A timely guest post from Jesse Crane-Seeber. Jesse grew up in the woods of Ithaca, New York where he graduated from a democratically run public alternative high school. After a BA in “Resisting Hegemony” (a major of his own design) at Ithaca College, he earned a Ph.D. in International Relations at American University. His dissertation ‘Making War’ analyzed the occupation of Iraq in terms of how U.S. soldiers’ negotiated and made sense of their surroundings, their missions, and the people they tried to help and/or harm. His research involved participant observation, living with military families, analyzing official documents, and sifting through hundreds of hours of soldier-uploaded video content. He teaches at North Carolina State University, and is currently finishing Fifty Shades of Militarism, a study of the fetishization of all things military in the contemporary United States. The views in the post are those of Jesse Crane-Seeber as a private citizen and do not reflect those of North Carolina State University. Obviously.
“coming of age during the plague
of reagan and bush
watching capitalism gun down democracy
it had this funny effect on me
– Ani DiFranco, Your Next Bold Move
In recent months, the United States has seen a substantial rebellion against Hillary Clinton’s status as heir-apparent of the Democratic Party. Combined with the contemporary Republican Party’s confusion about whether to embrace regime change, free-trade, or multilateral institutions (even those like NATO that secure US hegemony in the world), the current election cycle offers US voters an unusual set of choices that may not be fully appreciated by those caught in the horse race and name calling of an expensive election.
It is normal to be cynical about what any individual nation can do, never mind a particular leader. Technological change, ecological collapse, international regime complexes, not to mention economic activity, all help explain the limits of what any nation can do. But the President of the United States is not a generic national leader. As the chief architect of the post-World War II political and economic order, the US retains outsized influence, even as we reach peer-peer levels of economic output with the EU and China.
While Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders voted alike 93% of the time they were both in the Senate, the contrast in how they might impact global politics is much, much larger. One oft-repeated critique of Sanders has been his lack of foreign policy experience, knowledge, or, well, policy. As Ignatius put it, “Foreign policy is the hole in Sanders’s political doughnut.” Several enterprising writers reached out to foreign policy and IR scholars sympathetic to Sanders’ campaign for comment, while a few political scientists have directly addressed the nature of a future Sanders Administration’s foreign policy.
As a critic of the Washington/New York policy expert class and the ways that US Political Science reproduces and authorizes it, what I find troubling is not what ‘experts’ have been saying, but what they haven’t. With the exception of Charli Carpenter’s embrace of Sanders’ willingness to acknowledge what he doesn’t know about foreign policy, all of these commentators seem to reduce US foreign policy to positions on which countries to bomb, (and maybe relations with Israel). More than once, he has been characterized as a ‘realist’ against Clinton’s hawkish liberal interventionist instincts. While that is basically fair and correct, even if the meaning of ‘realist’ in policy debates has little resemblance to the theories I teach under that name, this discussion has been far too narrow. Just this week, an open letter by 20 ‘foreign policy experts’ has explicitly endorsed Sanders’ approach to foreign policy. Going beyond the standard arguments (which I detail below), they draw attention to a wider range of issues that Sanders can lead on. While their arguments and my own line up fairly neatly, it’s important to have a bit more of an extended discussion of the issues involved than their short statement allowed.
Yielding to the dominant view, if only for a moment, I turn first to the Democratic candidates’ approaches to national security and armed force.
National Security As Foreign Policy: The Debate We Are Having
When questioned on foreign policy, Sanders typically highlights his votes against both US invasions of Iraq, against the Patriot Act, and against some (not all) of the supplementary spending bills that funded the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. This record sets him apart from the Democratic Party’s mainstream, which supported these policies out of liberal idealism and/or fear of being cast as weak or anti-American. After the crushing defeats of the Reagan era, conservative and centrist Democrats embraced a ‘tough as Republicans’ approach to both domestic crime and foreign military intervention.
That distinction between conservative Democrats eager to appear ‘tough’ and the party’s left with links to solidarity, peace, social justice, and environmental movements continues to this day. As Clinton, eager to claim the mantle of best prepared for the role of Commander in Chief, dismisses Sanders’ foreign policy approach: “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS. We have to look at the threats that we face right now, and we have to be prepared to take them on and defeat them.” Her current positions recall the years Clinton has spent cultivating a persona that can’t be feminized and dismissed by conservative critics. Indeed, as Aaron Belkin notes, “Hillary Clinton’s successful efforts to portray herself as hawkish on matters of defense and national security illustrate how military masculinity can legitimize women’s claim to authority” (pg. 4). She has worked to become a credible leader in what has been an exclusively male realm, using the symbolic linkage between masculinity and militarism to her advantage. We should note, however, that hawkishness is not merely a personal quality; it has very real effects on the (third) world.
