It requires an extraordinary leap of faith to imagine a figure as reactionary and provincial as Bernie Sanders standing in the muscular tradition of liberal internationalism. Oddly, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post has decided to take such a leap. Diehl believes that Sanders would halt and reverse Trump’s abandonment of America’s global leadership.
If true, this argument would be encouraging for that small but resilient band of conservatives and classical liberals horrified at the prospect of a second Trump term but queasy about casting their vote for an unreformed socialist and a vehement foe of the Pax Americana. Alas, this bold contention is not remotely sustained by the evidence.
In view of Sanders’s extreme aversion to maintaining America’s military supremacy, Diehl concedes that Sanders is “a politician strongly shaped by his opposition to U.S. military interventions abroad.” He nonetheless claims that Sanders harbors a firm “conviction that the United States should do what it can to support democracy and resist authoritarianism.” Since democracy is not a natural feature of the international environment and must be defended against several lines of authoritarian attack, any apologia for Sanders’s hoary notions about justice prevailing without power must sooner or later lapse into incoherence.
Nevertheless, Diehl ignores Sander’s contemptible record, and rests his counter-intuitive case for Sanders on the formal foreign policy address he delivered in 2017 in Fulton, Mo., the site of Winston Churchill’s indelible “Iron Curtain” speech. In that speech, Sanders outlined an international role for the United States as a “champion” of “the values of freedom, democracy, and justice.”
It’s very well to issue a paean to these values—but what manner of exertion and sacrifice does Sanders believe they are due? Does he believe in military power for any purpose beyond self-defense and the pursuit of national interests as narrowly defined? Does he believe in deploying power on behalf of vulnerable allies in order to prevail in violent struggles—or, better yet, to prevent them—against belligerent authoritarian states? Or does he merely believe in the theory of America as an “exemplar” nation in which it simply models these values as a “city on a hill” above the bloody ravines that mar the global landscape?
There is a reason that in his “Iron Curtain” address, Churchill argued that it was a “solemn moment” when American democracy arrived “at the pinnacle of world power.” For “primacy in power” was invariably joined to “awe-inspiring accountability to the future.” Churchill understood that a decent world order had not come into existence on its own, and would not long survive without the maintenance of predominant military power by the United States.
The challenge of the postwar era, by Churchill’s lights, was “the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands.” To meet such a weighty challenge, “courts and magistrates may be set up but they cannot function without sheriffs and constables.” The instruments of hard power were the “sinews of peace” without which the United Nations could never achieve its “full stature and strength.” The key factor preventing another violent breakdown of world order, to paraphrase Charles Krauthammer, would not be international parchment but American power.
There is little evidence that Sanders understands this reality. At the outset of his campaign, he launched a demagogic salvo against Joe Biden’s 2002 vote authorizing war in Iraq (as he did against Hillary Clinton’s vote on the same side four years earlier), presented in contrast to his own opposition to the use of force. The fact that Biden stumbled in his response—initially claiming that his support was premised on false assurances from the Bush administration until evidence emerged showing him expressing support for the military campaign months after it was launched and ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime—is hardly a vindication of Sanders’s position. And that stance was less straightforward than many on the Sanders campaign would have the public believe.
Still, Sanders dissented from the Iraq war. It wasn’t long before his opposition to forcible regime change in Baghdad became an article of faith in Democratic politics. In light of his political past and policy proposals, it seems downright delusional to conclude, as Diehl has, that “Sanders would put the United States back on the side of global democracy and human rights at a time when those causes desperately need bolstering.” If elected to the White House, Sanders’s distaste for American primacy in global leadership would result in a decrease in U.S. stature abroad.