The most meaningful foreign-policy address delivered by a prominent American political figure in this moment of global turmoil and possibility was not, as should be quite clear by now, Donald Trump’s “Rocket Man” rant at the United Nations.
Rather, it was the speech that Senator Bernie Sanders gave Thursday at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The long-planned address by the 2016 presidential contender was not presented as a formal response to Trump. And yet, as Sanders outlined a vision for foreign policy that was more nuanced, more complex, and more genuinely internationalist than that of the president, he provided the most necessary and valuable counter to Trump.
Sanders also countered the narrow framework of the contemporary debate about foreign policy that gave rise to the nationalist presidency of a billionaire populist who thinks there is a country in Africa called “Nambia.”
“When we talk about foreign policy it is clear that there are some who believe that the United States would be best served by withdrawing from the global community. I disagree. As the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, we have got to help lead the struggle to defend and expand a rules-based international order in which law, not might, makes right,” Sanders declared in a critical section of his address. He explained that
We must offer people a vision that one day, maybe not in our lifetimes, but one day in the future, human beings on this planet will live in a world where international conflicts will be resolved peacefully, not by mass murder.
How tragic it is that today, while hundreds of millions of people live in abysmal poverty, the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons of destruction.
I am not naive or unmindful of history. Many of the conflicts that plague our world are longstanding and complex. But we must never lose our vision of a world in which, to quote the Prophet Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
While Trump got high marks from his apologists, and even from some of his critics, for delivering a crudely dismissive response to diplomacy and international cooperation in his remarks at the United Nations, Sanders embraced the faith of the American visionaries who helped shape the post–World War II institutions that sought to avoid the next wars.
One of the most important organizations for promoting a vision of a different world is the United Nations. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped create the UN, called it “our greatest hope for future peace. Alone we cannot keep the peace of the world, but in cooperation with others we have to achieve this much longed-for security.” It has become fashionable to bash the UN. And yes, the UN needs to be reformed. It can be ineffective, bureaucratic, too slow or unwilling to act, even in the face of massive atrocities, as we are seeing in Syria right now. But to see only its weaknesses is to overlook the enormously important work the UN does in promoting global health, aiding refugees, monitoring elections, and doing international peacekeeping missions, among other things. All of these activities contribute to reduced conflict, to wars that don’t have to be ended because they never start. At the end of the day, it is obvious that it makes far more sense to have a forum in which countries can debate their concerns, work out compromises and agreements. Dialogue and debate are far preferable to bombs, poison gas, and war.
The speech that Sanders delivered at Westminster College touched on many issues of the moment—President Trump’s “incredibly foolish and short-sighted” abandonment of the Paris agreement and efforts to address climate change, the failure of “free trade” schemes such as NAFTA and the danger of flawed proposals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, and his fury over United States “support for Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in Yemen, which has killed many thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest countries.” He decried “a rise in authoritarianism and right-wing extremism–both domestic and foreign—which further weakens this order by exploiting and amplifying resentments, stoking intolerance and fanning ethnic and racial hatreds among those in our societies who are struggling.”
“We saw this anti-democratic effort take place in the 2016 election right here in the United States, where we now know that the Russian government was engaged in a massive effort to undermine one of our greatest strengths: the integrity of our elections, and our faith in our own democracy,” Sanders continued, saying:
I found it incredible, by the way, that when the president of the United States spoke before the United Nations on Monday, he did not even mention that outrage.
Well, I will. Today I say to Mr. Putin: We will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world. In fact, our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia. In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.
But the speech that Sanders gave was much more than a response to the headlines and challenges of the moment. It was a deeply thoughtful and deeply historic address, which recognized the significance of the fact that he was appearing on the stage where in 1946 former British prime minister Winston Churchill outlined a post–World War II vision of how to shield future generations from “the two giant marauders, war and tyranny.”
What distinguished this address by the senator — who was criticized for not speaking enough foreign policy during his 2016 campaign — was the reminder it provided that, over almost four decades in elective office, Sanders has always been deeply engaged with global issues.
Sanders displayed that engagement when he spoke at length of an American vision for “real leadership” and “real power” that rejects ill-considered interventions and wars, particularly the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and celebrates diplomacy, in the form of the Iran nuclear agreements. Arguing that “as an organizing framework, the Global War on Terror has been a disaster,” Sanders said, “We must rethink the old Washington mindset that judges ‘seriousness’ according to the willingness to use force. One of the key misapprehensions of this mindset is the idea that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.”
“Yes, military force is sometimes necessary, but always–always–as the last resort,” the senator said, to loud applause from the crowd. “And blustery threats of force, while they might make a few columnists happy, can often signal weakness as much as strength, diminishing US deterrence, credibility, and security in the process.”
Borrowing from the wisdom of great American legislators such as Wisconsin’s Robert M. La Follette, Nebraska’s George Norris, and California’s Barbara Lee, Sanders spoke for the view that America leads best when it leads as an advocate for peace and justice rather than as a bully:
The goal is not for the United States to dominate the world. Nor, on the other hand, is our goal to withdraw from the international community and shirk our responsibilities under the banner of “America First.” Our goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance. This is better for our security, better for global stability, and better for facilitating the international cooperation necessary to meet shared challenges.
Here’s a truth that you don’t often hear about in the newspapers, on the television, or in the halls of Congress. But it’s a truth we must face. Far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm. Yes, it is reasonably easy to engineer the overthrow of a government. It is far harder, however, to know the long-term impact that that action will have.
In Fulton, where so many world leaders have outlined their visions, Sanders gave a speech that was on the side of peace and diplomacy. But it was a speech infused with an understanding that peace must be underpinned by justice. And that justice cannot thrive amid oligarchy or authoritarianism.
“Another challenge that we and the entire world face is growing wealth and income inequality, and the movement toward international oligarchy—a system in which a small number of billionaires and corporate interests have control over our economic life, our political life, and our media,” began the senator, in the most vital argument of what will be remembered as one of his finest speeches. Employing language that drew from the best traditions of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, and Dwight Eisenhower, Bernie Sanders explained that:
This movement toward oligarchy is not just an American issue. It is an international issue. Globally, the top 1 percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 99 percent of the world’s population.
In other words, while the very, very rich become much richer, thousands of children die every week in poor countries around the world from easily prevented diseases, and hundreds of millions live in incredible squalor.
Inequality, corruption, oligarchy, and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way. Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.
But economic inequality is not the only form of inequality that we must face. As we seek to renew America’s commitment to promote human rights and human dignity around the world, we must be a living example here at home. We must reject the divisive attacks based on a person’s religion, race, gender, sexual orientation or identity, country of origin, or class. And when we see demonstrations of neo-Nazism and white supremacism as we recently did in Charlottesville, Virginia, we must be unequivocal in our condemnation, as our president, shamefully, was not.
And as we saw here so clearly in St. Louis in the past week, we need serious reforms in policing and the criminal-justice system so that the life of every person is equally valued and protected. We cannot speak with the moral authority the world needs if we do not struggle to achieve the ideal we are holding out for others.