Throughout the winter and spring of 2016, Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, proudly laying out an agenda that pulled together one progressive policy plank after another. But in one important area, there was near deafening silence: foreign policy.
Well, today Sanders finally delivered the speech many of us have been hoping to hear, from him or anyone else, for quite some time. In laying out a principled and bold progressive vision for recentering US foreign policy at the core of a progressive platform, Senator Sanders has given voice to those of us who have always believed that our values don’t simply stop at the water’s edge.
Taking to the same stage where Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech almost 70 years ago, Sanders’s challenge to the progressive movement, and indeed to all Americans, was to redefine for the 21st century a vision for America’s role in the world. Laying out the questions he sought to answer, Sanders asks:
At a time of exploding technology and wealth, how do we move away from a world of war, terrorism and massive levels of poverty into a world of peace and economic security for all? How do we move toward a global community in which people have the decent jobs, food, clean water, education, health care, and housing they need?
As Sanders admits, these are not easy questions, but they are ones “we cannot afford to ignore.”
At the heart of his speech was the argument that the divide between domestic and foreign policy is not only artificial but also counterproductive. An expansive view of foreign policy—not merely as the idea of what happens over there, but also as part of who we are here at home—challenges us to enlarge our own thinking. Foreign policy, in Sanders’s argument, is not just about whether we go to war or not. It is about our democracy at home; it is about climate change; it is about global oligarchy; and it is about how American leadership can come together and solve the challenges we face through diplomacy.
Sanders rightly connects the dots between an exploding Pentagon budget and Republican attempts to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans in the name of fiscal responsibility. He makes clear that a progressive foreign policy also means that “We cannot convincingly promote democracy abroad if we do not live it vigorously here at home.” And in the way he does so well, Sanders reminds us that no progressive view of the world can tolerate the massive wealth inequality both here and around the world.
After reframing the issue, Sanders dives into the meat of the matter in a way that should ring true for every progressive. He reminds us that hundreds of millions live in poverty, dying of preventable diseases, while arms makers rake in trillions from weapons of war. He reminds us of America’s history of interventions—from Iran to Chile to right now in Yemen—that have had a habit of having devastating results. And he reminds us that there is a path between endless war and isolationism, that America’s greatest successes came when it helped support not just our allies but also our former enemies, as we did with the Marshall Plan.
To bring this all home, Sanders points to two diametrically opposed visions of American foreign policy that played out in recent years. In reminding us of the horrors of the Iraq War and juxtaposing it with the unbridled success of the Iran nuclear deal, Bernie helps make clear that this is not some esoteric debate. These are debates happening right now, here in Washington, about just what path our nation should choose to confront the challenges we face abroad.
Too often over the past few years, I’ve read that progressives don’t have big ideas on foreign policy, that we don’t agree on the issues, that we are only interested in what’s happening here at home. Today Bernie Sanders made clear just how untrue that is. In laying out a principled progressive vision for America’s role in the world, this speech finally helped complete Sanders’s progressive platform.
Now let’s answer his charge and “go forward to build that tomorrow.”