Why a progressive foreign policy is good for US national security

Even if the most Bernie Sanders succeeds at is pulling the national foreign policy conversation to the left, this will have been significant after a decade of living under the troublingly expansive national security complex ushered in by the events of 9/11.

Charli Carpenter
18 April 2016
Bernie Sanders, New York 2016. Flickr/Michael Vadon. Some rights reserved.

Bernie Sanders, New York 2016. Flickr/Michael Vadon. Some rights reserved.Few were expecting Bernie Sanders to come out swinging on foreign policy as he did in the ninth Democratic debate. He had been dismissed or ridiculed in the media for months for an alleged delinquency on foreign policy issues. Hilary Clinton supporters released a letter just prior to the debate slamming Sanders for perceived disinterest in global affairs.

Yet the Sanders campaign was ready for that letter, immediately releasing its own signed by 20 foreign policy experts praising Sanders’ judgment and vision for American leadership. In Thursday’s debate, Sanders moved to articulate an alternative approach, with distinctive views on climate change, the Middle East, and strengthening multilateral alliances. He then immediately flew to the Vatican, where he gave an inspirational speech on the need for American moral leadership on global economic inequality.

The maths still favours Clinton in the Democratic primary. But whether or not Sanders ultimately takes office, the most important legacy of his run could be the articulation of a progressive national security vision as an alternative to either Clinton’s hawkish neoliberal interventionism or the militarism and mercantilism characterising the Republican race. Even if the most Sanders succeeds at is pulling the national foreign policy conversation to the left, this will have been significant after a decade of living under the troublingly expansive national security complex ushered in by the events of 9/11. And should his foreign policy vision end up reflected in either a Sanders or Clinton administration, this can only be good for US national and global security.

So what is a 'progressive national security policy', and how could it increase American security in the years to come? The letter circulated by Sanders supporters stress military restraint, human-rights-minded diplomacy, and global economic justice as pillars of national security. Such a vision was also outlined in Foreign Affairs last summer by several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senators Brian Schatz, Martin Heimrich and Chris Murphy. They argue a progressive national security policy would include a revitalised foreign aid budget, support for multilateral institutions, military restraint combined with a commitment to veterans, human rights and gender equality at home and abroad, and strengthening the socio-economic base of US power.

Many of Sanders’ policy positions echo this menu of options. He is not a pacifist, but he stated in a December 2015 speech that he would no longer use military force unilaterally or for regime change. In his Utah speech on the Middle East, he emphasised dignity, shared humanity and diplomacy as pillars of a peaceful solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In his remarks on drones and on relationships with US allies, Sanders has stressed the importance of accountability and of upholding international law, even when using military force as a last resort. In the area of transnational crime, Sanders has supported the United Nations and global civil society organisations in calling for a humane and scientifically-informed global drug policy.

Cutting across these general positions, it is possible to infer three additional key pillars of Sanders’ foreign policy thinking. First, a progressive national security policy would articulate and respond to threats based on evidence, not on fear. One cannot accurately address security threats if one mis-specifies the scope or source of those threats. A great mistake of the Bush administration is that it first underestimated the capacity of global jihadists to attack Americans prior to 9/11; but then over-estimated the significance of that threat in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In so doing, Bush unleashed (and Clinton supported) an over-reaction that fueled the very root causes of jihadist anti-Americanism that led to the attacks, while undermining US soft power abroad. 

A look at the kind of people Sanders has chosen as advisors should indicate that he is developing a more evidence-based foreign policy platform less likely to make such mistakes. As Politico notes, Sanders’ network of signatories and endorsers includes independent foreign policy experts including academics, rather than primarily beltway insiders. These are precisely the kind of people who president Bush excluded from the conversation in choosing his disastrous course of action in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Sanders’ evidence-based vision is also obvious in the way he talks about different types of national security threats. Consider his remarks in Thursday’s debate on climate change, for example. The debate moderator did not include this question on his set of 'national security' issues; but in his answer Sanders made it one, likening climate change to “an enemy coming over our borders.” In an election cycle where Americans believe – quite incorrectly – that terrorism is the number one threat to the nation, Sanders is not afraid to instead talk frankly about climate change as the most fundamental national security threat of our age. And well he might, as the Pentagon acknowledges. For example, Scientific American concludes the Syrian civil war, widely seen as the most destabilising situation on the globe, was sparked and driven by sudden environmental change. Sanders, among all contenders, is willing to draw these connections, reframe these problems as the extreme threats they are, and demand Americans make sacrifices in the name of global leadership on the issue of planetary security.

Secondly, a progressive national security policy would emphasise the interconnectedness between US interests and human security of those beyond our borders. Yet it would differ from neo-conservatism or liberal interventionism by pursuing such aims primarily through non-kinetic means. Contra Clinton, Sanders has consistently argued for restraint in the use of force to overthrow despotic regimes, for example. But he simultaneously argues in favour of other measures to protect civilians from the effects of such regimes.

