It has been almost 100 years since Republicans in the US Senate vetoed American membership in the League of Nations. By the most dismal reckonings, what followed was a leaderless League that ultimately collapsed, and a descent by a weakened and traumatized Europe, with millions of its people dead, into a global Depression that opened the door to fascists. And then came another world war. While the arrogance of President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, may bear some of the blame in most objective histories, his 1916 dream of a new world order was shattered irreparably because Republican isolationists had taken control of Congress in a 1918 midterm election.
A century later, it could be the United Nations that is in peril. It would be hard to wreck it, as some Republicans would like—one candidate no longer in the race advocated razing it and pushing the debris into the sea—but there is not one GOP candidate now in the race who has been willing to defend the organization or what it stands for, judging from threats made before and during the 2016 primaries. In that atmosphere, if a Republican is elected to the presidency and GOP right-wingers keep control of both houses of Congress, almost certainly the UN and the American role in it will be fair game.
On the Democrats’ side, there has mostly been silence on the campaign trail. But a look back at congressional voting and speaking records reveals something of a surprise. Over recent decades, Bernie Sanders has been a quietly steadfast defender of the UN in important votes, often running against special-interest lobbies and the tide of frequently ill-informed provincialism among both Republicans and some members of his own party. He was repeatedly in a lonely minority.
In the Senate, Sanders voted in 2005 against slashing up to half of US contributions to the UN if a list of substantial management reforms were not made. Four years earlier, he had opposed a measure that would allow the United States to withhold $244 million in delinquent payments to the UN until the United States had its seat restored on the Human Rights Commission (restructured in 2005 as the Human Rights Council). The “UN” does not control elections to the human-rights body, whose members are chosen by member governments.
Sanders has been a member of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. In 2006, he cosponsored a consensus resolution backing the fielding of a UN peacekeeping force in the Darfur region of Sudan, where casualties in militia attacks, starvation, and displacement over many months have been estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
On nuclear issues, which are at the heart of UN disarmament work, Sanders voted against the 2005 US nuclear pact with India, agreeing with other opponents that the deal, pushed by American and Indian corporate lobbies, undermined decades of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Leading nuclear security experts share this position. India, with a substantial nuclear arsenal, has refused to sign any major agreements on nonproliferation and testing, and has put most of its nuclear facilities off limits to international inspection. In 2015, Sanders supported the Obama administration’s nuclear accord with Iran, saying in a policy paper that the agreement “is far better than the path we were on with Iran developing nuclear weapons capability.”