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Bernie Vs. the Blob

Editors’ Note: This article is part of our special series Predictions & Predicaments. It should be read as if written in 2022. Read more about the special series here.

In recent weeks, President Bernie Sanders has attracted the foreign policy establishment’s ire for conditioning military aid to Israel on progress toward an end to its occupation of Palestinian territories. The announcement came as part of a broader administration effort to shape a more equitable negotiating position between Israelis and Palestinians. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the move “provocative.” The US “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security, which in effect has condemned the Palestinians to negotiate with a perpetually dwindling fund of leverage, forms part of a larger foreign policy agenda that the administration is challenging. As the president starts his second year in office, defining and articulating a new direction for US foreign policy has never figured so urgently.

“Bernie Sanders 2016” by photogism is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sanders need only to look to his predecessors’ failures. In December 1988, as the Cold War was coming to an end, President-elect George H.W. Bush held open-ended conversations with his team about the future of US foreign policy. He wanted his administration to “dream big dreams,” unburdened by the inertia of the past.[1] They could have considered whether the United States’ hegemonic role still made sense for a post-Cold War world. Instead, Bush and his team chose to maintain the United States’ posture and expand its commitments, culminating in the 1993 Regional Defense Strategy, which called for the United States to possess dominant capabilities in every region of strategic interest.

Every president since, overseeing an executive branch with a growing lust for power, has had the opportunity to correct for the mistake Bush made. Sanders is the only one to have recognized the need for world-historical creativity. Throughout 2020, Sanders presented a contrast between his vision and then President Donald Trump’s record, accusing Trump of being hijacked by his neoconservative appointees into sustaining US imperialism in a flamboyant and erratic style.

In his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in July 2020, Sanders noted that US forces were present in more countries and in larger numbers than at any time in US history. He called for an end to the forever wars, and he is following through on that promise. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 107 casualties in 2021 caused by US-backed forces, ten times fewer than in 2019, though still far too many. Wanton airstrikes no longer terrorize the civilian populations of countries from the Sahel to South Asia. He has also pushed for legislation to repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force.

Understandably, Sanders’ foreign policy has centered more on undoing his predecessor’s noxious legacy than on imposing a new order of restraint and left internationalism. Re-entry into the Paris Agreement has not yet given way to a global Green New Deal, and the administration has struggled to coax Iran back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, despite waiving stringent sanctions early last year. Seeking not to repeat the outrage accompanying Trump’s announcement to withdraw from northern Syria in 2018, Sanders has instead sought negotiated withdrawals.

Present in these seemingly disparate efforts is an underpinning tug-of-war between restoration—of the more respectable aspects of pre-Trump diplomacy—and departure—from the straitjacket of US hegemony. The intellectual, moral, and political challenge of defining what a left presidency should look like, never mind executing one, is daunting. Since World War II, US foreign policy has been dedicated to neoliberal policy prerogatives, eliminating barriers to the flow of transnational capital and buttressing institutions that protect property rights across the globe. The Sanders administration has to formulate a clear and persuasive counternarrative to the traditional strategy of “liberal hegemony,” including ending the fetishization of austerity measures for developing economies, protecting international workers from US and international corporate exploitation, vigorously pursuing tax havens, and, eventually, dismantling the national security state.

One of the traditions Sanders should revamp is the release of a National Security Strategy (NSS) statement. Since President Ronald Reagan, the exercise of publishing an NSS has been to articulate with varying emphases the theme of US “indispensability,” to paraphrase former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. They have rarely amounted to more than propaganda and bureaucratic throat-clearing. Sanders can retool the NSS into a document, true to its purported intent, that charts the strategic interests of the United States and the global working class it seeks to uplift.

Under a Sanders administration, grand strategy can be purged of its imperialist sources and reinvented for a new era. With originality and idealism coursing through this moment in history, Sanders and his team can articulate a vision as potent and defining as President Woodrow Wilson’s at the end of World War I. Pairing means and ends, threats, interests, and opportunities, the administration can communicate where to curb US power and redirect its influence in the interests of a global working class. Only with this conceptual groundwork can Sanders take on the foreign policy establishment and win.


[1] James A. Baker III and Thomas M. DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 40.

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Olivier Weiss

”Olivier Weiss is a recent graduate from the History, Distinguished Majors Program at the University of Virginia where he wrote his thesis on the George HW Bush administration’s foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. He is a volunteer for the Jamaal Bowman campaign in the New York 16th Congressional District and a student of international politics. He lives in Westchester County, New York.”
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