For example, Sanders has stated that we “should not turn our backs on Syrian refugees” and while Clinton has set a 65,000 cap on refugees from Syria, Sanders says there is “no magic number.” This is consistent with the view that opening US doors to the victims of our enemies is not only humane, but is in our national security interest. They can provide intellectual resources and human intelligence in the fight against extremism, and as economic David Altmann explains, a progressive economic policy can spur domestic economic growth. Refugees settled safely and empowered here are less likely to be conscripted or manipulated into joining ISIS. Such a policy could be a component of a non-violent “Responsibility to Protect” strategy to assist conflict-affected civilians short of using missiles and ground troops – while reacting (but not over-reacting) to the root causes of violent extremism.

Sanders’ remarks on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict exemplify this view as well. His admonitions to protect the right of Palestinian civilians do not simply signal his commitment to international law. They reflect Sanders’ understanding that a human-security-minded Middle East policy fair to both sides will be a lynchpin of any effective US strategy to counter violent anti-American extremism. Whether fair or not, the perception of American one-sidedness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fed anti-Americanism in Muslim-majority countries. Grievances over the US role in this conflict have fueled the recruitment practices of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Sanders recognizes that changing this perception, and addressing legitimate Arab grievances, will be vital to a long-term non-kinetic strategy for combating extremism.

Sanders is also clearly willing to practice what he preaches when it comes to US military operations. His remarks on restrained, proportionate, lawful use of force apply not just to Israel and other allies but to his views about the US’s own use of force abroad. He has consistently expressed concerns about disproportionate collateral damage from drone strikes – not only because they are immoral, but strategically ineffective. Worldwide, they are seen as unlawful and illegitimate, and evidence is mounting that they cause more terrorism than they stop. Sanders has said he would establish a 'commission of inquiry' to review the legality and effectiveness of drones as a counter-terrorism tool. Meanwhile, he has chosen as a deputy foreign policy advisor Bill French, an analyst who has advocated a reform of the outdated 'authorization for the use of military force' and calls for greater congressional authority and oversight over the deployment of military force abroad, with an eye toward ending 'perpetual war'.

Finally, a progressive foreign policy would emphasise the interconnectedness of global and local politics, and economic and political power. As Ian Hurd has pointed out, what he calls the “Sanders doctrine” has the potential to do both. While critics are right that while Sanders has been slow to roll out dedicated foreign policy content on his website, his concern with domestic economic strength as a component of US global power comes through in his articulation of most domestic issues. Sanders’ has made it clear that the ability to project US power abroad means strengthening the foundations of that power with our policies at home. For Sanders, revitalising the US middle class, ensuring Americans can afford a high quality education, and caring for veterans are also national security concerns. And his stance on de-militarising domestic law enforcement and global drug policy, and addressing the transnational drivers and impacts of endemic corruption, all point to his understanding of the interconnectedness between the national and the global.

Perhaps nothing shows this more than Sanders’ recent pivot from domestic to global income inequality. In the wake of Sanders’ visit to the Vatican, he is putting renewed effort into articulating a vision of American leadership on economic justice that extends beyond US borders. Pope Francis has already put extreme global poverty back on the international agenda in recent years. More than 2.5 billion people are struggling to survive on less than $2 per day. This is not merely a moral problem but a concrete national security issue. Poverty fuels epidemics which can spread and threaten Americans. It fuels regional instability and state failure in places like Yemen and Pakistan – flashpoints in the so-called 'war on terror'. Lack of economic hope and dignity are among the reasons young people find their way into extremist movements. 

Yet while most Americans believe the US should give about 10% of its federal budget to foreign aid programmes, the US has historically given only about 1% to refugee protection, education, health, poverty reduction and humanitarian assistance – far less as a proportion of GDP than most other developed countries, while spending over 20 times as much on defence. This is why progressives like Murphy, Shatz and Heinrich have called for a “New Marshal Plan” to promote human and global security abroad. A candidate emphasising global economic justice, rather than perpetual military intervention, as a pathway to American security, is a candidate who sees the essential interdependence of economic and political issues in an interdependent world.

There is still plenty for progressives to disagree on in terms of specific foreign policy proposals and priorities being discussed in the recent debates – and what it would mean to execute them. Many of Clinton’s proposals could also be called progressive by these standards. And in his non-kinetic human security agenda some progressives would argue  Sanders doesn’t go far enough. But overall, the tenor and substance of the ninth debate, and the media coverage of the candidates since, shows a wider range of views, expertise and voter interest in foreign policy issues than has previously been typical in US primaries. It also shows that Sanders is not a ‘one-issue candidate’ and that he offers a genuine foreign policy alternative to the Washington establishment thinking.

Some have argued he is doing Democrats a disfavour by remaining in a race he may not win. But the immediate positive effect of this is that it has opened up a space for a progressive foreign policy agenda to be better heard and debated in the national conversation. If this means we end up with the ability to talk about a more expansive menu of options come next year, this could be a very good thing for our country – and the world.

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