After losing to the anti-war candidate she and her husband portrayed as inexperienced and naive in 2008, Clinton joined his cabinet as Secretary of State. Along with two carry-overs from Bush’s leadership team, CIA Director Petraeus and Defense Secretary Gates, Clinton was part of the hawkish wing of the Obama administration. Together with Obama’s seeming unwillingness to prosecute crimes committed by US personnel in the ‘war on terror,’ they made permanent and unending drone-strikes, unacknowledged commando missions, and the widespread use of force against those deemed ‘terrorist threats’ the new bipartisan consensus. While serving as Secretary of State, it is difficult to separate Clinton’s politics from those of the President she served, but it is clear that she was hawkish on intervention in Libya, is an outspoken and uncritical advocate for Israel, and worked hard to secure major defense contracts, including for Saudi Arabia. Indeed, a candidate in 2008, Clinton proposed an “umbrella of deterrence” for the Gulf-state autocracies.
As some have noted, Sanders’ repeated criticism of Clinton’s push for regime change in Libya comes from a similar intellectual position as his ‘no’ votes for war authorizations. Indeed his explanation for a ‘no’ vote on Iraq in 2002 was prescient, correctly predicting that the war in Iraq would cause new problems, and anticipating some of the specifics:
“I have not heard any estimates of how many young American men and women might die in such a war, or how many tens of thousands of women and children in Iraq might also be killed. As a caring nation, we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering war will cause. War must be the last recourse…..[And] who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed? And what role will the US play in an ensuing civil war that will develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists? Will the bloody conflict between Israel and the PA be exacerbated?”
Beyond where to invade next, the other major foreign policy distinction that commentators discuss is the US relationship with Israel, and potential relations with Palestine. Sanders, the first non-Christian candidate to come this close to the Presidency, began his recent Middle East policy address by noting he has lived on a Kibbutz and has family in Israel. So far, so typical of US policy discourse. The fact that he delivered that speech in Salt Lake City, while Clinton and all of the Republican candidates attended the AIPAC conference in Washington, DC that week, was an important signal.
Instead of reassuring the most conservative of the Israel lobby’s members, Sanders gave his remarks elsewhere. After asserting that he would work to ensure that the US-Israeli friendship remains strong, he noted that “it is important among friends to be honest and truthful about differences that we may have.” He continued, “we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza unemployment today is 44 percent and we have there a poverty rate which is almost as high.” Continuing to emphasize a “balanced” role for the US in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he noted that “Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza – once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part.”
He echoed those sentiments in a recent interview with the hostile editorial board of the New York Daily News: “We cannot ignore the reality that you have large numbers of Palestinians who are suffering now, poverty rate off the charts, unemployment off the charts, Gaza remaining a destroyed area.” Israel, he argued, “cannot just simply expand when it wants to expand with new settlements.”
While Clinton told the AIPAC audience that “I feel so strongly that America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security,” Sanders recognizes some daylight between Israel and the United States. Noting that friends disagree opens space to name the increasingly outrageous actions of the Likud government in curbing human rights groups, suppressing the Israeli left, expanding illegal settlements, and using disproportionate force in military operations against terror groups.
On other major questions of high politics and diplomacy, particularly the Iran nuclear deal that Clinton helped secure and that Sanders supports, continued support to NATO, and the fight against ISIS, the two candidates have positions that are quite close. Of course there are nuances, but early campaign positions don’t always translate to actual governance, as Charli Carpenter explains.
Despite one of the least-hawkish voting records in the Senate, anti-war critics find plenty in Sanders’ record to decry. His votes for war in Kosovo in 1999 (that led to a sit-in at his office), for war in Afghanistan in 2001, and for various funding bills that supported war operations are clear targets for those who want a true anti-militarist candidate. While there is certainly a contrast with Clinton’s record on military intervention, arms deals, and the like, Sanders is no Chomsky.
While it’s not perfect by any means, taken together this approach puts him somewhat to the left of Obama on foreign policy, and far superior than any other candidate in the race. […] Insofar as it’s possible for the president of a worldwide military hegemon, Bernie Sanders is the candidate of peace and restraint.
The chief distinction between the two candidates, certainly the one that’s most discussed, is their enthusiasm for using US armed forces for regime change. This is obviously important, yet the way that it has eclipsed other policy areas points to the narrowness of how US politics conceives foreign policy and the ways that US impacts on the world are understood.
