Understanding Bernie Sanders’ Foreign Policy Approach

Running for president of the United State means taking on not only the country’s problems but the world’s problems. Whoever is sworn in as president in January 2017 will be forced to deal with crises around the globe the previous administration was either unable or unwilling to resolve:

Beyond reiterating the undeniable truth that war is bad and peace is preferable, Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders has said little about his foreign policy plans on the campaign trail. Foreign policy isn’t listed on the “Issues”* page of his campaign website and the foreign policy section of his Senate website is literally blank.


But make no mistake, Bernie Sanders has a foreign policy.

More important than memorizing Sanders’ individual positions on individual problems abroad is grasping his unconventional approach to foreign policy. Once you understand his underlying method, you can predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy how he would respond to the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call about an overseas emergency. He has never put pen to paper and spelled out a “Sanders Doctrine” but we can discern what that doctrine would be based on his words and actions over the past 30 years as a public official. The funny thing about Sanders is that he has always had a foreign policy — even as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.


On October 29, 1981, mayor Sanders wrote a letter (above) to the Chinese Communist Party’s chairman, Hu Yaobang, and a nearly identical one to Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, urging them to scale back Cold War arms spending and begin negotiations with other world leaders to do the same. Similar letters from Sanders followed addressed to the prime ministers of France and the United Kingdom as well as U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

Burlington’s foreign policy during the Sanders administration evolved in direct response to U.S. foreign policy developments during the Reagan administration. When Reagan increased military spending, cut taxes for Corporate America and the billionaire class, and slashed spending on social programs, Sanders fought for the opposite. When Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an “Evil Empire, Burlington stepped up people-to-people contacts with Soviet citizens by becoming sister cities with Yaroslavl. When Reagan armed right-wing death squads known as Contras to destabilize their democratically elected leftist Sandinista government, Burlington adopted the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas as a sister city and raised $100,000 in private donations for Nicaraguan humanitarian relief. Sanders’ first trip abroad as mayor was not a personal vacation but a selfless gesture of solidarity — he visited Puerto Cabezas and not on the taxpayers’ dime.

Upon returning to Burlington, Sanders wrote a letter to former President Carter imploring him to visit Nicaragua to break the Sandinista government’s political isolation and to improve housing for poor Nicaraguans through the Habitat for Humanity organization.

Shortly after Sanders was first elected Vermont’s sole representative in the House of Representatives in 1990, he took a stand on his first major war as a Congressman — the 1991 Gulf War. He voted against authorizing the use of military force against Iraq despite acknowledging that Iraq had no right to invade and occupy Kuwait and that Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant. For Sanders, these two facts were not sufficient reasons to go to war. Instead, he supported renewing diplomatic efforts and imposing sanctions on Iraq as non-military means of reaching the same outcome — ending Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.

Sanders worried in 1991 that the Gulf War would be “laying the groundwork for more and more wars for years to come,” a prophetic statement given the subsequent U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and the current war on ISIS. Although the 1991 Gulf War ended after a few weeks in a U.S. victory, Americans and Iraqis continued to pay with their lives for that victory in the years that followed. U.S. soldiers, possibly because of exposure to depleted uranium munitions or Iraq’s destroyed chemical weapon stockpiles, developed a range of illnesses collectively dubbed Gulf War syndrome. Sanders was at the forefront of the fight to win U.S. government recognition of Gulf War syndrome and get affected veterans the help and support they needed. At the same time U.S. soldiers were developing Gulf War-related illnesses, over 500,000 Iraqi children died as a result of crippling post-war economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

When President Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright infamously declared that 500,000 dead Iraqi children was “worth it, Sanders disagreed. He and 42 members of the House signed an open letter to the Clinton administration calling for an end to this atrocity by relaxing economic (but not military) sanctions on Iraq. In 1998, he voted for the Iraq Liberation Act which funded pro-democracy groups and humanitarian efforts within the country and stated, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” When the Clinton administration bombed Iraq later that year in response to Iraq’s expulsion of U.N. weapons inspectors (who were later exposed as spies working for the Central Intelligence Agency), he opposed the bombing.

The Sanders Doctrine: Theory and Practice

At first glance, Sanders’ opposition to the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq coupled with his support for the Iraq Liberation Act and the war on ISIS might seem eclectic or arbitrary. ‘Left’ critics of Sanders such as Counterpunch, Antiwar.com, and Jacobin have seized on these alleged contradictions to paint him as a closeted militarist, a garden variety hypocrite, or an inconsistent opponent of U.S. imperialism. These gross mischaracterizations all depend on ignoring or deliberately misconstruing the principle these votes and positions stem from.

