Politics & Policy

Burlington’s Foreign Policy

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks in Emeryville, Calif., during his 2016 presidential campaign. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)
In the 1980s Bernie Sanders cozied up to dictators from around the world. Now, his updated foreign policy reflects a certain gentrification.

In his decades-long career in politics, Bernie Sanders was never more active as a foreign-policy figure than when he was the mayor of Burlington, Vt. He owned it. “Burlington had a foreign policy,” he wrote in his 1997 book, Outsider in the White House. From his mayoral perch he fired off missives to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, demanding better treatment of IRA prisoners held in Northern Ireland. He tried to establish direct relations with the incoming Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, hoping to establish a radio channel that would broadcast the revolution to Vermont. The mayor met with Daniel Ortega to convey that many Americans rejected the Reagan administration’s foreign policy. Ortega, in the many years since, has looted his country, installed hideous light fixtures along the major roads to please his wife, suborned much of the Catholic Church to his rule, and blown past his own constitution’s term limits. The country is sliding into unrest, as the aid that used to come in from the Netherlands and Luxembourg has dried up.

As mayor, Sanders cemented a sister-city relationship between Burlington and the Russian city of Yaroslavl (he and his wife spent their honeymoon in the Soviet Union). Sanders was diplomatic during his trip. After a presentation on central planning, Sanders told his Soviet peers that health care and housing were better in the United States, though they cost much more back in America. When he came home, Sanders praised Soviet train stations and “palaces of culture.” His wife was even more effusive, almost describing the theory of New Soviet Man, when she described a cultural life that wasn’t cleaved off from work, as a mere hobby, but fully integrated into an ideal of community service. Burlington’s foreign policy, as it was then, was driven by idealism (some of it misguided), lots of easy talk about imperialism, and dislike of “Ronald Ray-gun.”

By the time of his run for president in 2016, Sanders had let foreign policy drop somewhat. He was a domestic-policy candidate focused on delivering the unmet promises of mid-century liberalism: free health care and free college. His positions on Obama’s intervention in Libya were unclear. He co-sponsored a bill condemning Qaddafi’s regime, a vote that his opponent Hillary Clinton mischaracterized as a vote for regime change. Sanders might express hope that the military action in Libya would end and dither about his desire not to be in another quagmire, but he did not launch any direct criticism of President Obama. The U.S. policy under Obama of unrestricted drone warfare was the sort of thing that, if done by Reagan, would have had Burlington’s old mayor talking about fascism and lawlessness, perhaps looking for a Houthi radio broadcast to simulcast. But when asked about it during the last election, Sanders averred only that he would use drones “very selectively.”
But has he got a foreign policy for the 2020 campaign? New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie argues that, since his last effort, Sanders has developed a powerful and appealing foreign policy-vision for the left. And, in a certain way, Bouie is right.

Burlington has changed over the past three and a half decades; progressives have moved up in the world. And Sanders’ foreign policy vision reflects the appetites and prejudices of a class that is moving up in the world.

Bouie argues that Sanders’ foreign policy “pits democratic peoples everywhere against illiberalism at home and abroad.” Sanders has characterized President Trump as one of many “demagogues who exploit people’s fears, prejudices and grievances to gain and hold on to power.” Sanders lumps him together with other avatars of what he calls “oligarchic authoritarianism,” such as Mohammad Bin Salman, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jair Bolsonaro.

“They share key attributes,” Sanders claims, “intolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities, hostility toward democratic norms, antagonism toward a free press, constant paranoia about foreign plots, and a belief that the leaders of government should be able use their positions of power to serve their own selfish financial interests.” Sanders charged Trump with “openly siding with the very forces challenging the democratic foundations of our longtime allies.”

Sanders’ new list of enemies and priorities should be read as his attempted enlistment in the defense of the vaunted “liberal world order.” It is his bid to join his socialist instincts to the existing foreign-policy elite’s agenda. What Sanders adds to the Establishment’s usual case against “illiberalism” is a more pointed charge of financial corruption. He’s going respectable, even corporate. Like progressives, Sanders has moved up in the world. When I say that Bouie’s analysis of Sanders’ new position is correct, I mean that Bouie is right to sense there is political power to be had in this narrative. It would help unify the Democratic left, with the Democratic establishment.

What I’m less sure about is whether it makes any sense, or that most of the charges hurled against the illiberal and authoritarian aren’t also true of liberal democracies and defenders of the liberal world order. We’re told that one side is hostile to democratic norms. But our allies in Western Europe routinely discount the results of democratic elections when they get in the way of further European integration. Votes are repeated until “the correct result” is given. Parties such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour run on an election manifesto of implementing the Brexit result of 2016, but are now turning around and demanding a revote.

Paranoia about foreign plots is hardly unique to populist nationalists and may in fact be even more common to partisans of the liberal world order. Vladimir Putin is popularly imagined to control Donald Trump and to have hacked Brexit. Almost every election in which liberals take a rooting interest suddenly develops a Russian subplot. The last French presidential election included charges of Russian hacking in the days before the vote. Months later security services confirmed that no such Russian hack took place. Where Russian generated memes are found, they get fewer collective impressions than a mildly popular Twitter account.

Antagonism toward a free press? Part of the modern liberal case that elections are hacked is the idea that people who vote against liberal causes are uniquely misinformed. Rupert Murdoch is held out as uniquely responsible for inflicting Trump and Brexit on the world. The EU had to explain that its post-Brexit raid of one of his offices was not revenge. One wonders if this excuse would have sufficed if it had come from east of the Elbe.

Who used their positions of power to enrich themselves? Is it just this new wave of anti-liberals? Of course not. Why couldn’t Bernie have been this direct while criticizing Hillary Clinton? The Clintons became an immensely wealthy family because of the implicit promise of a Hillary administration. Emmanuel Macron is the product of a revolving door of corruption that has made elite French civil service one of the main avenues to the accumulation of wealth in France. Cronyism is almost perfected there, where privatization is a word not for creating market competition, but for licensing a class of profiteers who can be connected to state-owned or tightly regulated assets.

And intolerance of religious minorities? The party Bernie is running for contains senators who have questioned whether Catholic jurists who belong to the Knights of Columbus are able to serve the government.

Sanders’ new tendency to lump together Russia, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, and Trump as one phenomenon is not perspicacious, it is slapdash. The differences between countries where journalists are murdered and those where the government withdraws advertising dollars from critical newspapers are not differences of intensity, but of kind. Hungary’s reforms have tended to tax foreign oligarchs to build out new welfare and workfare policies. Poland’s supposed “illiberal” government instituted a massive child-welfare policy over the objections of their liberal opponents. The frame of oligarchy is not helpful for understanding Saudi Arabia’s actions, which are driven by sectarianism.

Burlington’s new foreign policy reflects the gentrification of the Left. Instead of cultivating a naïveté about America’s enemies, it projects its image of domestic enemies upon the geopolitical stage. And it cultivates in its adherents precisely the faults it once detected in Ronald Reagan and conservatives: ideologically induced blindness to its own moral failings, and hubris in action.

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