The Briefing: Bernie Sanders’ views on U.S. foreign policy

By Sam Reynolds

WASHINGTON – A number of leading policymakers and foreign policy experts visited SAIS last month as part of the Dean’s Forum speaker series, including Madeleine Albright, Francis Fukuyama and Ian Bremmer. The forum continues on Tuesday, October 9, when Dean Vali Nasr will host Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Kenney Auditorium at 11 a.m.

Sanders’ accolades are renowned. He spent 16 years as Vermont’s only member of the House of Representatives before winning a Senate seat in 2006. In 2012, he was reelected with 71 percent of the vote, and ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. He is currently the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and the former chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Bernie Sanders
Photo credits: Johns Hopkins University SAIS Eventbrite

Foreign policy was not a central focus in his presidential campaign, but Sanders has a storied career in international policymaking and a clear, liberal institutionalist outlook on foreign affairs. He advocated against U.S. intervention in Latin America throughout the 1980s, voted on numerous foreign policy issues as a member of the House of Representatives during the 1990s and decried the authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) in Iraq in 2002.

More recently, he has been an outspoken critic of President Trump’s disengagement and rejection of America’s international commitments. In a 2017 foreign policy address, Sanders insisted, “Our goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance. This is better for our security, better for global stability and better for facilitating the international cooperation necessary to meet shared challenges.”

More often than not, Sanders has toed the Democratic party line on international issues by reaffirming a commitment to multilateral engagement, international law and negotiation. He has disparaged the U.S. War on Terror, arguing that it has caused America to contradict its own moral standards on human rights and basic freedoms. Critics worry, however, that Sanders offers few alternatives and risks falling into many of the same foreign policy quagmires faced by former President Barack Obama, such as failing to control U.S. intelligence agencies and relying heavily on drone strikes. Although Sanders is perhaps more critical of the use of force than Obama, he does not discount it.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he supports a two-state solution, less defense funding for Israel and an end to the blockade of Gaza. He felt the Iran deal was a significant step toward regional Middle East stability and U.S. national security that came “at a cost of no blood and zero treasure.” He called President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement “an international disgrace.”

On trade, Sanders has repeatedly repudiated deals that serve the interests of multinational corporations at the expense of domestic workers. He opposed the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the 2016 Trans-Pacific Partnership, and although he and Trump agree that NAFTA has considerable drawbacks, they disagree about how to remedy them. Trump is primarily concerned about companies outsourcing jobs to Mexico, while Sanders has championed more stringent environmental standards and greater rights for labor unions.

This will not be the first time Sanders will speak at Johns Hopkins University. In a November 2016 speaker series co-sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Foreign Affairs Symposium, Sanders spoke to 1,100 students at Shriver Hall about the outcome of the 2016 elections and other pressing domestic issues. He downplayed bipartisan divide in the United States and emphasized the importance of open political discussion while promoting his most recent book, “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.”

The power of collective action is a recurring theme in many of his speeches. In his 2016 address he asked, “You think you should graduate from Johns Hopkins burdened by $40,000, $50,000 debt? Mark my words, if a million young people marched on Washington and said we cannot continue to carry this outrageous debt, you will achieve that.”

Underlying themes in his foreign policy speeches include America’s responsibility as the world’s “moral authority” and a lead-by-example approach to international relations. The hope for Tuesday’s event is that he will share his perspectives on current issues like the U.S.-China trade war and Iran nuclear deal, and delve more deeply into the future of American foreign policy in light of Trump’s isolationism. It might also be interesting to hear his views on the legislative branch’s role in foreign policy decision-making, and how the outcome of the 2018 November midterm elections will affect U.S. relations abroad.

Tickets for Tuesday’s event were gone the same day it was announced. While it is unclear exactly what issues Sanders will discuss, what’s certain is that there won’t be a single empty seat.