Bernie, Biden and America abroad

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 12:09pm

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Design by Kate Glad

“One of the most dangerous ideas in (Washington) is that Donald Trump is a break from the status quo, rather than a product of the status quo,” said Matt Duss at the Foreign Policy-Quincy Institute Forum a few weeks ago. Duss, the current foreign policy advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has become an increasingly well-known figure in the United States foreign policy establishment. His unconventional rise to a top aide of a serious presidential hopeful fully embodies the grassroots direction of Sanders’s politics.

Moreover, Duss’s positioning of Sanders as a maverick foreign policy candidate sets him apart from previous Beltway outsiders like former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who rode his speechwriter position with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama to a senior role. Rhodes served in an administration that, to many progressives, perpetuated many previous foreign policy excesses. Sanders, on the other hand, has plainly called for a reimagining of the traditionally realist foundations of international relations. At a rally five months ago, he challenged the very idea of nationalism and sovereignty when he asked the crowd, “Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”

But Duss is not just an interesting character who distinguishes Sanders from Obama or the apparent successor of Obama’s legacy, Democratic front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden. He helps visualize the radically different way of governing Sanders has in mind for America. But, through Sanders’s and Biden’s fight for the chance to beat President Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election, many are making the mistake of viewing Sanders as merely a further-left version of Biden. Even more off-the-mark are those who compare Biden and Sanders as recurring characters in a political play, the Democratic versions of the Republican Party establishment and Trump, respectively, in 2016. 

The reality contains much more contrast and nuance. Looking at Sanders’s and Biden’s respective approaches to foreign policy can help understand their perspectives on the international role of the U.S. for America and their respective appeals to the electorate.

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The establishment has tended to view Trump’s approach to the world as anomalous. Sanders breaks with that by deriding current U.S. foreign policy as more of the same. Trump came into office talking a big game about reducing America’s military footprint, but time and time again he has ramped up military involvement and assistance. Likewise, progressives have often critiqued Obama for inspiring hope as a candidate, promising to disengage from Iraq and roll back the post-9/11 security state, only to expand America’s military footprint as president. In this view, this status quo of inertial military overreach stretches back further to Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Sanders would approach his own presidency as an overhaul, not a reform, of this status quo. He wants to walk the walk where others have failed.

Biden, meanwhile, is mostly comfortable going back to what is tried and tested. And that pitch has its appeal. Trump has gutted the State Department, held longstanding alliances and security arrangements at gunpoint, exited or threatened to exit crucial agreements and otherwise damaged U.S. standing. Biden aims to convince voters that going back to the status quo — no matter how flawed it was — would in most respects be a welcome relief. 

To be sure, Biden has explicitly disavowed the neoliberal trade policies proved politically toxic by the 2016 election. But his support for increasing the military budget and maintaining troop deployments in the Middle East is, to many disillusioned progressives, an Obama foreign policy redux. To them, Biden simply recalls Rhodes, who represented the anti-establishment promises of Obama, only to justify drone strikes that killed innocent civilians and push progressives to question if he was really that different from the establishment. Those progressives find their faith in Sanders.

Talk to some of his strongest supporters, and you come away believing that Sanders’s end goal is a U.S. foreign policy completely remade in a humanitarian, socialist mold. University of Michigan sophomore Noah Streng, vice president of Young Democratic Socialists of America at the University and a campus organizer for Sanders’s campaign, said he is drawn to Sanders in part because of his vision for a compassionate and diplomacy-centered U.S. foreign policy. There is nothing radical about those premises at first glance: George W. Bush paraded the idea of “compassionate conservatism” on his campaign, and before Trump, diplomacy was a near-bipartisan centerpiece of postwar U.S. foreign policy.

But fully employing these premises, or changing their definitions, would be radical. Compassion, when called on to help faraway peoples or topple brutal regimes, has often led to political disaster and so been disavowed when convenient by presidents from Clinton to Obama. And diplomacy, while sorely lacking under the current administration, has been traditionally employed to serve national interests only. Sanders wants to change all that.