Sanders’ record on Iraq-related issues over the past 25 years is entirely consistent with his core values as a democratic socialist: namely, that working people — in the U.S. and around the world — are entitled to a decent standard of living in conditions of peace and freedom. Whatever action furthered that outcome, he supported; whatever action impeded that outcome, he opposed.

But if the guiding principle of the Sanders doctrine is simple, the struggle to the advance that principle amid the world’s wars and complex conflicts is not. Studying how he grappled with a variety of concrete situations sheds light on how the Sanders doctrine translates into practice and policy:

Kosovo Crisis — After Yugoslavia violated a 1998 ceasefire with the Kosovo Liberation Army, rejected diplomacy, and embarked on a brutal campaign to drive tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo, Sanders voted for U.S. military action in conjunction with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to stop Yugoslav forces from trampling on the right of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians to live free of war and violence. At the same time, he reached out to Russian lawmakers to jump start peace efforts (Moscow backed Belgrade so Russia had significant influence over Yugoslavia). In his judgment, U.S. military action in the Kosovo crisis was used as a last and not a first resort and inaction would have done more harm than good once diplomacy failed. Sanders staffer Jeremy Brecher resigned in protest against his vote and wrote an open letter claiming that NATO’s air war has virtually no probability of halting the displacement and killing of the Kosovo Albanians. Nevertheless, the 78-day bombing campaign did exactly that and 95% of the refugees who fled the 1998-1999 fighting returned to their homes.

Terrorism — When the Taliban regime in Afghanistan refused to hand Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda associates over to the U.S. after their September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Sanders voted for military action to overthrow the Taliban because he saw no other way to hold the perpetrators and organizers of the attacks accountable for their crimes. When he concluded in 2008 that the war against the Taliban insurgency was unwinnable, he voted against war funding.

More broadly, Sanders sees terrorism as a  very serious problem, as a threat to the peace and freedom working people in the U.S. and around the world are entitled to. For him, tackling terrorism in some cases requires the use of military force, including assassinating terrorists like Osama bin Laden. He hailed the Seal Team Six raid that killed bin Laden in 2011 as a “historic moment in our fight against international terrorism and his Al Qaeda organization and concluded “I hope the death of Osama bin Laden and the growth of democratic movements in the Muslim world marks a momentous turning point, which leads the region toward peace and prosperity and away from terrorism, death and destruction.”

While Sanders is willing to use force to kill terrorists and thwart terrorist attacks, he also knows that force alone cannot solve the problem of terrorism since it requires a comprehensive approach utilizing not just military but diplomatic, political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and moral elements as well. He is keenly aware that military action can backfire and lead to more terrorism. One of the major reasons he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a hypothetical war with Iran is because both would lead to more terrorism. He wants to scale back and reform the use of anti-terrorist drone strikes which have killed thousands of civilians for the same reason.

Israel/Palestine — Sanders supports a two-state solution and an evenhanded U.S. approach to the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians because he wants working people on both sides of the struggle to enjoy a decent standard of living in conditions of peace and freedom. For that reason, he wants to move away from providing military aid to Israel in favor of economic aid and would like to provide more economic aid to the Palestinians as well.

Greece’s Debt Crisis — After winning elections in January 2015, Greece’s leftist SYRIZA government moved to end the country’s economic and debt crises with a stimulus package so they raised the minimum wage, stopped the sale of public assets at fire sale prices, and provided emergency food and electricity to the poor. As head of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders wrote to the head of the International Monetary Fund (one of Greece’s creditors) urging the bank to support rather than oppose these measures. When another of Greece’s creditors, the European Central Bank (ECB), retaliated against SYRIZA’s pro-growth anti-austerity measures by no longer accepting Greek bonds as collateral for the short-term loans needed to keep the country’s banks open, Sanders wrote to the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Janet Yellen imploring her to tell the ECB to cease and desist: The United States cannot stand idly by while the European Central Bank undermines the new democratically elected government of Greece, induces deflation and risks financial instability. He warned that:

It would be a terrible mistake for the world to forget what happens when a democratically-elected government, as was the case in Germany in the 1920s, is unable to relieve the severe economic suffering of its people.  We must remember that waiting in the wings should this recently elected Greek government fail is the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn party.  We cannot allow fascism to come to power in a European country due to our unwillingness to reverse harmful austerity policies.