Good Guys And Bad Guys: Thinking Dangerously About The US In The World
Beyond the important positions the two hold on who and when to bomb, there is much more to say about the differences between a Sanders and Clinton administration for the shape of global politics to come. Without getting into extensive side-by-side comparisons, I want to highlight several reasons why Sanders is more than a marginally-more-peaceful candidate for world hegemon, and why I think you, yes you, should vote for him (if you have the chance).
To my mind, some essential information about Sanders’ politics, and his judgment, comes through in his 2002 speech quoted above. His opposition to invading Iraq made clear that he is attentive to two facts that American politics is deeply averse to admitting: 1) there are limits to what US power can do and 2) the US is not necessarily a force for good in the world. The first might be described as realist in the popular sense, in acknowledging that even overwhelming destructive force cannot impose desired outcomes. The second point, hinted at in his Iraq statement, is the backdrop to Sanders’ critiques of Clinton’s interventionism.
Sanders has repeatedly summoned the (long-presumed-exorcized) ghosts of CIA backed coups in Persia (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973). Like his reminders that ISIS is a causal outgrowth of the Iraqi civil war he predicted, these remarks indicate a willingness to question not just the effectiveness of US power, but the moral character of that power and its impacts. While some think criticism of the CIA and covert operations around the third world are beyond the pale, the US’ long history of anti-democratic meddling continues into the present. The image of a US goliath crashing around the poorest countries of the world, imposing its will with unforeseen consequences is not a cartoon, it’s a historically accurate description of reality.
Indeed, perhaps the most serious criticism of Clinton’s record as Secretary of State comes from her role in legitimating the 2009 Honduran military coup against President Zalaya. In her memoir, she describes working “to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” By helping the coup-plotters organize elections, Clinton and Obama worked to prevent Zelaya’s return, undermining UN and OAS mediation efforts, and rendering the coup a fait accompli.
Honduras has since become one of the most violent places on earth, contributing to mass migrations by Hondurans, especially young people. Many become the dangerous ‘illegals’ Drumpf wants to build a wall to keep out. The Honduran environmental and indigenous activist Berta Cáceres singled Clinton out for criticism several years ago, noting that since the coup, the violence never really ended. Indeed, Cáceres was assassinated in her home last month.
While those actions can and should also be attributed to the Obama administration, Clinton herself was at the center of these events. Combined with the Obama administration’s notable and shameful silence towards the Egyptian military coup, growing authoritarianism in Turkey, and Saudi Arabia’s increasingly shameless use of military power in the region, Sanders’ critiques of CIA coups and pet-dictators is neither off-base nor irrelevant. It is key to a worldview which acknowledges that the US has often acted to destroy and disrupt democracy and social justice in the third world.
His positions on regime change thus are rooted in both senses of the term ‘realism.’ He is cautious about the effectiveness of power, and he is skeptical about the anointed role of the US as holy-crusaders. Both are important in any Commander in Chief, especially if we are serious about finding a medium term reduction in violence in the Middle East.
Beyond which drone strikes to approve or how many fighter planes to sell the Gulf States even as they finance al Qaeda linked groups and ISIS, here are a few areas where a Sanders Presidency will make a real difference in the shape of the international system, and which have been left out of most conversations about foreign policy.
(Ending) The Neoliberal Washington Consensus
Long a weapon of destabilization against third world governments, neoliberal market policies are no longer the consensus in the US. Large numbers of voters in both parties support candidates that question free-trade, with Cruz and Drumpf on the right, and Sanders on the left, criticizing the very institutions that have made US-style capitalist frameworks the unofficial international laws of commerce, development, and trade. Clinton stands alone as the candidate of the neoliberal world order that her husband worked so hard to cement.
Sanders’ decades of criticism of ‘race-to-the-bottom’ trade deals is often denounced as populist ‘protectionism’ by those still enamored with the Washington Consensus, but that is not the only way to frame the issue. Even the IMF, the institution that battered down so many third world governments, dismantled so many social welfare systems, and imposed such incredible suffering in the name of market reform, has acknowledged that austerity policies do much more social and economic damage than previously acknowledged.
