A look at Sanders’s speeches and statements in recent years provides a different picture, at least in foreign policy. What emerges is a politician strongly shaped by his opposition to U.S. military interventions abroad, but also by a conviction that the United States should do what it can to support democracy and resist authoritarianism. That distinguishes him sharply not only from Trump but also from some of the Democratic candidates cast as moderates.
Much of the recent coverage of Sanders’s international record has focused on the trip he took to the Soviet Union 32 years ago. Yet a better guide to the candidate’s actual thinking in 2020 is the formal foreign policy address he delivered in 2017 in Fulton, Mo., the site of Winston Churchill’s indelible “Iron Curtain” address.
Sanders paid homage to Churchill, saying he “strongly agree[d]” with his famous precept that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms.” He then outlined a global role for the United States as a “champion” of “the values of freedom, democracy and justice.”
“Our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the world,” Sanders said. “In the struggle of democracy vs. authoritarianism, we intend to win.” He singled out Russia, saying, “Today I say to Mr. [Vladimir] Putin: We will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world.”
That stand compares favorably with Trump’s pandering to the Kremlin and other autocratic regimes. It also looks good compared to some of the declarations of Mike Bloomberg, who has said China’s Xi Jinping is “not a dictator” and compared Putin’s seizure of the Crimea in Ukraine to the U.S. annexation of California.
But what, you say, of the undeniably undemocratic regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which Sanders is frequently accused of supporting? It’s true he’s been softer on them than on right-wing dictatorships. In the 1980s, like a lot of American liberals (John F. Kerry comes to mind), he favored Nicaragua’s Sandinista government over U.S.-backed “contra” rebels.
Yet Sanders is unambiguous now about Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, whom he called “a vicious tyrant” last year. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Sanders said in December, “has since become a dictator, and I think that’s unfortunate.” He said he hopes Cuba “moves toward a more democratic society.” As for the former Soviet Union, he told the New York Times it “was an authoritarian dictatorship, and that’s what I believed then and that’s what I believe the case to be today.”
What’s driven Sanders’s equivocations toward some of these regimes is his virulent opposition to U.S. foreign military interventions, as well as other operations aimed at regime change. In his Fulton speech, he inveighed against U.S. backing for coups in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973, along with the war in Iraq. “Far too often,” he said, “American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm.”
Again, Sanders’s position is not very different from other liberals of his generation, and the likely consequence — a refusal to dispatch Marines to Caracas or cruise missiles to Tehran — doesn’t distinguish him from other Democratic candidates, or (so far) Trump. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Sanders does say that military force is sometimes necessary and that terrorism remains a threat. He supports NATO, and he harshly condemned Trump for withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria at the expense of Kurds who fought the Islamic State.
There’s little question that a President Sanders would cause the foreign policy “blob” some heartburn. He’s a hardcore protectionist on trade, though he probably wouldn’t follow Trump in wielding tariffs as political weapons. Sanders wants to cut defense spending considerably. But he surely would try to reverse the damage done by Trump to U.S. alliances and revive multilateral initiatives, such as action on global warming.
Above all, if his speeches are to be believed, Sanders would put the United States back on the side of global democracy and human rights at a time when those causes desperately need bolstering. Would other Democrats do as much? Not all of them have made it clear.