Senator Bernie Sanders is the candidate for a stronger America of enhanced global influence. He is a sober, clear-eyed, foreign-policy realist. Yet few recognize this, mainly because of his impassioned focus on broad domestic reforms. Most view Sanders as anything but a realist—more like a utopian idealist—and concede the foreign-policy advantage to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton or any of the tough-talking Republican candidates. But they are wrong, and the liberal Sanders is paradoxically the only foreign-policy realist in the presidential field.
This comes as a surprise because realism in the popular mind has grown synonymous with overweening might and unilateral assertion of US objectives; think “shock and awe” and “regime change.” Sanders is none of those, and most equate him instead with foreign-policy idealism: allergic to the use of force, and naively trusting in multilateral diplomacy. But these are not Sanders either. Moreover, such simplistic definitions have diverged very far from their original, nuanced meanings, which it behooves us to recall at this most troubled time in international affairs.
Realism as a foreign-policy concept is at least as old as the great-power rivalries detailed in The History of the Peloponnesian War, by the Greek historian Thucydides. The term came into widespread use with E.H. Carr’s The Twenty Years’ Crisis, where he contrasted realism with the utopianism that failed to understand—much less manage—shifts in the interwar balance of power. The balance of power was also a central concern of Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, the classic of postwar realism.
Like all realists, Morgenthau emphasized states’ overriding need to guard their security in a “self-help” world—we must always be powerful enough to defend ourselves. But Morgenthau also cautioned against squandering that power, against stumbling into costly conflicts by overestimating threats or underestimating local backlash against our military incursions. Morgenthau’s immediate concern was Vietnam, as America was drawn into a quagmire in part thanks to a false narrative foisted on the public—one that portrayed a long-running conflict in a deeply divided country as a simple matter of communist aggression. Neither did it help that our “nation building” in Vietnam depended on a client who was deeply unpopular in his own country. Substitute Iraq and WMD for Vietnam and Gulf of Tonkin (and perhaps Ahmed Chalabi for Ngo Dinh Diem), and you know what Morgenthau would have said about the crusade to create a “new Middle East.” And you can guess who he’d have judged the better realist: Sanders, who opposed the Iraq War, or Clinton, who supported it as well as promoting the “regime change” that has failed so spectacularly in Libya?