correction: The original version of this column incorrectly stated that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) referred to “the overthrow of the shah of Iran” as a “U.S. misdeed” in a September speech. Sanders was citing the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and the installation of the shah. His speech was in September 2017. This version has been updated.
For decades, elites in the United States had a consensus on foreign policy: They believed that championing a liberal world order was in our interest. Now, we are seeing a new left-right axis emerge around protectionism and isolationism — the very policies whose failure during the 1930s ultimately led to the internationalist consensus of the postwar period.
President Trump has launched trade wars and undermined our allies while kowtowing to tyrants. And the Democrats? They don’t have much of a foreign policy, and when the party’s progressives propound one, the results sound like Trumpism of the left.
Here, for example, is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) writing in Foreign Affairs: “While international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected. Efforts to promote the United States’ own security have soaked up huge resources and destabilized entire regions, and meanwhile, U.S. technological dominance has quietly eroded. . . . To fight back, we need to pursue international economic policies that benefit all Americans, not merely an elite few.”
How is this different from what Trump says? The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is as ready to abandon free trade as the Trumpified GOP — and as willing to criticize money spent for nation-building abroad as a giveaway to foreigners that would better be directed toward domestic needs.
“Far too often,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said at Westminster College in September 2017, “American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm.” Trump, too, wants to scale back foreign interventions. He is pulling out of Syria and drawing down in Afghanistan. Neither Democrats nor Republicans will make a principled argument for nation-building conducted by small numbers of soldiers, diplomats and aid workers: namely, that it is far cheaper to help foreign governments control their own territory than to deal with the terrorism, crime and disease that flourish in ungoverned areas.
To be sure, Trump would hardly agree with a great deal of what Sanders and Warren say. The senators focus on combating climate change and income inequality — problems whose existence Trump does not admit. They also strongly condemn authoritarianism and corruption — problems that Trump exemplifies rather than combats. And they stress the need to cooperate with allies, rather than to disparage them as Trump does.
There are sharp limits to that cooperation, however. Warren, for example, writes that “we should encourage our allies to enhance their multilateral cooperation and build alternatives to China’s coercive diplomacy.” Great idea, except that Warren is as opposed as Trump to the most effective alternative to Chinese economic hegemony — the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
And Warren’s desire to aid allies doesn’t preclude her from demanding that U.S. troops be brought “home from Afghanistan and Iraq.” It would be interesting to find out how she squares this exit strategy with her support for “human rights abroad,” since a U.S. exit would be a boon to horrific human rights violators such as the Islamic State and the Taliban. But Warren never confronts the obvious contradiction.
Nor do Warren and Sanders explain how they can stand up to authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia while cutting defense spending. Like Trump, they engage in wishful thinking by imagining that if the United States does less, our allies will do more. More likely, they will simply accommodate themselves to predatory states such as Iran, Russia and China — or else take destabilizing actions such as acquiring nuclear weapons.
Also like the president, Sanders and Warren have little to say about the appalling abuses committed by the United States’ enemies. Like Trump, who blames bad relations with Russia on former president Barack Obama and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the progressives sound as though many of the world’s problems are made in America — rather than in Moscow, Tehran or Beijing. Sanders even included in his Westminster speech a long list of U.S. misdeeds, such as the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile.
Sanders rejects the pursuit of “benevolent global hegemony.” He argues 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.” But Sanders seems oblivious to the events of the more distant past — particularly the 1914-1945 period — that discredited the policy of disengagement that both he and Trump favor.
If Democrats want a foreign policy vision fit for a superpower, they should ignore Sanders and Warren and, instead, read the Atlantic article written by former Hillary Clinton foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan. He argues for a policy of “American exceptionalism”: working for the common good as well as our own self-interest. The big problems facing the world — whether from Russia and China or from the spread of weapons of mass destruction, cyberattacks and climate change — require American leadership to address. International cooperation “does not happen spontaneously,” Sullivan noted. "It requires some actor to step and lead,” and if the United States doesn’t do so, who will? Neither the progressive Democrats nor the Trumpified Republicans have a good answer to that important question.