that at this point in the election, the candidates realize that talking about domestic issues is more pressing than discussing foreign policy ideas. It can be argued, however, that foreign policy should remain a key topic of discussion in the upcoming Democratic debates. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas Debate, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that the debate summed up the role of foreign policy in the 2020 election, which is “AWOL” (absent without leave).
As Americans choose their next commander in chief and diplomat in chief, it is important to know where candidates stand on the most important global issues facing the world today. I’d like to review here Bernie Sanders’ worldview and likely foreign policy.
Sanders on foreign affairs: stands apart from other Democrats
Bernie Sanders has been making headlines for his perceived “radical” ideas on domestic affairs. Less attention has been paid, however, to his foreign policy. Sanders’ approach to foreign policy is similar to the way he approaches domestic policy. His ideas on foreign policy are at the same time unpredictable and bold, as he is willing to differentiate himself from his Democratic peers.
One somewhat bizarre aspect of Sanders’s worldview is influenced by his democratic socialist ideology. Bernie Sanders has voiced his “admiration” of certain social policies in Latin American countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He also voiced admiration for some of Fidel Castro’s programs. While Sanders agreed that Castro’s authoritarian regime was wrong, Sanders praised his “literacy programs.” He also voiced support for the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s. As Mayor of Burlington, Sanders delivered 500 tons of supplies to a Sandinista-controlled town, Puerto Cabezas, which is now the sister city of Burlington. Burlington was described by the New York Times as “a haven for left-wing activism in the twilight of the Cold War.” While Sanders is not a socialist, but rather a democratic socialist, and the Sandinista situation was far more complex than the US government made it out to be, voicing such nuanced opinions about murderous tyrants in Latin America would likely still not sit well with voters. Democrats in Florida have already distanced themselves from Sanders, and this could very well endanger his position in that important battleground state.
Although Sanders did not promote the authoritarian policies of Latin American despots, he nevertheless supported some of the social changes the dictators effected through their actions. For example, he once remarked that “the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today.” The nuance and subtlety of his positions, while containing much truth and sincerity, will be lost on many American voters. Thus, it may prove to be a big electoral threat for Sanders. The reality of the everyday lives of people in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua today makes it difficult for many Americans to understand why a sitting United States Senator who is running for the White House would voice admiration for those countries. This is one aspect of foreign policy that Bernie Sanders must stress in the upcoming debates and town halls. Otherwise, he could be branded as a socialist sympathizer. This would not sit well with average Americans who are looking for a candidate that can beat Donald Trump.
Aside from this one glaring aspect of Sanders’s foreign policy, he has shown the ability to be bold in his foreign policy ideas. This is very prominent in his approach to Israel. The Atlantic wrote that Sanders has the “willingness to cross red lines that have long defined the boundaries of acceptable opinion.” Sanders, along with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, wrote a letter to Mike Pompeo urging him to address the humanitarian issue in the Gaza Strip. Sanders has lambasted Gaza as an “open air-prison,”and labeled Benjamin Netanyahu as part of the growing worldwide trend of authoritarianism. Sanders has taken up the cause of Palestinians, causing many to label his criticism of Israel as radical. It is stunning that a Jew with the biggest chance of winning the White House could change completely American policy towards Israel from what it was with previous administrations.
Sanders also attacked the idea of American exceptionalism. As we have known for years, many Presidents have campaigned on the fact that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. This has led to both unilateral foreign policy action (such as Bush’s “with us or against us” attitude), or continuously promoting American self-interest abroad. Sanders plans to change all of that. His administration would champion a “responsible foreign policy” that is based on the will of the American people. He would ask Congress to reassert their constitutional role in war-making, which would basically limit his own ability to pursue foreign intervention. He would implement diplomacy with the intention of promoting human rights and economic fairness, and stemming climate change, authoritarianism and militarism.
Bold ideas and policies, but at what cost?
All of the ideas mentioned above, combined with his worldview and open respect for some policies of socialist countries, constitute an idea so radical that it would ordinarily cost a politician his career. Challenging American exceptionalism, voicing admiration for socialist regimes, and challenging Israel are ideas that have never been brought forth by any Presidential candidate.
Yet Sanders is not an ordinary candidate. Those ideas have not lost him a significant amount of support. This could be attributed to his big following among the youth of America, who have grown tired of the way the system has failed them domestically and could cost them their future through reckless foreign policy. The anti-imperialist sentiment among young voters coexists comfortably with Sanders and his policies.
At the same time, we cannot underestimate the threat this could mean for candidate Sanders, particularly given the fact that he is a walking bullseye for Republicans attacks. Mayor Bloomberg has already labeled Sanders as a communist. The mainstream media went into panic mode when Sanders won the popular vote in the first three primaries, and they’ve tried to downplay his victory. Republicans and Donald Trump are excited to face Bernie Sanders in November, as they consider Sanders to be the easiest Democratic challenger to beat. Even the Democratic Party has reservations about Sanders being the nominee come summer.
Yet we cannot write off Bernie Sanders. His ideas may be radical, but his fighting spirit and support among the youth of America are monumental. This almost undeniably makes him a formidable opponent for Trump and the Republicans.
My guess is that Sanders will give them a run for their money in the general election in November.