Call it the Bernie doctrine.
Perhaps with a 2020 run in mind, the independent senator from Vermont is departing from his usual rallies and town halls on Medicare for All, an unjust tax code, and other domestic issues to stake out a position in unexpected territory: what he sees as the overly militaristic foreign policy embraced by the establishment in both parties.
“I think for too long in this country we've had a one-party foreign policy,” Sanders said in an interview with VICE News on Friday. The 76-year-old senator is gathering a variety of experts on foreign affairs and an audience of citizens for a foreign policy–focused town hall in D.C. that will be live streamed across Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter on Monday night at 7 p.m.
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last week was the catalyst for the event, but Sanders said he feels it’s also serving a “need to develop what I call a progressive foreign policy,” an assertion that veterans of the Obama administration may take umbrage with.
Sanders’ relish in denouncing the Republican and Democratic establishments is nothing new. But it is a striking contrast to 2016, when he preferred to focus on the domestic over the international, railing more against millionaires and billionaires than terrorists and despots. Sanders' campaign website’s issues page didn’t include any sections on foreign policy — except climate change — until September of 2015, six months after Sanders announced his candidacy. Aides used to laugh that every time Sanders tried to make a speech about foreign policy on the campaign trail, the last third of the speech inevitably was about the billionaire class.
One-party foreign policy
But in an interview with VICE News focusing exclusively on foreign policy, Sanders was eager to wade into international waters and argue that many Democrats have bought into a peace-through-strength, militaristic approach to the world. “I have been concerned that many Democrats ended up supporting Trump's request for what ended up being $165 billion increase in military spending over a two-year period,” he said, in reference to the recent budget deal.
Democratic leaders in Congress were publicly supportive of Trump’s requests for significant increases in military spending. “In our negotiations, congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defense,” Nancy Pelosi’s office announced in the midst of the budget deal back-and-forth. “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request,” Sen. Chuck Schumer’s team said.
“If [Trump] thinks it's the United States against the whole world, I suspect that that means never-ending war”
Sanders argued that Democrats and Republicans' support for more military spending and quick-trigger reactions to world events are, in part, reacting to political incentives. “It is very sexy and it works in the polls for a politician to get up and say, ‘You know we are going to stand up, we're gonna use military force, we're going to fight for quote-unquote ‘freedom,'” Sanders said. “And then you have, you know, CNN broadcasting the bombs falling someplace,” he said.
Trump has defended his "talk loudly and carry a big stick" foreign policy approach and ridiculed alternatives. “Remember when everyone in the fake news was saying, ‘He’s gonna get us into a nuclear war’?” Trump said at a campaign rally in Indiana last Thursday. “You know what gets you into nuclear wars and you know what gets you into other wars? Weakness.”
Sanders sees Trump’s rhetoric as an escalation toward military conflict. “If he thinks it's the United States against the whole world, I suspect that that means never-ending war,” Sanders said.
Sanders isn’t a non-interventionist or an isolationist in the Ron Paul mold, though. He supported NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and voted to take military action in Afghanistan in 2001. He sees international institutions like the United Nations and aggressive multilateral relations as the key to assiduously avoiding military action at all costs.
“I would like to see American exceptionalism mean leading the world in addressing problems”
This more internationalist view of the world suggests that Sanders is not always a fan of the “American exceptionalism” pervasive in the country’s politics. “What I would like to see American exceptionalism be about is instead of spending more money on the military than the next 12 nations combined, instead of supplying Saudi Arabia — a despotic monarchy with over $100 billion of very sophisticated weaponry — I would like to see American exceptionalism mean leading the world in addressing problems,” he said.
That vision, he said, would be to “send doctors all over the world, working on climate change all over the world” and working on poverty and education. “That should be the role of the United States, not to be the supplier of weapons to despots and autocrats all over the world,” he said.
This articulation of a more humanist, less America First approach has been months in the making.
Last September, Sanders delivered the Green Foundation Lecture at Westminster College, a prestigious address on the United States and the world that's famous as the forum for Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech. There, Sanders delivered a stinging rebuke to the United States’ approach to terrorism since 9/11, from W. Bush to Obama to Trump.
Disastrous war on terror
“As an organizing framework, the global war on terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership,” he said. “Orienting U.S. national security strategy around terrorism essentially allowed a few thousand violent extremists to dictate policy for the most powerful nation on earth.”
In April, Sanders gave a speech at the national conference for J Street, an advocacy groups focused on peace between Israel and the Arab world, where he said Israel had “massively overreacted” to the recent Gaza protests that have left dozens of Palestinians dead. This week, Sanders delivered an immediate rebuttal to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement in a Facebook Live that attracted 1.3 million views.
“Real American leadership and real American power is not shown by our ability to blow things up”
“Real American leadership and real American power is not shown by our ability to blow things up but by our ability to bring parties together to forge international consensus around shared problems and then to mobilize that consensus to address those problems,” he said in the short rebuttal. In many ways, Sanders sees the Iran nuclear deal as an example of how he wishes foreign policy were conducted with a focus on diplomacy coordinated among many countries.
But Sanders’ recent outspokenness on foreign affairs is more broad strokes than fine details. Asked whether America should withdraw military forces from Africa after an enormous escalation in recent years, Sanders told VICE News: “I don't want to give you a definitive answer. I don't know as much as I should on all of these issues.” He added, “In general, what we have got once again, what we have to try to do, is solve political problems politically not militarily.”
Asked whether the United States should withdraw forces from Afghanistan and if President Obama made a mistake by increasing America’s military presence there, Sanders said he wanted to keep the focus on the Iran deal: “It's a good question, and we could talk about it some other time. How's that?”
Cover image: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a rally with MoveOn members and allies gather with leading senators to demand that the Senate vote to reject Mike Pompeo's nomination for Secretary of State at the U.S. Capitol on April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn.org)