Streng strongly believes this concept is as much a pillar of Sanders’s domestic promises, such as universal healthcare and an increased minimum wage, as it is a call to the workers of the world to unite. If the Michigan auto worker and Iranian oil worker realize they have more in common with each other than with their respective billionaire compatriots, the thinking goes, then they have realized their “common humanity.” From that, a more peaceful, prosperous future is possible. If Sanders had reached the presidency and was able to see that promise through, it would be nothing less than a full transition to a socialist foreign policy.

Discerning the two candidates’ foreign policies helps dispel misconceptions about their promises for America more broadly. On the world stage, Sanders wants to approach what has long been a nationalist global order through a materialist lens. Common interests of working people, not interstate competition, would animate his foreign policy. At a rally in the Diag on Sunday, he said, “Maybe instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year on weapons of destruction, killing each other, (we should) fight our common enemy, which is climate change.” For him, foreign policy is less a separate venue for pursuing parochial national interests, as it would be for a staunch non-interventionist than it is a way to generally promote human welfare — and not just for Americans.

This is apparent not only in Sanders’s past support for humanitarian military intervention where American vital interests were not at play, but also in the words of his endorsers. State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who spoke before Sanders at the rally on Sunday, endorsed a decidedly socialist foreign policy when he exclaimed “I want a president who will stand up for people all over the world.” That reflects Sanders’s larger desire to do away with existing assumptions about the world — not just tackle crises on an ad hoc basis. That is either incredibly brave or foolishly cocky, depending on where you stand. Fellow progressive and Sanders endorser Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., captured this systematic aspiration when she said “Our priority is not only defeating Donald Trump. It’s defeating the system of which he is a symptom.”

To Sanders and his supporters, that also entails replacing the current model of representative politics with a grassroots ideal of constant participation by the people. As Streng told me, it requires replacing the “vote and go home” mentality that defines the establishment — including Obama — with one that deems the President of the United States “Organizer in Chief.”

Biden, on the other hand, pairs his adherence to the status quo with respect and toleration. He understands, as New York Times Opinion Columnist David Leonhardt puts it, “that politics is inescapably performative.” Biden communicates, against the wishes of the Twitter crowd, that he wants to work with Republicans and can respect those who differ on his positions. He does not demand anything close to ideological purity because, as his team and his platform demonstrate, he is primarily interested in winning the general election, not in revolution. 

Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., recently spoke of her problem with Sanders-supporting trolls — a group that calls itself the “Dirtbag Left” — who trade in “online nastiness” and recently doxxed Sanders critics. Can anyone imagine a “Dirtbag Center” uniformly trashing Biden’s moderate competitors online, or a Biden afraid to loudly disavow it? Compromise and civility are the items on Biden’s menu for America.

It is therefore a mistake to simply view Sanders as several notches to the left of Biden on some one-dimensional spectrum. Biden is a liberal in the traditional sense. Despite his record of governance, Sanders comes off as a liberal only in the colloquial sense, preferring righteousness to compromise. That has its upsides: He co-sponsored the bill to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen’s civil war and is more in line with public opinion on key foreign policy issues than Biden. For all the comparisons to Trump, he does not appear to simply be another noninterventionist who would fall back into the comfortable militarism of the Washington establishment once in office. One look at Duss is enough to convince anyone of that.

But Sanders’s vision for America is based on radical hope, at a time when much of the Democratic electorate lives in deep fear. On Super Tuesday and during Tuesdays Michigan primary, it was Biden’s electability, not Sanders’s optimism, that got votes. That optimism calls for a new “global order based on human solidarity” when it comes to foreign policy — Biden only asks voters to return American foreign policy to a better state. Sanders thinks in terms of changing society, of returning to a time when the people’s will was better translated to policy, foreign and otherwise. Biden has moved incrementally his whole career and does not plan on stopping now.

These are the two candidates left in the Democratic primary. What they have in mind for the United States, and how they envision getting there, differ in kind rather than degree. Certainly, they both wish for progress. Biden views the incumbent president as an aberration from the norm, and so presses a return to a tried and tested foreign policy. Sanders makes no such assumption. With an outsider to Washington in his ear, he derides Trump as more of a continuity than anomaly. Their respective plans for the U.S. and its role in the world could hardly be more different.

Ethan Kessler is a senior studying Political Science and is a former Opinion Senior Editor. He can be reached at ethankes@umich.edu.