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The Bernie Doctrine

Sanders understands that good foreign policy connects the global with the local and the political with the economic

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February 29, 2016

This article originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report on Feb. 29, 2016.

By Ian Hurd

What is Sen. Bernie Sanders' approach to foreign policy? As a political scientist, I have watched the presidential season with an eye on candidates' foreign policy, and I see an increasingly sharp gap between Sanders' approach and that of all other candidates in either party.

Long before he ran for president, Sanders said he sees "no magic line separating local, state, national and international issues." This intuition sits at the heart of what might be called the Bernie doctrine on foreign policy. It illuminates how a Sanders presidency would approach the key global challenges for the U.S. in the coming years. It is centered on a clear-eyed assessment of the costs and benefits of competing policy choices. 

The Bernie doctrine focuses on two central connections: between the local and the global and between politics and economics. The pernicious effects of inequality link these together.

When asked about foreign policy, Sanders often begins by talking about growing income inequality in America. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, has complained that he is being evasive, but she is missing the point. The connection between international policies and local economics is a tight one. Sanders is asking that we consider what is lost at home when the U.S. gets stuck in military quagmires abroad. Bombing the Islamic State group busts a hole in the U.S. budget – one estimate suggests it cost up to $400 million in September 2014. This takes money away from government priorities at home. The costs of overcommitting abroad often become a rationale for cutting spending at home, especially in ways that hurt working families. Domestic poverty and international war go hand in hand: Perpetual war abroad and entrenched inequality at home are inseparable.

This spending might be worth it if was making us safer, which brings us to a second element of Sanders' approach: the connection between international policies and domestic effects. The U.S. needs to be more realistic about assessing the effects of its foreign policies. Sanders insists on considering foreign policy in terms of outcomes, not wishful thinking or political slogans.

This is clearly illustrated in Sanders' opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a well-known point of difference between Sanders and other candidates, Republican or Democrat. But the episode is important not just because Sanders (like Obama) got it right in 2002 and 2003 but because it reveals a willingness on Sanders' part to consider the evidence at hand.

In 2002, before the Iraq war, Sanders' asked probing questions about how the U.S. planned to govern Iraq after removing Saddam Hussein. He recognized that American military power would likely find it easy to overthrow the Iraqi government, but that the real question what was would come next. The Bush administration offered only wishful thinking: "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," promised then-Vice President Dick Cheney. 

Many Democrats in Congress, including Clinton, went along with this fantasy. Sanders didn't. He wanted to know how the U.S. would deal with the "ensuing civil war that will develop in that country." He was right to be worried, both about the aftermath and the U.S. unwillingness to think it through before invading. Sanders correctly anticipated the dangerous consequences of the American invasion and demanded answers. None were forthcoming, and so he opposed the war. His approach shows a commitment to asking tough questions about the consequences of U.S. military action and a willingness to make decisions based on the answers – provided they are honest ones. This cautious approach to the use of force bodes well for his foreign policy as president.

In recent weeks, Sanders has been asking similar questions about the U.S. "war" against the Islamic State group. The Obama administration has offered little more than Bush-era wishful thinking. The Obama strategy on the Islamic State group appears to be based on the notion that that blowing up more people, places and things in Iraq and Syria will advance American interests. This might appeal to a visceral desire to appear to act forcefully in the face of the group's atrocities, but it is unlikely to produce the outcomes that the U.S. wants. No one seriously believes that the problems in that region are due to an insufficient amount of blowing-things-up. The Republican candidates project fake strength by making outlandish threats and unrealistic promises about the Islamic State group, as if more U.S. military operations magically lead to optimal outcomes.

This logic applies beyond military questions, and it links local with global issues in a third way: The problems that people face in the U.S. – falling wages, dirty air and water, shrinking support from government, growing privileges for the super-rich – are the same as people all around the world, and they are facilitated by a web of international institutions.

When corporations hide their profits in offshore tax havens, they take advantage of international rules that smooth the flow of transnational finance. When vulture hedge funds buy sovereign debt and force countries to cut social spending, they rely on international rules that put foreign creditors at the front of the line for payment. When the U.N. caused a cholera epidemic in Haiti and ignored all calls to pay compensation, it made use of the treaties that give it immunity from any courts anywhere. In each case, international rules act as transmission belts that carry the effects of globalization into the lives of ordinary people, and these are slanted toward the interests of the powerful. The political and the economic are inseparable, as are the global and the local.

The Bernie doctrine is guided by two questions: What policies get us closer to our goals, and what are the costs? These cross between the domestic and international and between the political and the economic. Reaching back into the history of American foreign policy, Sanders points out that when the U.S. overthrows a foreign leader it generally backfires, damaging U.S. interests in the long run. In Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil and elsewhere, the historical record of Cold War coups is that they create more instability and more animosity against the U.S., making it more difficult for the U.S. to accomplish its goals. His intuition on the Islamic State group is that current U.S. policies fit right into this pattern: It is expensive and counterproductive, creating more enemies at great domestic cost. The evidence seems to support his conclusion.

When Sanders says that "our great task is to make certain that our young men and women in the military do not get sucked into never-ending, perpetual warfare," he is speaking at once about the stresses on military families, the priorities in the federal budget and a realistic worry about American security in the world over the long term. Connecting the local with the global, and the political with the economic, Sanders shows himself to be a foreign policy president who is in step with the globalized world of the 21st century.

Ian Hurd is associate professor of political science and international studies at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion