By Chris Morgan
WASHINGTON — When any speaker makes a stop at SAIS’ Kenney Auditorium, it’s safe to assume that U.S. foreign policy will feature high on the agenda. Such was the case when the Independent senator from Vermont and former (perhaps future) presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a well-attended speech to students and faculty of SAIS.
Senator Sanders started off with one of his chart-topping hits — the tendency of politicians and the media to focus only on the economy, health care, the environment and immigration. He highlighted the lack of high-level foreign policy discussion, describing the foreign policy establishment in the United States as a one-party organization, with little to no meaningful debate. That was it. It felt like going to a concert where the artist has learned a few bars of a new song, but then goes right back into the songs that have been played a hundred times before.
There is no question that Senator Sanders brings with him a certain level of excitement, and this was the case before and after his recent speech. After flirting with the idea of expounding his foreign policy, Sanders immediately jumped into perhaps his best-known single: income inequality. Billionaires buy elections, younger generations are on track to be worse-off than their parents, and of course, Sheldon Adelson is evil and Trump is a bad influence and an even worse leader. Good points, to be sure, but Senator Sanders had a great opportunity to play a song we haven’t heard much. He did a decent job of setting himself up for a new hit. He nicely explained complicated problems facing governments around the world, but he offered no solutions, other than combatting authoritarianism around the world and getting big money out of politics. In the words of Led Zeppelin, the song remains the same.
I can unambiguously say that I support Senator Sanders on the majority of his domestic issues, but even a few years after breaking onto the world stage in a meaningful way, he still has not explained how he would quell problems facing foreign policy, get big money out of politics (other than not accepting their donations) and reduce student debt. There was no mention of what he might do differently on trade than Trump, specifically how he would reform NAFTA or combat unfair Chinese trade practices. In one of his stronger points, he declared that the Saudi Arabian government should be reprimanded if it was found to have murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but failed to mention how. Should the United States restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia? What role could the United States play in ending Yemen’s civil war, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis? Sure, he did a fine job of explaining the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad. In fact, if this speech occurred in a bar, one could easily make a dangerous drinking game out of the times the Senator mentioned “authoritarianism.” You’d be stone-cold sober, however, if you drank every time he offered a solution to the problem.
If Senator Sanders plans to run for high office again in 2020 (you heard it here first, folks), he needs to come up with a platform that specifically addresses world issues that he so clearly views as problematic. Until then, Sanders will surely gain a following among a certain group of Americans, but not enough of a following to win the presidency. So I ask again, Senator Sanders, what is your foreign policy?