The differences between Biden and Sanders (I-Vt.) are apparent. The former vice president, for a dozen years either the chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traffics in conventional U.S. foreign policy thinking from the pre-Trump era. This has put Biden on the wrong side of issue after issue: championing corporate-led globalization; supporting the war in Iraq; embracing President Barack Obama’s drone assassination program; and voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement and for allowing China into the World Trade Organization.
Sanders, in contrast, has been a skeptic of U.S. interventions over the years, and a consistent critic of corporate-led globalization. During his presidential run, he said he would cut the military budget, end the long wars in the Middle East and review America’s empire of bases overseas. Addressing catastrophic climate change and building an economy that works for working people would rank as top national security priorities. Sanders is not alone in these views. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) echoed many of them during her Democratic campaign. Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and a range of organizations such as the new Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft have also driven elements of a new, progressive foreign-policy discussion.
Stark new realities give Biden every reason to reconsider. The global pandemic and economic collapse provide devastating evidence of fundamental security threats that the United States has slighted for too long. The progressive movement that Sanders has helped to build has captured the political future — consolidating remarkable support among voters under the age of 45. And President Trump’s pugnacious “America First” posturings have savaged the failings of the centrist establishment.
There are already some areas in which the vice president has taken the right stance, including his support for the War Powers Resolution introduced by Sanders and Khanna to end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s savaging of Yemen. But a unity platform has to go beyond easy gestures. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) put it, the process of coming together “should be uncomfortable for everyone involved. . . . If Biden is only doing things he’s comfortable with, then it’s not enough.”
A first area for common ground is redefined national security priorities. Trump’s National Security Policy statement treats the face-off with China and Russia as the primary threat, and Trump remains — in contrast to the military — in obtuse denial of climate change. Biden and Sanders could sensibly agree that the existential threat posed by climate change poses the greatest threat. Biden has stated he would explore creating Cabinet-level positions on climate and global health security, and revive U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement. But what’s needed is a major commitment to investing in a Green New Deal to power the recovery and transition the country to new energy sources.
A project of such scale raises the question of military spending. Trump, of course, has larded money on the Pentagon. Sanders and fellow progressives would cut the Pentagon budget. Biden and the national security establishment assert that the United States must maintain a significant military advantage over all rivals. By embracing the progressive view, Biden can show he is prepared to meet the most pressing challenges facing the country.
Obviously, the economic misery caused by the pandemic makes rebuilding our economy a national security priority. It also raises profound questions about corporate-led globalization, exposing the costs and fragility of global supply chains. Even before the pandemic, progressives indicted the global trading order for undermining America’s workers and contributing to extreme inequality. In addition to a Green New Deal, Biden and Sanders could agree on reordering our trade relations to put worker and environmental protections first and to crack down on corruption and tax avoidance.
Reversing the accelerating nuclear arms race offers another vital area for unity. Trump has sustained Obama’s trillion-dollar commitment to a new generation of nuclear weapons. Rising tensions with Russia have sidetracked any progress in arms control. The START Treaty, the last remaining limit on the arms race, expires next February. Democrats could unify behind renewing the new START agreement, and also embrace Warren’s call for a “no first use” declaration of nuclear weapons, helping to move the nuclear confrontation off hair-trigger status.
Ending the forever wars in the Middle East also should be a shared priority. Trump has broken his promise to bring the troops home. Sanders has repeatedly called for ending the wars and redefining the war on terrorism. Biden currently supports keeping Special Operations forces in the Middle East as part of the ongoing war on terrorism; he could move to a far bolder commitment.
The hardest reassessment would be over the emerging Cold War with both China and Russia. Trump has continued the Cold War buildup — sending arms to Ukraine, killing Russian soldiers in Syria, running NATO exercises on Russia’s border and augmenting forces in the South China Sea. Mainstream Democrats echo muscular rhetoric about both China and Russia. Sanders has called for an international progressive alliance to challenge the spread of oligarchical authoritarianism, including Russia and China. But progressives should not ignore the peril of a new Cold War with escalating and costly military tensions. Prioritizing engagement with Russia and China in arms control, and addressing common challenges such as climate change, would be a measure of needed realism — and provide more security.
If Biden lets progressives strengthen his commitment to ending the forever wars, bolster the priority he devotes to the climate crisis, and arm him with a global economic strategy that works for working people, the former vice president and the country will both benefit. On these and other areas, the conventional wisdom got it wrong; so let the change begin.