The world we live in today, one in which austerity cuts, free-trade agreements, and overbearing multinational economic institutions constrain democratic governance and social welfare was not inevitable. It is largely a product of the Bill Clinton Presidency of the 1990s, which saw the US use the collapse of the Soviet system as an opportunity to ‘lock in’ agreements that would shape the global economy. 1993’s NAFTA free-trade agreement allowed capital and goods to cross North American borders, but not people. In 1994, President Clinton ‘delinked’ China’s ‘most favored nation’ trade status from human rights and other issues. Doing so while their people couldn’t legally organize unions, picket or fire their leaders for failing to enforce sanitation, safety, and environmental regulations, all helped ensure that Chinese capitalism could develop rapidly and without democratic checks or resistance from workers. China’s entry to the WTO, expanded free-trade agreements, and IMF-imposed austerity in Latin America, Africa, and Asia all combined throughout the late 1990s to create a global politics in which multilateral agreements and agencies could overrule elected governments.
President Clinton argued that these agreements allowing the free movement of goods without tariffs or ‘burdensome’ social, labor, or environmental stipulations, were the only legitimate policy agenda for the post-Cold War world. In response to the bipartisan consensus that foreclosed debate on these issues, the last few years of President Clinton’s administration saw a multinational wave of protest to the further expansion of the US-led neoliberal order.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Seattle, Rome, Quebec City, New York, Washington, and elsewhere. Groups ranging from environmental campaigners to feminists, third world solidarity groups, and indigenous peoples joined in a broad critique of what was negotiated away via multilateral agreements, insisting that free-trade regimes must include human rights, environmental, and labor provisions to ensure fair competition between workers.
At the time, we were told that these were unrealistic demands because these policy arenas should be dealt with separately. Activists (myself included) insisted that the global trade regimes, being the most powerful, desirable, and sought-after multilateral institutions, had to be agenda-setters to protect democratic and social progress against market forces. Sanders stood with those forces then, as he does now.
Perhaps most distressing, from the perspective of democratic values, each of these major trade deals featured a mechanism that allows corporate actors to overrule national, regional, or local governments in supranational tribunals. Public Citizen summarizes Chapter 11 of NAFTA thusly: it “allows corporations to sue the national government of a NAFTA country in secret arbitration tribunals if they feel that a regulation or government decision affects their investment in conflict with these new NAFTA rights.” This was not a one-time deal, however. As The Economist described it,
If you wanted to convince the public that international trade agreements are a way to let multinational companies get rich at the expense of ordinary people, this is what you would do: give foreign firms a special right to apply to a secretive tribunal of highly paid corporate lawyers for compensation whenever a government passes a law to, say, discourage smoking, protect the environment or prevent a nuclear catastrophe. Yet that is precisely what thousands of trade and investment treaties over the past half century have done, through a process known as “investor-state dispute settlement”.
Indeed, as Public Citizen describes: a Swedish firm successfully sued the Germans for delays in approving a coal-fired power plant after Germany adopted a climate change plan and is currently suing the German government for its plans to shut down their nuclear reactors, Philip Morris is suing Australia over smoking bans; a US company is suing Quebec for the right to frack under the St. Lawrence river, oil companies have sued several Amazonian nations for lost profits over delayed exploitation of oil resources, and the examples go on and on.
The US has been, consistently, the chief instigator of these neoliberal global trade deals and has also inserted these clauses into bilateral agreements. Countries all over the planet have seen public services privatized, regulations overturned, and democratic governance constrained. That can, should, and must change.
A Sanders Presidency will not be able to undo this damage to democracy, or to rewrite every trade deal on the books, but it could represent a chance to halt neoliberalism’s spread via the proposed TPP and TAFTA agreements that would link the US with most of the Pacific Rim and Europe (respectively) in massive new trade agreements. Among other non-trade related provisions, these agreements will increase the cost of medicine, force Europeans to accept US-made GMO foods, increase pressure to privatize water, sewage, and transportation systems, and see financial regulations in both Europe and the US rolled back. President Sanders might give US diplomats and trade negotiators a new mission: stop serving as corporate lobbyists, and affirm our country’s long-term interest in promoting democratic self-rule, the provision of social services, and sustainable economic and ecological conditions for humans to thrive.
Energy, Drugs, Weapons: Why Sanders Is The Commander In Chief We Need
An emphasis on clean energy, while affirmed in principle by all Democrats, nonetheless has different meanings to different leaders. As President Obama and then Secretary of State Clinton showed with their efforts to push fracking at home and abroad, the fundamental challenge of climate change, and the need to keep carbon-based resources in the ground, often takes a back seat to the demands of energy companies and their allies. Sanders has a different record, and while he will face the same forces as Obama has, he is also a cranky and principled leftist. He will not be able to stop climate change, but he does represent a radical break from the cozy relationship that the oil, coal, and gas industries have enjoyed with both the Republican and Democratic parties. That those industries actually threaten our security is no theoretical model. In North Carolina, Duke Energy’s coal ash pits leaked massive amounts of toxic ash-sludge, compounding already polluted waterways, meaning that we cannot eat the fish in our rivers.
