It’s rather rare for me to have an opportunity to hear directly from the horse’s mouth. I rely, as so many do, on public media. But this weekend Senator Bernie Sanders paid a visit to Coney Island; a mere handful of subway stops away, it seemed unconscionable to not bother my Sunday with a speech. The unseasonably chilly breeze numbing my rapidly sunburning skin (New York winters, after all, lighten everyone a shade, me especially), I waited in an orderly, two-hour long security line, strolled by a trio of wonderfully abusive Donald Trump supporters (I’d expect no less) and found myself planted behind the phalanx of media outlets who wholly obscured the view of Sanders himself.
But I heard him, and at a rally, that’s all that counts.
There wasn’t much newsbreaking; Sanders repeated his talking points of many other stump speeches and his crowd reacted predictably to the themes he is most famous for. An old woman next to me passed out from the long wait; a swarm of cops provided a brief distraction, but hidden as we were behind the media, Sanders himself paid the situation no mind.
For a man whose electoral platform hinges heavily on domestic inequality, it made sense that the foreign policy aspect of his stump speech was light. But his statements bear analysis: with the New York primary coming up on April 19, Sanders is rapidly reaching his make-or-break political moment and victory in the Empire State could well propel him and his ideals to the White House.
First, a brief analysis of the Sanders movement itself
For nearly all eight years of the Barack Obama presidency, conservative opponents have slandered Obama as a socialist — or worse. This was part of a wider conservative political strategy to enrage and activate their base by playing on their worst fears. Conservatives believed, wrongly as it turned out, that if they could mobilize their base through rage they could establish themselves in the White House.
But why socialism? The United States, after all, has many socialist legacy programs: Social Security, welfare, Medicaid, all popular and widely accepted. But socialism remains even today linked with two devils in the American mind: Soviet communism and economic inefficiency. The former demon looms large in the minds of those indoctrinated with anti-Soviet propaganda in the 1950s and 60s.
Economic inefficiency, on the other hand, goes up against traditional American ideals that reach all the way back to Jamestown in 1607: if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Americans of all stripes label themselves as hardworking — work conversations invariably devolve into pissing contests over who has more hours and fewer vacation days. While Americans gripe, they fear being called lazy for asking for better hours or more time off: even younger Millennials, who as a generation advocate for better work-life balances, succumb to the tendency from time to time.
The boogeyman form of socialism plays on that: conservatives have long said that socialism will only empower the dreaded lazy worker, who will in turn kill jobs and make everyone worse off. This is a much more real world threat to Americans than the buried USSR: everyone, after all, knows or has known an indolent colleague they’d like to see gone.
So when Sanders declared himself for the presidency last spring, most pundits wrote him off immediately: The Daily Show, an American parody outlet, summarized much of that feeling. “He’s a socialist, for God’s sake!” Which was, last spring, a cardinal sin.
But years of slamming Obama as a socialist — when he was decidedly not — backfired on conservatives. Rather than illuminating Obama as too far left, it demonstrated Obama was not left enough. When a genuine socialist emerged, an audience had already been prepared.
And what of Sanders’ ideology itself?
Like Obama, much of it focuses on the domestics and, unlike Trump, little of it rocks the foreign policy boat.
Socialism in and of itself varies from place to place: old-school socialism seeks to abolish nation states, seeing them as the fortresses of the capital-hoarding elite. Sanders, as a democratic (and American) socialist has narrower goals.
On Coney Island, Sanders spoke briefly of the need to “destroy ISIS” — a turn he took after the Islamic State-inspired attack in San Bernardino. But he stopped short of the Trump/Cruz strategy of total annihilation and genocide, calling instead upon Muslim allies to do the heavy lifting of war on the ground.
The usage of “Muslim” rather than “our” or “Sunni” is a clever non-promise: by saying “Muslim,” he extends a hand to Iran in addition to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Key to the destruction of the Islamic State will be a local ground force capable of holding its territory in perpetuity: it’s hard to see that happening should Iran feel at threat.
Beyond that specific moment, however, Sanders talked little of overseas, unless it was in terms of trade. He slammed the Transpacific Partnership, or TPP, which he opposes: other free trade deals, he said, had hurt more than helped America. This is hardly responsible foreign policy: as mentioned in a prior article, free trade equalizes nations geopolitically, reduces the likelihood of war and breaks down unnecessary borders. After all, it was limited trade between the Soviets and Americans that helped thaw the Cold War.
Sanders is right that current free-trade deals favor the top elite, who of course wrote them to serve their own purposes. Recalibrating their effects is commendable (and essential, since deeply unequal nation states invariably collapse into civil war or revolution) but scrapping them wholly is not. Autarky is still a bad idea, even for a country like the United States so filled with people and resources.
Beyond that, however, Sanders implies he will carry on much of the Obama doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit.” But the Obama doctrine is clearly not enough for the future: the next president will have to manage not just the Islamic State, but the rise of Iran, the decline of Saudi Arabia, the thrashing about of Russia and the steady push of China. Sanders mentioned little of that and few have been interested in his thoughts on the matter, but the first socialist president would still be an American and forced to confront the geopolitical challenges of the era with force.
The next president’s foreign policy success will have to be proactive, foreseeing the multiplication of crises as the world order recalibrates: Arab states will collapse and reform, Russian power will reach it nadir and inevitable decline, Europe may yet return to bad, old habits and China has all the incentive in the world to usher American power out of the western Pacific. Few of the presidential candidates have said much about this: they are, after all, dim and distant ideas, full of hypotheticals, cloudy in the minds of the American voter.
The answer of whether Sanders has what it takes is not “no” but simply unknown. At the very least, he understand the Islamic State has no “bombs away” solution, which is a good start. He also voted against the Iraq War in 2003, but more out of dovish idealism rather than understanding it for the geopolitical catastrophe it became. (He does, at the end of his 2002 speech, mention unintended consequences, but it is not central to his argument against the war.)
Media outlets must press him on the issue: Trump has made it abundantly clear, after all, that he would begin trade wars left and right and isolate the United States from friends while waging relentless war on its enemies. What is Sanders’ full vision? How will he handle not just terrorism but the collapse of North Korea or a renewed Russian war in Ukraine? Such answers now will not only inform voters but send clear messages to a world anxious to see what America’s leadership might do next.
This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, April 13, 2016.