Free-Trade Agreements — Sanders opposed treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) favored by Corporate American and universally opposed by labor unions that force American workers to compete with workers in Third World countries for jobs in a race to the bottom over who will work for the least amount of money. Since NAFTA is now a legally binding treaty between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, he wants to renegotiate the treaty’s terms so that they favor the working and the middle classes rather than multinational corporations.

The aforementioned examples illustrate the distinguishing or defining characteristics of Sanders’ foreign policy approach:

  1. Values-Driven — Conventional foreign policymaking is driven by realpolitik, meaning states pursue their “national interests” regardless of ethical considerations or moral consistency. By contrast, Sanders’ foreign policymaking is driven by his values as a democratic socialist which means the morality of U.S. actions abroad is of paramount importance to him. He opposed the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq in part because of the moral precedent it would set for the behavior of other nations who might launch their own unilateral wars of aggression using the Bush doctrine of preemption.
  2. Grounded in Class-Struggle Politics — When Sanders looks at other countries, their forms of government, and their governing and opposition parties, he sees not just nations but social classes — oligarchs and billionaires on one side, working and middle classes on the other. He did what he could to aid leftist governments in Nicaragua in the 1980s and Greece in 2015 because both struggled to make government work for working people against the stubborn resistance of oligarchs.
  3. Internationalism and Coalition-Building — An isolationist is someone who wants his or her government to remain isolated on the world stage and uninvolved with problems beyond the borders of his or her country while an internationalist is just the opposite. For an internationalist like Sanders, global poverty, famines, civil wars, military dictatorships, ethnic cleansing, climate change, international terrorism, and disease outbreaks are not problems individual nation-states can solve independently of one another. Just as Sanders exhorts working class and middle class people to stand together to take on the billionaire class and the oligarchs at home, he wants nations and peoples to stand together in coalitions to take on ISIS, climate change, and other serious problems abroad.
  4. “It’s Complicated” and No “Magical Solution”— These two phrases are some of Sanders’ most-used expressions when he speaks in detail about a foreign policy problem. He recognizes the reality that some problems overseas are too big, too complicated, and too long term even for the president of the United States to solve. He rejects absurd and simplistic notions like ‘military action always makes things worse’ and ‘cutting off U.S. military aid to Israel will lead to justice for the Palestinians and peace in the Middle East.’
  5. War: The Last Resort — Any time Sanders mentions the topic of war he says that war is a “last resort” to be used only after every other option has been exhausted. In the case of the 1991 Gulf War, Sanders opposed going to war even after diplomacy was exhausted because he foresaw that the inevitable U.S. victory would not be the end but the beginning of further U.S. military engagements in one of the world’s most politically complicated and volatile regions. So even in cases where diplomacy has run its course and military action becomes an option for him, he still carefully weighs the pluses and minuses of going to war and may conclude that a given war is not worth the risks or the cost in lost and ruined lives.

An Independent on Foreign Policy

As with every other issue, the independent democratic socialist Senator from Vermont marches to the beat of his own drum on foreign policy. He is too internationalist for isolationists like Ron Paul, too reluctant to intervene for liberal interventionists like Human Rights Watch, too pro-peace for neoconservatives like John McCain, and not pro-peace enough for pacifists and anti-imperialists who oppose U.S. military action in all circumstances (including the deployment of U.S. military doctors to Liberia to fight the Ebola outbreak).

Sanders’ foreign policy positions are not above criticism, but claims that he ‘sold out’ or ‘betrayed’ his core values as a democratic socialist on foreign policy cannot be substantiated without relying on lies and misrepresentations either of his views or of the issues at stake surrounding particular cases. For working people, for friends of peace and freedom in the U.S. and around the world, there is no better choice in the 2016 election for who should answer that 3 a.m. phone call than Bernie Sanders.

*On September 23, 2015, the Sanders campaign added a “War and Peace” section to the “Issues” page.

23 responses to “Understanding Bernie Sanders’ Foreign Policy Approach

  1. Wow! Absolutely excellent research and commentary on Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy. Thank you.

    By relating Bernie’s past actions and statements on foreign policy, you clearly reveal his consistency in principle and keen insight.

    I hear Bernie will release an official detailed perspective on his foreign policy – and the blank foreign policy pages on his websites will be filled. I knew only a little of what to expect. Your article leads me to anticipation a brilliant Sanders foreign policy.

    Readers may also like to visit FeelTheBern.org to read the Foreign Policy & National Security section, as well as the Military & Veterans section.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I tend to think the same thing. But the Pluto/Uranus squares of the past few years tell as that all bets are off on who will be nominated / win this election. Expect the unexpected.


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