When Bernie Sanders dropped out of the election, there was widespread mourning on campus. While his domestic platform may deserve praise, as an international student, I am relieved that Bernie will not be the next president. His foreign policy would have accelerated U.S. retrenchment, the policy of America’s minimizing global footprint, rolling back alliances and forward deployments, while relying on partners to maintain balance of power in the region.
How would have Sanders intensified US retrenchment? Let’s start with the Middle East. Sanders promised to reenter the Iran nuclear deal on day one of his presidency, without putting Iran’s re-commitment to the agreement as a precondition. He vowed to curtail both the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and destabilizing adventurism, but never explained how. Instead, he frequently blamed America for Iran’s wrongdoings. Sanders was set to leave American allies under the shadow of Iranian expansion because he was so eager to exit the region.
The Trump Administration, in contrast, through sanctions and use of force, at least restored some degree of deterrence. Maximum Pressure on Iran was buttressed by America’s Shale Revolution which softens potential oil shocks. While Trump is certainly no internationalist, his proactive approach paradoxically put Iran at bay, to a certain degree. Combined with his distaste for shale gas - which will also hinder domestic growth - Sanders’ reluctance to stay committed to the region raises a question of credibility
Sanders has also argued that Washington should review its support for the Saudis and stop relying on authoritarian regimes. Unfortunately, alliance with Saudi Arabia is a necessary evil to confront Iran. There are also no reliable, democratic partners in the Middle East. The only working democracy in the region is Israel, whose support Sanders continues to reject. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal noted, Sanders calls “the 14-year Prime Minister of America’s closest Middle East ally a ‘racist.’” Sanders would have expected American partners to share Washington’s burden while alienating them
Sanders even contended that withdrawal from Afghanistan should not hinge on the Taliban’s actions. Publicly promising unconditional withdrawal gives the Taliban a clear incentive to renege on the peace deal. While 18 years of war was costly, America managed to deny terrorists a safe haven, help bring an imperfect yet democratic government, and restore basic rights for Afghan women. Sanders was not willing to ensure that the blood of Afghan and American soldiers count towards building Afghanistan’s future free of extremism and religious fundamentalism.
In fact, Sanders’ withdrawal agenda was not limited to the Middle East. Sanders is opposed not just to military intervention, but militaristic thinking; he rejected the use of force to buttress diplomacy. To him, America’s “militaristic approaches” simply undermined its moral authority and “caused allies to question our ability to lead.”
Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy advisor, claimed that “a President Sanders would challenge the ‘deeply held belief in Washington’ that ‘unless America is at the front of every parade, the world will fall into chaos.’” He further argued that U.S. troops stationed in countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany “aren’t economically sustainable in the long term.”
However, Sanders’ retrenchment agenda would harm American credibility in all strategic theaters at a crucial moment in Great Power Competition. Beijing and Moscow’s strategies are specifically tailored to weaken the U.S.-led alliance system by challenging Washington’s security commitment in Asia and Europe. An apparent unwillingness to come to allies’ defense would have simply served their interests.
Some of America’s greatest foreign policy achievements were built on the willingness to use force, or a resolute display of it. Consider the successes of the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and the 1995 Taiwan Strait crisis. America won the Cold War thanks to its commitment to collective security, which at times required the willingness to confront the Soviets instead of backing down in the fear of escalation. It wasn’t just the neoconservative Republicans who advocated such posture. From Madeline Albright to Hillary Clinton, mainstream Democrat diplomats valued power projection as a strong leverage in negotiations and deterrence against potential aggressions. However, Sanders would have failed to retain deterrence against America’s foes.
In the 21st century, U.S. allies in Asia fear that America could cede the playing field to Beijing. Europeans fear that an impatient U.S. administration could disintegrate NATO. Partners in the Middle East fear its complete withdrawal. Washington’s retreat from the world, not militarism, tops U.S. allies’ concerns.
To borrow the words of Mr. Duss, “there is a very shallow national consensus over America’s international policing role.” Indeed, American voters overwhelmingly prioritize domestic issues over foreign affairs, and for good reason. However, the President of the United States is not a mayor of a city, but the leader of the Free World -- a position that Sanders was clearly not willing to maintain.
Unfortunately, Sanders’ foreign policy legacy lives on. Biden is allegedly accommodating his ideas. It can be tempting to cut back on military spending and foreign assistance to focus on America’s myriad of domestic problems.
It is understandable that American constituents do not want another Afghanistan or Iraq. However, peace can be kept only when you are ready to fight for it. America’s adversaries are more likely to miscalculate and provoke military confrontations when the U.S. is hesitant to defend its allies. An unwavering commitment to collective security is, in fact, a safer bet. There are efforts on Stanford campus to ensure Sanders’ legacy makes an impact on the November election. As a South Korean citizen, I ask that you prudently distinguish between Bernie’s character, domestic agendas, and foreign policy ideas.