The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sanders and Warren are challenging the post-Cold War foreign policy establishment

Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Alex Brandon/AP)

After mobilizing massive protests against the Iraq War before it began, and more recently spearheading campaigns to pressure Congress to end the war in Yemen and reassert its war-powers control, progressives have been relatively quiet in the foreign-policy debate. Now that is beginning to change, with progressives stepping up to issue an increasingly bold and broad call for fundamental reform in our global stance. Major speeches by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), both potential presidential contenders in 2020, issued a challenge not only to President Trump’s erratic and authoritarian course, but also to the foreign policy establishment in both parties and the ruinous bipartisan consensus of the past decades.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the foreign policy establishment envisioned the United States as the “indispensable nation,” policing an international order that would spread democracy, human rights and prosperity around the world. Instead, we suffered the Iraq War debacle, the global financial collapse, the wars without victory or end, the rise of an assertive mercantilist China and the reaction of an encircled Russia. Add to those the growing inequality and insecurity at home and the accelerating existential threat posed by catastrophic climate change.

After Trump’s improbable victory in 2016, that same establishment mobilized to defend the “liberal international order” and its institutions against his heresies, seeking less a reform than a restoration. Sanders and Warren, instead, have both issued direct indictments of Trump and that consensus: Sanders at Westminster College and at the School of Advanced International Studies , and Warren at American University and in the pages of the establishment journal Foreign Affairs. “While it is easy to blame President Trump for our problems,” Warren stated during her speech at American University, “the truth is that our challenges began long before him. And without serious reforms, they are just as likely to outlast him.”

Both Sanders and Warren embrace the growing Democratic opposition to wars without end and without purpose. Sanders has joined with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in leading the effort to end our complicity with Saudi Arabia’s extirpation of Yemen. Both Warren and Sanders would end the 17-year war in Afghanistan; both would cut the military budget. And both oppose the trillion-dollar commitment to a new nuclear arms race.

Both senators further warn that authoritarianism is on the march — from Hungary’s Viktor Orban in the North to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in the South to Trump in the West. Sanders evokes a “global struggle” between the “movement for democracy, equalitarianism, economic, social, racial and environmental justice” and a “growing worldwide movement towards authoritarianism, oligarchy and kleptocracy.” Warren echoes that “democracy is running headlong into the ideologies of nationalism, authoritarianism and corruption.” Though the rhetoric sounds perilously like an invitation to neoconservative foreign-policy hawks to ramp up new cold or hot wars against what Sanders calls the “axis of authoritarianism,” Sanders and Warren argue, instead, that the new authoritarians are rising because of the failure of the global economic order. Trump and the gaggle of demagogues around the world are expressions of that failure, not the cause of it.

“We can start our defense of democracy by fixing what has gone wrong with our international economic policies,” Warren argues. “Defending the failed status quo of the last several decades is not good enough,” Sanders concurs . “In fact, we need to recognize that the challenges we face today are a product of that status quo.”

At home and globally, the pair argue that we need new policies geared to work for all, not simply the wealthy elite. Each has called for a fundamental change in corporate trade policies that, in Warren’s words, “delivered one punch in the gut after another to workers and the unions that fight for them.” They have also argued for a crackdown on corruption, monopolies, and on tax havens and global tax avoidance, ending, in Sanders’s words, “the absurdity of the rich and multinational corporations stashing over $21 trillion in offshore bank accounts.”

Sanders has joined with former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to issue a more sweeping call for a new progressive international movement. It would work to unite progressives around the globe and to redefine global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the International Labor Organization and the United Nations to further shared prosperity rather than enforce austerity, and to address the “massive global inequality that exists, not only in wealth but in political power.”

Both Sanders and Warren elevate catastrophic climate change as a national security priority. “The threat is real and it is existential,” Warren concludes. Oddly, neither treats the matter with the priority that reality would require. Warren calls for leveraging access to U.S. markets to insist on “meaningful environmental protections.” Sanders calls for “American leadership” to foster “strong international cooperation.”

There are differences between the two. Warren stakes out a more traditional view of Russia and China as power rivals posing a “threat” to Europe and to Asia. Sanders lumps Russia and China into the “authoritarian axis,” but says little about how to address them. Neither questions directly the wrongheaded National Defense Strategy that elevates Beijing and Moscow to the status of primary threats facing the United States. Neither details how to forge the essential balance between necessary cooperation — on global warming and nuclear disarmament — and potential confrontation — against the push for spheres of influence, or China’s economic mercantilism. Both admit that far more creative thinking is needed to define the world that we need to build.

As with domestic policy, when it comes to the United States’ foreign policy, defeating Trump in 2020 is not enough. The United States needs dramatic changes in its policies and the institutions that enforce them. It is time to think anew. Foreign policy is likely to be at the center of the political debate heading into 2020. Warren and Sanders have opened that debate.

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