It’s a pity Bernie Sanders isn’t the president

Apr 8, 2024
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders walking in the Independence Day parade with supporters in Ames, Iowa. 4 July 2019,

A few years ago, I gave a talk at the annual conference of the Australian Institute for International Affairs. Afterwards, one of the local luminaries observed that it sounded like I was channelling Bernie Sanders. It was not meant as a compliment. On the contrary, both of us were clearly regarded as unrealistic and naïve, if not downright flaky.

But the conventional wisdom has got us where we are: facing an unaddressed climate cataclysm, the prospect of expanding interstate conflicts, if not World War Three. If this is what the sensible chaps—they are invariably men—who make foreign and strategic policy think is a good outcome, I don’t think there’s much hope.

Thankfully, Bernie is still pointing out why America’s foreign policy orthodoxy is wrong and what an alternative might look like— for all the good it will do him or us. Nevertheless, his recent article in Foreign Affairs is not just a withering critique of the appalling failures of American foreign policy over the last half century, but a sane and much needed alternative to the group think that prevails in Washington and Australia.

At the centre of Sanders’ assessment of decades of foreign policy failure is the increasingly uncontroversial claim that American foreign policy has been ‘guided not by respect for democracy or human rights but militarism, groupthink, and the greed and power of corporate interests.’

The activities of what Dwight Eisenhower famously described as the industrial-military complex in 1961 have only become more self-serving and destructive in the intervening years. Unsurprisingly, the world has become decidedly less safe as a consequence, especially if you are unfortunate enough to live in a country judged to be a threat to American security and its preferred vision of international order.

Encouragingly, arguing that that the money wasted on fighting completely pointless and unnecessary wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan could have been put to better uses is no longer an entirely eccentric idea. Unfortunately, applying the same logic to the future remains a niche interest. But as Sanders points out:

If the goal of foreign policy is to help create a peaceful and prosperous world, the foreign policy establishment needs to fundamentally rethink its assumptions. Spending trillions of dollars on endless wars and defense contracts is not going to address the existential threat of climate change or the likelihood of future pandemics. It is not going to feed hungry children, reduce hatred, educate the illiterate, or cure diseases. It is not going to help create a shared global community and diminish the likelihood of war. In this pivotal moment in human history, the United States must lead a new global movement based on human solidarity and the needs of struggling people. is movement must have the courage to take on the greed of the international oligarchy, in which a few thousand billionaires exercise enormous economic and political power.

Sounds good to me, Bernie. I just can’t imagine how we’re going to transition from where we are to where we need to be. I do have increased sympathy for those who believe that only revolutions really change things, though.

Indeed, it is a measure of just how astoundingly misguided the dominant strategic discourse within Anglosphere nations is that the most significant areas of cooperation revolve around spending yet more money on preposterously expensive and inappropriate military hardware that is unlikely to deter putative enemies, and which will likely ensure the demise of the human race should deterrence fail.

Under such circumstances it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the goal of American foreign policy really is ‘to help create a peaceful and prosperous world’. Perhaps Bernie really is a bit naive even raising it as a possibility, especially when the US refuses to act decisively and end the pointless, avoidable slaughter in Gaza, which could not happen without American munitions and money.

Nevertheless, the fact that the US is capable of producing progressive political mavericks—even socialists!—like Sanders is testimony to the relative freedom of the American political system. And yet the inability of thoughtful commentators to influence policy and stop the US from repeating the same avoidable, catastrophic mistakes takes some explaining.

The aftermath of the Second World War marked the last time that the US played a productive and largely positive role in international affairs. Significantly, it took the greatest conflict in human history to make countries realise that multilateral cooperation was necessary to create the conditions for peace and prosperity. True, the benefits of this era were unevenly distributed, and the prospect of nuclear Armageddon helped to focus the attention of Western policymakers, but it was quite an achievement, nevertheless.

Could effective, institutionalised multilateral cooperation break out again, possibly on a global scale? The risks and challenges facing contemporary policymakers are even more formidable and urgent than those facing their predecessors. But the recognition that individual states—including the US, China and Russia—might have to give up some national ambitions and power to realise common goals simply doesn’t exist and it’s hard to see how it will.

American leadership really could play a role once again, but it might mean embracing China as an equal partner for the greater good, especially if we are ever going to do anything serious about climate change. Even without the possible return of Donald Trump such an idea seems unthinkable if not laughable. But it’s not clear we have any other choice. As Sanders makes clear:

…there will be no solution to the existential threat of climate change without cooperation between China and the United States, the two largest carbon emitters in the world… instead of starting a trade war with China, Washington could create mutually beneficial trade agreements that benefit workers in both countries—not just multinational corporations.

As pipe dreams go it’s not a bad one. Pity Bernie’s not the president. But as we know, that’s an even more improbable prospect.

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