Sanders is also the only candidate to take a strong position on ending the war on drugs. The US has been the world’s chief police officer, with US agencies operating throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Recent pushback by Latin American allies has shown that 40+ years of spraying poison on poor farmer’s fields, militarizing police, and attempting to interdict every boat, plane, and truck that crosses the US border has failed. Indeed, the single greatest blow to the Cartels has come from the legalization of marijuana in the US. The Cartels have lost profits and largely abandoned importing marijuana due to (quasi-legal) domestic competition. Sanders introduced legislation to remove marijuana from the DEA schedule, which would reduce federal penalties and smooth the current tension between state and federal law.
A harm-reduction approach, one that decriminalizes less-addictive drugs and moves those addicted to dangerous drugs into treatment, would potentially keep hundreds of thousands of US citizens out jail (allowing them to work, raise families, and vote). More significantly for global politics, the US is a massive market, spending approximately $100 billion on illegal drugs, including homegrown marijuana and psychedelics, as well as Latin American cocaine and Afghan heroin. This produces illegal flows of drugs into the US, and dollars and firearms out, giving the Cartels their power to corrupt and terrorize so many people across the Western Hemisphere. President Sanders will not be able to end the drug trade. But ending the ‘war on drugs’ and shifting to a public health model based on treatment and rehabilitation, is the single best plan to support rule of law and self-government by our neighbors to the South. US leadership on this issue might be able to end the UN’s drug war, allowing nations to experiment with a variety of policies. It’s also the medically and morally best thing to do for our loved ones and neighbors caught in addiction.
To return to security issues, there is a largely unacknowledged threat to the US military that President Sanders alone is equipped to address: massive corporate greed. The incredibly flawed, overpriced, un-aerodynamic and ineffective F-35 fighter program is only the worst example. As Senator McCain noted in his lone ‘no’ vote on the most recent omnibus spending bill, “here we stand with a 2000-page omnibus appropriations bill, crafted in secret with no debate, which most of us are seeing for the first time this morning.” That bill, on top of already-approved defense appropriations for the regular Pentagon budget, buys 11 additional F-35 fighters, prevents up to $2 billion in savings from base closures, spends $1 billion extra for a destroyer (that the Navy didn’t request), and spends $640 million for a (non-requested) ‘Coast Guard National Security Center’ in Mississippi.
This is not merely a matter of waste. The capture of the defense appropriations process by corporate lobbyists and congressional favor-seeking also means that effective and cheap weapons systems (like the A-10 Warthog air-support bomber) are being pushed out of service in favor of whizz-bang high-tech weapons that lack the same capabilities. While I am no fan of US imperial overreach, nor of constant interventions in the third world, when my country (including friends and family) go to war, the weapons deployed should be durable and cost-effective. The current system is so badly broken that it is not merely wasteful, it is a threat to US military readiness.
A Sanders Presidency that pushes hard to minimize reliance on fossil fuels, reduces US imports of oil from authoritarian countries, changes the paradigm on illegal drugs, and restores some basic measure of accountability to Pentagon spending would do more to protect US security than any anti-ISIS campaign or new treaty with China.
Sanders is accused of being a single issue candidate, but if that single issue is defending democracy from capitalism, his credentials for Commander in Chief are exactly right. From unaccountable trade deals, to energy companies enjoying record profits as they raise the oceans and give us all asthma, to weapons contractors who are costing the US military billions in waste while pushing to shelve weapons that work, we need President Sanders.
So please, regardless of the positions you’ve taken in the past, help elect President Sanders. The differences between Sanders and Clinton are serious. Even if you’re convinced that these differences are small, remember that “Small differences in a system of great power can have enormous consequences.” I worry that too few US voters are considering the enormous effects that our country has on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Finally, for those who like ‘electability,’ Sanders is best poised to beat Drumpf or Cruz, is the only current candidate with a positive favorability rating, and enjoys overwhelming support from the future of the democratic party. If the Republicans can somehow manage to subvert their voters and nominate him, Clinton will almost definitely lose to Kasich. Sanders is also the only candidate who can plausibly lead the national effort to restore voting rights and end the legal corruption of campaign finance. In 2024, Elizabeth Warren will make an amazing president, someone the entire Democratic Party can embrace.